Hajj 101: A primer
I’ve been getting a lot of questions lately asking for more information about the Hajj. Here are some of the answers.
What: The Hajj is one of the five main pillars of Islam. It refers to the annual Islamic pilgrimage.
When: The Hajj is performed during the last month of the Islamic calendar, a month known as Dhu’l Hijjah. Because the calendar is based on lunar cycles, the dates change slightly from year to year. This year’s pilgrimage takes place in mid-November
Where: It is performed in the city of Mecca, which is in Saudi Arabia. In the past, pilgrims would take boats, camels, and horses. Some would even walk. It was a perilous journey. If you made it to Damascus or Cairo alive, you had to worry about gangs of marauding thieves who preyed on innocent pilgrims making their way into the Arabian Peninsula. Today, much has changed. Nearly all foreigners arrive via Jeddah’s international airport, which has a special Hajj Terminal that operates specifically during Hajj time. At its peak, the airport can accommodate one plane landing every three minutes, and something like seventy thousand new pilgrims every day. It is fully shaded and air conditioned, with medical clinics, airline kiosks, and a bus terminal inside.
Why: Mecca has always been a center for pilgrimage. The city was considered a sanctuary long before Islam arrived in the Arabian Peninsula – to the point where any type of fighting or bloodshed inside was forbidden. After Islam was established in the 7th century AD, the pilgrimage continued, but all rituals were re-centred around Islamic monotheism
Who: Muslims who are physically and financially able are expected to perform the pilgrimage at least once in their lives. In the early days, pilgrims would save their income for many years before they could afford the journey, which itself would take several months. In many countries, this is still the case today. Poor villagers from Africa, South, Central, and East Asia may save their entire lives to afford the trip.
How: The pilgrimage itself consists of several rites. The main ones include:
1. Wearing “Ihram”: The Ihram refers to two white pieces of loincloth worn by all male pilgrims. Women are expected to wear all white clothing, with their hair and bodies covered (excluding the hands and face). No stitching, imprints, or colours are allowed. The idea is to reinforce univeral equality. With everyone wearing the same, simple clothing, it becomes impossible to distinguish the rich from the poor, etc.
2. Doing the “Tawaf”: The technical translation for “tawaf” is circumambulation. It refers to circling the Ka’bah, the black cube at the center of the Great Mosque, seven times.
3. Staying on the Plans of Arafat: To draw a comparison to the Jewish tradition, this would be the Islamic “Day of Atonement.” From sunrise to sunset, pilgrims gather on the plains of Arafat, in the heat of the Arabian Desert, to seek forgiveness for their sins and call out to the Divine.
4. Stoning the Devil: Muslim take small stones and throw/flick them at a pillar, which symbolically represents the devil. In the past, this has been one of the more dangerous rituals, with stampedes occurring fairly regularly. Thanks to the redevelopment of the site, pedestrian traffic now flows much better, and major stampedes have become rare.
Speaking of the above, I'm hoping to head to Mecca at some point today. Will likely have to stop in Jeddah first and hop on a bus. My journey will have taken me across three continents and six cities, in total.
It's been quite the adventure so far. And the Hajj, technically, hasn't even started yet.