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Once in a lifetime, every adult Muslim with the physical and financial ability should make a pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca, which is known as Hajj. Hajj is a commemoration of the life and trials as well as the dedication, submission, and sacrifices of the Prophet Abraham and his family. It is a large communal event, as over two million Muslims of diverse backgrounds gather to perform the same rituals over a period of five days in and around Mecca. The Ka’bah, located in Mecca, is the focal point of the Hajj, as well as the direction towards which Muslims pray throughout the year. Muslims believe it was built by the Prophet Abraham and his son Ishmael, who consecrated it as the first house of worship of God.
When does Hajj take place?
Hajj takes place over the course of five days during the 12th month of the lunar Islamic calendar called Dhul-Hijjah. The dates for Hajj in 2023 are June 27th-July 1st, but people generally arrive a week earlier and stay a week afterwards. The pilgrimage to Mecca includes young and old, men and women, from different ethnicities and backgrounds. Muslim Americans are part of one of the largest religious gatherings in the world with 2-3 million people coming from every corner of the world.
*Note: Because the beginning of Islamic lunar months depends on the actual sighting of the new moon, the start date for the beginning of Hajj may vary by one day.
The Purpose of Hajj
As the fifth pillar of Islam, Muslims are obligated to make a pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in their lifetime if it is financially and physically possible for them to do so. The ultimate goal of Hajj is the forgiveness of sin. The pilgrim journeys as a humble penitent, wearing only two simple, white pieces of cloth, seeking approach to God’s grace. The Prophet Muhammad said that a person who performs Hajj properly “will return as a newly born baby (free of all sins).”
The pilgrimage’s great gathering of Muslims representing every nationality in the world, wearing the same simple white garment, demonstrates and symbolizes the remarkable diversity and unity of Muslims, and is a reminder that all human beings are equal before God.
Hajj also reenacts and commemorates the story and struggles of Abraham and his family. Muslims believe that Abraham built the first house of worship to the One God, the Ka’bah, which is at the center of the pilgrimage as well as the direction of daily prayers. The pilgrimage commemorates Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son in obedience to God’s command who was then replaced by a lamb. This is the meaning behind the tradition of sacrificing a lamb at the conclusion of the pilgrimage; the meat is distributed to those in need. Abraham’s wife Hagar’s desperate search for water for her son Ishmael is commemorated during one of the obligatory rituals of Hajj called Sa’i, during which pilgrims walk in her footsteps between the small hills of Safa and Marwa.
The Timing of Hajj
The Hajj takes place in the month of Dhul-Hijjah, the 12th month of the lunar Islamic calendar. The main acts of Hajj take place over a period of 3-5 days, beginning on the 8th day of the month, climaxing on the 9th day, and ending on the 12th day. However, pilgrims usually arrive one to two weeks before the Hajj actually starts, and stay a week afterwards in order to visit the mosque of Prophet Muhammad in Medina.
Leaving for Hajj – Performing Hajj is viewed as a great honor in the eyes of Muslims. Therefore, Muslims who intend to make Hajj are often seen off at the airport by relatives, friends, and members of the local mosque. Upon their return, family and friends as well as some mosques organize celebratory dinners, during which pilgrims recount their journey.
Ihram – This is the state of ritual consecration that the pilgrim enters when he or she removes his or her worldly clothes and dons the pilgrim’s garb of 2 seamless, white sheets. Women pilgrims do not wear the white sheets, but can wear any simple modest clothes. Pilgrims put on the Ihram before entering Mecca, at which time pilgrims begin the chant, “Here I am at your service. O God Here I am.” The white garments of Ihram symbolize the equality and brotherhood/sisterhood of all Muslims. While in Ihram, pilgrims should not harm any living thing, cut their hair or nails, wear perfume or have intimate relations with their spouses.
1st Day – 8th day of Dhul-Hijjah: Pilgrims leave Mecca and camp at nearby Mina.
2nd Day – 9th day of Dhul-Hijjah: The Day of Arafat is the real climax of the Hajj. Pilgrims move at sunrise from Mina to the plain of Arafat where they spend the entire day in earnest supplication, devotion, and seeking God’s forgiveness. At sunset, the pilgrims move and camp at Muzdalifa which is a site between Mina and Arafat. (It is highly recommended for Muslims around the world to fast on the day of Arafat in spiritual union with the pilgrims who are standing on the plain of Arafat seeking God’s forgiveness).
3rd Day – 10th day of Dhul-Hijjah: The pilgrims return to Mina where they may spend up to three days in devotion and prayer. They also perform a ritual known as Ramy al-Jamarat, throwing stones at three pillars. This ritual represents the trials experienced by Abraham when he was ordered by God to sacrifice his son and Satan tempted him to disobey God. Stoning the three pillars with seven stones each symbolizes rejecting Satan’s temptations. Then the pilgrim sacrifices a lamb in reenactment of the story of Abraham who slaughtered a lamb after he was prepared to sacrifice his son in obedience to God’s command. In recent years, lambs are slaughtered by the government and the meat is distributed to poor Muslim countries. After the stay in Mina, the pilgrims return to Mecca to end the formal rituals of Hajj by making Tawaf and Sa’i. (see below for definitions)
Returning from Hajj – Most accounts of Hajj from pilgrims returning from Hajj speak of the great spiritual exaltation, wonderment at the incredible diversity of Muslims, and the physical hardships of the journey, which have been immensely reduced in modern times with pilgrims staying in nice hotels before and after Hajj.
Eid ul-Adha (Festival of the Sacrifice) is a major religious holiday for Muslims. Eid ul-Adha occurs on the 10th day of Dhul-Hijjah, which in 2023 will fall on June 29th. The Eid celebration begins with a special prayer in the morning, followed by a sermon. The theme of the Eid is Abraham’s example of unconditional surrender to God. Afterwards or on the following weekend, families or communities hold celebrations with food, games, and gifts for children.
It is recommended to sacrifice a lamb on Eid as a reenactment of Abraham’s story after he was ready to sacrifice his son in obedience to God, but who was miraculously replaced by a lamb. The meat of the sacrifice is divided up between one’s family, friends, neighbors, and the poor. In most instances today, the actual sacrifice is done by a trained butcher, although Muslims often assist in the sacrifice.
Key Terms Related to Hajj
Ka’bah – The cubical building that Muslims believe was constructed by Abraham and Ishmael (Isma’il), which is described in the Qur’an as the first house of worship dedicated to God. Ka’bah means cube in Arabic. Although the Ka’bah is the place of pilgrimage, it is not an object of worship. The Ka’bah is covered by an elaborate black covering with gold lettering. The precincts of the Ka’bah are a sanctuary where no living creature should be harmed.
Black Stone – Resting at the corner of the Ka’bah, the Black Stone was one of the original stones of the structure built by Abraham, and is said to have descended to earth from paradise. The Black Stone is not an object of worship.
Tawaf – Refers to circling the Ka’bah. Upon arriving at the Ka’bah, the pilgrim circles the Ka’bah seven times in a counter clockwise direction.
Sa’i – Refers to walking swiftly between the small hills of Safa and Marwah seven times, re-enacting Hagar’s desperate search for water for her son Ishmael.