Frequently asked questions about the pilgrimage
Swapped in another battery for my laptop. Should give me some extra juice, until either it dies, or I collapse.
Been trying to answer some of the questions I've been getting. Here's an attempt. If you have more, hit me up on twitter (@MuhammadLila) and I'll try to answer some of them.
With apologies, I can't answer all of them - especially anything theological or too doctrinal in nature. I'm not a scholar, after all.
Can anyone make the pilgrimage?
No. Mecca is conidered a holy city and non-Muslims are prohibited from entering (though I understand exceptions can be made in unique circumstances). That being said, over the years, people have tried to sneak in, and some have even been successful. Check out Sir Richard Francis Burton. He even took detailed notes and diagrams of the holy places. It's quite the memoir.
Sometimes, being Muslim itself isn’t enough to make it to Mecca during Hajj season. Some countries, particularly those with large Muslim populations, have limits on how many pilgrims they send every year. As a result, countries like Iran and Indonesia have long waiting lists for the Hajj.
How many pilgrims are there this year?
Word is there's about two million, though the official count won't be released until later (my hunch is 2.5 million). If it is indeed just two million, it would be one of the lower turnouts in the past few years. Part of the reason is that parts of Mina (a place involved in the pilgrimage) and under construction, and may not be able to accomodate as many pilgrims as in previous years.
What’s the deal with Madinah?
Madinah is in many ways like a sister city to Mecca. During his lifetime, the Prophet Muhammad told his followers that after performing the Hajj, they should visit him in Madinah. Muslims have interpreted this literally, and as a mark of respect and reverence, continue to visit his gravesite in Madinah long after his passing. Not to sound profane or anything, but Madinah is much more relaxed than Mecca. It's almost got a west-coast vibe to it.
How much does it cost?
It varies country to country. In North America, prices usually start at around $5,000 USD and go up from there, depending on the level of accommodation. It’s worth noting that my first Hajj, roughly ten years ago, cost around $3700. If you start your journey from overseas, like Pakistan or India, you can do it for significantly cheaper than you would if you started in North America.
How crowded does it get?
Very. Anywhere from two to four million pilgrims perform the Hajj every year, crammed into a space smaller than downtown Toronto. During the “tawaf” itself in the Great Mosque, it gets even more crowded. It’s common to literally be lifted off your feet and carried by the huge flow of pilgrims walking by.
Why Don’t They Just Expand the City?
They are. Because it's surrounded by mountains, Mecca can't expand outwards, so it's expanding upwards instead Dozens of new condominium and hotel projects are underway, many of them skyscrapers with high-density occupancy. The biggest project (so far) is the Makkah clock tower, a massive specimen of Saudi engineering and pride. It rises out of the desert like nothing I've ever seen, including the Burj khalifa.
How Many Canadians perform the Hajj every year
It’s difficult to say. About a thousand is a good ballpark, give or take. As a nice coincidence, I'm staying in the same place as a Canadian caravan. Always refreshing to see other Canadian flags when travelling. Chatted with a couple from Saskatoon earlier, then had a quick interview with a pilgrim from Mississauga.
Why do some of the rituals seem so bizarre?
Almost all of the rituals refer to incidents during the life of Abraham, whom Muslims, Christians, and Jews revere as the "Grandfather" of monotheism. All Abrahamic traditions believe that Abraham sent his first son, Ismail, to settle in what would eventually become Mecca. Muslims believe Abraham and Ismail built the Ka’bah together, and that their footprints are still embedded in a slab of rock nearby. The stoning of the devil, the sacrificing of a lamb, and many other Hajj rituals are directly connected to Abraham’s test of faith.
What about the Politics?
There aren't really politics here. Everything is overshadowed by a strong sense of goodwill and fraternity between pilgrims. It’s common to share meals with complete strangers, who wind up becoming lifelong friends. Malcolm X referred to it as one of the biggest eye opening experiences of his life, that men who in his own country would be considered enemies could sit, talk, laugh, and share ideas together as equals. He wasn't exaggering. It happens.
Are Women Excluded?
No. In Mecca, men and women perform the same rituals, sharing the same space side by side as equals. In fact, since I was last here, the changes have been drastic. It's now the men who are being pushed out of public spaces in order to make room for women.
Same holds true in Madinah.