Each year in the 12th month of the Islamic calendar, Muslims in America and around the world begin observing activities associated with the annual Hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca. Hajj is one of the "five pillars" of the Islamic faith. (The other "pillars" include a declaration of faith, daily prayers, offering regular charity, and fasting during the month of Ramadan.) Hajj activities take place during six days (8th-13th) of the Islamic lunar month of Dhul-Hijjah. Pilgrimage is a once-in-a-lifetime obligation for those Muslims who have the physical and financial ability to undertake the journey. It is also a form of worship that involves the entire being: body, mind and soul.
The obligatory and optional activities of Hajj include:
|entrance into a state of self-control called ihram, during which pilgrims are forbidden to disturb living creatures or even raise the voice in anger. The state of ihram is signified (for men) by the wearing of two pieces of unsewn white cloth. (No specific clothing is prescribed for female pilgrims.)
|circling of the Ka’aba, the stone building originally built by Prophet Abraham and his son Prophet Ishmael. The Ka’aba is the first sanctuary on earth dedicated to the worship of the One God. It is a symbol of unity for Muslims because all prayers, wherever they are performed, are oriented in the direction of the Ka’aba.
|the Sa’i, or "hastening" between two small hills near the Ka’aba, to commemorate Hagar’s search for water to offer her son Ishmael.
|the "Day of Arafah" on the 9th day of Dhul-Hijjah. Arafah is the empty plain near the city of Mecca. On this day, the climax of the Hajj season, pilgrims assemble for supplication to God.
|the stoning of three pillars representing Satan’s temptation of Abraham. The stoning indicates the pilgrim’s rejection of evil deeds.
|cutting the hair to symbolize the completion of Hajj.
|sacrifice of an animal to help the poor, and in remembrance Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son Ishmael at God’s command. The meat is distributed to relatives and to the needy.
When the major portion of the pilgrimage is completed, Muslims worldwide gather for communal prayers on the first day of Eid ul-Adha (eed-al-odd-ha), the second of the two major Muslim holidays.
Q: What does the Quran say about Hajj?
A: In the Quran, Islam’s revealed text, God says:
"Thus We settled Abraham at the site of the House (the Ka’aba) [saying]: ‘Do not associate anything with Me, and purify My house for those who walk around it, and those who stand there (praying), and those who bow down on their knees in worship. Proclaim the pilgrimage among mankind: they will come to you on foot and on every lean (beast of burden); Let them come from every deep ravine, to bear witness to the advantages they have, and to mention God’s name on appointed days..." Chapter 22, verses 26-28
Q: What do Muslims believe they gain from Hajj?
A: The main benefit of Hajj for many people is the sense of purification, repentance and spiritual renewal it instills. After his Hajj, Malcolm X wrote in his autobiography: "...I have eaten from the same plate, drank from the same glass, and slept in the same bed (or on the same rug) - while praying to the same God - with fellow Muslims whose eyes were bluest of the blue, whose hair was blondest of the blonde and whose skin was whitest of the white. And in the words and in the actions and in the deeds of the white Muslims, I felt the same sincerity that I felt among black African Muslims of Nigeria, Sudan and Ghana...In the past I permitted myself to be used to make sweeping indictments of...the entire white race...Because of the spiritual enlightenment which I was blessed to receive as a result of my recent pilgrimage to the Holy City of Mecca, I no longer subscribe to the sweeping indictments of any one race. I am now striving to live the life of a true Muslim."
Q: Why does Hajj begin on a different day each year?
A: Because Dhul-Hijjah is a lunar month, it begins about eleven days earlier each year.
Q: Why do Muslims sacrifice a lamb or other animal during the festival of Eid ul-Adha?
A: The sacrifice commemorates the Prophet Abraham’s readiness to sacrifice his son, identified in Islam as Ishmael, at God’s request. This is not a blood offering. In the Quran God states: "Neither their meat nor their blood ever reaches God, but heedfulness on your part does reach Him." (Chapter 22, verse 37) The meat is distributed to relatives and to the needy.
Q: Is Hajj an obligation on all Muslims?
A: Yes, but only for those who are physically and financially able to make the trip.
Q: What are the most visually striking aspects of Hajj?
A: All pilgrims must do tawaf, or circling the Ka’aba. This obligation creates a stunning scene as thousands of people circle the building at all times of the day and night. Also, the standing at Arafah on the 9th day of the Islamic month of Dhul-Hijjah presents a scene in which several million people all dressed alike and with the same intention to worship God, gather on a barren plain.
Q: How should non-Muslim friends and co-workers interact with someone who is going on Hajj or celebrating at home?
A: Hajj is a high point in a Muslim’s life. Questions are welcome and congratulations are in order. Most communities welcome visitors at Eid ul-Adha prayers. Just ask a Muslim friend to act as an escort and guide.
Acknowledgement: This article is based on Council on American Islamic Relations' Hajj Publicity Kit of 1998.