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September 9, 2017

The Hajj: The Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca

Dr. Mohamed Elmasry

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Each year, over 4 million Muslims descend on Mecca, Saudi Arabia, over half of them from overseas, for the annual Muslim pilgrimage, or Hajj.

This year the Hajj's climax is on September 1, the day of Eid-ul-Adha; The Feast of Sacrifice.

One of the largest gathering of humanity on any one day and in a single place is a culminating spiritual experience for a Muslim.

The Hajj has been performed by Muslims every year for the past 14 centuries. I performed the Hajj three times separated by some 10 years. My first was in the 1980s. The logistics and the easy of travel have improved multiple times over the years, thanks to the heavy investment by the Saudi government.

“I go over to provide religious guidance for people not fully aware of the rituals and the meaning of the rituals,” said a Canadian Imam.

“They (pilgrims) are exposed to different important locations that witnessed events in the life of the prophet Muhammad. I give them the major historical facts about what happened there in order to build the spiritual aspect of the place. I take people to what is believed to be the first house of worship ever established for the worship of One God on earth (The Ka'ab in Mecca). I also try to prepare them to face different customs and habits because not all people are as educated or as familiar with technology as they are.”

He added that because the Hajj is a spiritual uplifting that can last a lifetime, many of these first-time pilgrims go back again.

Desert people had no need to build houses because of their mobility, they used tents. But the Kaaba (it is a single room house) was built to be used permanently by worshipers 24/7 and as a shrine by both locals and travelers.

It was also a meeting place and the place for annual conferences and competitions on different topics. It was also a market place to exchange goods from the north (including Syria, Egypt, Palestine, etc.) with those from the south (including Yemen and India via the Indian ocean, etc.).

The Kaaba and the annual Hajj were first established by Abraham for people to worship collectively the "God's of Abraham" the One God worshiped by today's Jews, Christians and Muslims.

The Hajj takes place on the 9th of the lunar month of Thul-hijjah (starts August 23 this year) and ends few days after Eid-ul-Adha (celebrated on Friday September 1).

All the pilgrims stand on the plain called Arafah, which is believed to be the place where Adam and Eve met after they descended from heaven. They descended in different places; looked for each other and found each other at Arafah.

“Arafah is the starting point of human history. We stand for half a day and invoke God's praises. We attempt to reconnect with God,” the Imam said. “Physically it looks like a mini-day of judgment.”

During this assembly, the pilgrims sacrifice their comfort, including sleep, as they associate their assembly on the plain of Arafah with Abraham preparing to sacrifice his son, at God's behest.

“We believe it was Abraham's older son Ismael, not Isaac who was to be sacrificed. God wanted Abraham to know what kind of person he was so he put him to the ultimate test, which no human can be expected to be put to. As he (Abraham) was preparing to scarify his son, God presented him with a sacrificial animal, which became the symbol which pilgrims sacrifice at the end of the pilgrimage. Then they distribute the meat to needy people to show care and sympathy for people less fortunate,” the Imam said.

One of the five pillars of Islam, the Hajj is an observance that every Muslim is expected to make at least once in a lifetime, if he or she is able to, both physically and financially.

The pilgrimage is closely connected to the word Islam, which means attainment of inner peace through total subjugation to the will of God.

Abraham was the first person to use Islam as a word. Muslims believe that all the prophets worship the same God. They have the same relationship with God, and as such are referred to as Muslims.

Just as the life of Abraham depicted continuity of religious thought and affiliation from one generation to another, the pilgrimage depicts certain lifestyle expectations.

The Hajj demonstrates that we are one human family and we can live together under one God. 

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