Hajj is a five-day religious pilgrimage to Makkah (Mecca) and one of the five Pillars of Islam (acts of devotions that are the basis of Islamic practice). If they can afford it and are physically able, Muslims are required to perform the pilgrimage at least once in their lives and most people save for many years to be able to attend.
“ولله على الناس حج البيت من استطاع إليه سبيلا ومن كفر فإن الله غني عن العالمين”
“Pilgrimage is a duty men owe to Allah, those who can afford the journey; but if any deny faith, Allah stands not in need of any of His creatures.” Al-Imran 3:97
“وأتموا الحج والعمرة لله”
“And complete the Hajj or Umrah in the service of Allah” Al-Baqarah 2:196
The hajj takes place only once a year, on the 8th to 12th (or in some cases 13th) of Dhu al-Hijjah, the 12th month of the Islamic lunar calendar. Pilgrimages to Mecca made at other times in the year are encouraged but do not count as the hajj.
Over the five days of the hajj, pilgrims perform a series of rituals meant to symbolize their unity with other believers and to pay tribute to God. On the last three days of the hajj, pilgrims — as well as all other Muslims around the world — celebrate Eid al-Adha, or the Festival of Sacrifice. This is one of the two major religious holidays Muslims celebrate every year. (The other is Eid al-Fitr, which comes at the end of Ramadan.)
Hajj is, put simply, complex. There are several different ways of performing it, and numerous schools of Islamic thought, between which lie many scholarly differences.
There are three types of Hajj: Tamattu’, Qīrān, and Ifrad . Most people perform Hajj Tammatu’ but what they all have in common is they all include performing Umrah, the lesser pilgrimage.
This year, I had the opportunity to perform hajj with my family.
Our journey began in the city of the Prophet Muhammad, Madinah (Medina, the second holiest city in Islam and where he is buried). After spending a couple of days mentally preparing, visiting historical Islamic sites, and getting used to the heat, it was time to head on to Makkah.
Ihram refers to a state of ritual purity as well as the garments one wears during hajj or umrah.
Male pilgrims wear two pieces of clean, unstitched cloth (usually plain white) — one wrapped around their waist and one wrapped around their torso — and plain sandals. The purpose of making all men dress in this same simple garb is to strip away all indications of wealth and status so that all pilgrims are seen as equal, as they are in the eyes of God.
Women don’t really have any restrictions on what they can wear as long as their bodies and hair are covered and the garments are not sparkly or bedazzled. However, the face veil, known as a niqab, and the burqa, the garment that covers from head to toe with only a mesh-like panel through which to see, are not allowed while in a state of ihram.
The following are also prohibited while in a state of ihram.
-Usage of any form of perfume or fragrance (includes soap etc.).
-Cutting or plucking of one’s hair.
- (for men) Wearing leather socks, stitched cloths, boots, and shoes.
-To kill or hunt.
-Covering the head (only for males includes not wearing a hat)
-Sex, any ‘amorous’ touching, stimulation etc.
-Quarreling, fighting, and the use of bad language.
If your intention is indeed to perform the Hajj Tamattu’, you must recite the intention for performing the Umrah of Hajj Tamattu’ prior to crossing beyond the Miqat boundary.
Miqat means, “a stated place”. They are the locations at which pilgrims wear Ihram, either for Hajj or Umrah. There are 5 Miqat—we used the one between Madinah and Makkah in Dhul Hulayfah, 450 kilometers from Makkah and 9 kilometers from Madinah.
If you are flying over the boundary, the pilot will announce 45 minutes prior to passing the Miqat so you can ready yourself and put on ihram and state your intention.
After you have made the intention, you are now in the state of Ihram.
While driving through the rocky hills (the only challenge being the sun in your eyes which is easily fixed by a keffiyeh), you can’t help but wonder what it was like traversing this landscape when there were no roads, no gps, no gas station rest stops, just camels and horses.
It is believed that a hajja/hajji (pilgrim) has been invited on this journey by God and that once you are at His house, you are a literal guest of the Almighty.
We arrived in Makkah on the 4th day of Dhu al-Hijjah. The year is 1440.
Upon arrival in Makkah, most pilgrims perform Umrah.
In photo: Pilgrims perform Sa’ee, the ritual of running seven times between the hills of Safa and Marwah.
Many may be surprised to learn that the hajj has very little to do with the Prophet Muhammad. Rather, it mostly commemorates events in the life of the Prophet Ibrahim (Abraham).
The Sa’ee, for example, is a core part of Umrah and Hajj which recreates the struggle of abandoned mother, Hajar (Hagar) to save the life of her infant son, Ismail (Ishmael), son of Ibrahim. Her struggle resulted in a well known as Zamzam (click for more information on Umrah and the Sa’ee) to spring forth from the earth.
Today, both hills are enclosed within the Masjid al-Haram (Sacred Mosque) complex (which also houses the Kaaba), and the path between the hills is a long, beautiful indoor gallery with marble floors and air conditioning. Many also drink from the Zamzam well located there.
After completing the rites of the Umrah, the pilgrim then waits until the 8th of Dhu al-Hijjah for the first day of Hajj. On this day, they re-enter the state of Ihram and begin their Hajj.
Pilgrims rest after the pre-dawn prayer, Fajr, in the Holy Mosque, Makkah.
The eighth day of Dhu al-Hijjah is called the day of ‘Tarwiyah’ –watering or quenching thirst- because the pilgrims would spend the whole day organizing their meals, provision and watering their camels so that they wont worry about this the following day, the day of Arafah. They would need their energy to engage themselves in worship not cooking or fetching water as there will be no time for distractions.
Tarwiyah is a little different in 2019…
You buy all the supplies you need however you are discouraged from carrying too much stuff with you to Mina.
Just the essentials. These are toothbrushes or miswak made from the neem tree. It was a sunnah or known behavior of the Prophet Muhammad to brush his teeth with these sticks. Pilgrims attempt to emulate his behaviors and character throughout the pilgrimage and in their daily lives.
After packing, we headed to your group bus which would take us to the tent city of Mina. Many who are not in a group or do not have access to/the money for a bus walk the 8 kilometers to Mina.
By now pilgrims have re-entered the state of ihram.
Every year, a tent city springs up in Mina, on cue for the Hajj. Inside the 20 square km valley, these tents cover every open space, as far as the eye can see, neatly arranged, row after row. Pilgrims stay here overnight during three or four of the five days of hajj. For the rest of the year, Mina remains much deserted.
There are more than 100,000 air-conditioned tents in Mina providing temporary accommodation to 3 million pilgrims. The tents measure 8 meters by 8 meters and are constructed of fiberglass coated with Teflon in order to ensure high resistance to fire. Tents are also separated by ‘class’ depending on the packages the pilgrims bought through their travel group.
Originally pilgrims brought their own tents which they would erect in the flat plains of Mina. After Hajj was over, the tents would be dismantled, everything packed and taken back.
In the early 1990s the Saudi government installed permanent cotton tents relieving pilgrims of the burden of having to carry their own camping equipment. But after a massive fire that swept through the tent city killing nearly 350 pilgrims in 1997, the current ‘fire resistant’ tent city was built.
Not everyone has tent housing, however. A huge population of Hajj pilgrims who cannot afford the accommodations (many performing the pilgrimage without Saudi visas) sleep out in the open.
Mina might be ‘fire proof’ but it is not flood-proof as we would later see.
Each pilgrim traveling with a group will have wristbands with the camp information in case they are lost.
The tents are segregated into several camps, each of which possesses its own exterior wall, and is connected to other camps by pathways. Every tent is color-coded by country and numbered.
The tents are separated by country. Our neighbors were South Africa and Nigeria.
And further separated by gender.
Each camp is equipped with a kitchen, bathrooms, and ablution facilities.
And drinks—essential in the 38 degree Celsius heat.
After spending the day and night in Mina, pilgrims board their respective buses or walk to Arafah.
On every step of the journey, pilgrims recite the Talbiyah:
‘“Labbayka Allahumma labbayk, labbayka laa shareeka laka labbayk. Inna al-hamd wa’l-ni’mata laka wa’l-mulk, laa shareeka lak “
Here I am, O Allah, here I am. Here I am, You have no partner, here I am. Verily all praise and blessings are Yours, and all sovereignty, You have no partner.
It creates a feeling of brotherhood as the pilgrims recite it in unison. They feel a connection with all other created beings, as they all join in submission to God alone.
The day spent in the plains of Arafah on the second day of hajj, is the most important day for pilgrims. They either wake at dawn and walk a short distance to Mount Arafat or take a bus with their group as we did. Pilgrims only have time till sunset to make all their pleas for forgiveness. There is an urgency to Arafah and a sense of deep piety.
“Hajj is Arafah”, the Prophet Muhammad said. An important location in Arafat is the mountain of Jabal ar-Rahmah (The Mount of Mercy). It is where the Prophet Muhammad stood and delivered his farewell sermon to the first Muslims; the ones who had accompanied him for his only Hajj, towards the end of his life.
This year, it rained in Arafah, something that is not known to have happened in a long time. Just as the heat became almost too much to bear, thunder cracked, the skies opened and the cooling rain began to fall.
Streets began to flood within minutes of the showers, leaving muddy puddles and cooling those making their spiritual journey to and from Arafat.
While some rushed for cover, many others ran to the streets to pray. Those who were in tents seeking shelter from the heat, came outside to seek God’s mercy. All wept as they raised their hands in worship.
Pilgrims are required to leave the plains of Arafah during or after sunset and head to Muzdalifah.
For me, Arafah was the easiest place to see how many nations were represented at hajj as each group went to board their buses.
Muzdalifah is a rocky plain, stretching as far as the eye can see, 9 kilometers from Arafah. Pilgrims (unless they have a reason not to—health, age, comfort etc.) have to spend an entire night here, under the stars, before leaving to return to Mina at sunrise.
They also take this time to collect seventy pebbles for stoning the Devil (more on this later).
After spending the night in Muzdalifah, we make our way back to Mina.
Tensions are often high between bus drivers and Saudi security officers who control the flow of traffic.
Pilgrims make their way to the Jamarat.
Pilgrims then head to the jamarat, three immense pillars set into in a four-level pedestrian bridge.
According to Islamic tradition, Prophet Ibrahim was on his way to sacrifice his son Ismail at God’s request when he was tempted by the devil on three occasions. Each time the prophet threw stones at the devil to drive him away.
The pilgrims stone the pillars with seven pebbles in symbolic rejection of the Devil. On this day, pebbles are only thrown at the largest pillar.
Millions of people doing the same thing in the same place makes for a dangerous crowd and fatal stampedes have marred this ritual during Hajj several times in the past. On 24 September 2015 an event described as a "crush and stampede" caused the deaths of over 2,000 pilgrims in 10 minutes. It was the most lethal crowd crush in history. The second-worst had also been during the hajj—1,426 dead in 1990.
After casting the stones, an animal must be slaughtered (usually a sheep) to honor the animal Abraham slaughtered instead of his son, thus completing the story. The meat is then given to feed the poor and needy. These days, pilgrims frequently elect to purchase tokens to have an animal slaughtered for them.
Once pilgrims have completed the stoning of the jamarat and animals are slaughtered, they can now shave/trim their hair and get out of ihram.
Others elect to walk straight to Makkah in order to complete one of the last rituals of hajj—The Tawaf al Hajj and sa'ee, first circling the Kaaba seven times, then walking seven times between the hills of Safa and Marwa.
A child is carried by his father while being sheltered by an umbrella held by his mother.
Parents can choose to bring even their very young children with them, but the hajj won’t “count” toward fulfilling the child’s personal religious obligation, as that requires the child to be mature enough intellectually and spiritually to understand the significance of the hajj.
Police are at most street corners giving directions to pilgrims.
Those who are not performing the hajj (usually residents of Makkah) take this time to do a bit of eid shopping.
If you’re lucky, you are able to get a taxi ride for part of the 8 kilometer journey.
Those who went straight to Makkah to complete hajj rituals must arrive in Mina before midnight.
We found many entrances closed to control the flow of traffic and needed to ask for directions to our campsite. Without a map or directions, it is often difficult to locate your tent within the sprawling maze.
On each day, pilgrims will again symbolically stone the devil - this time throwing seven pebbles at each of the three pillars. With the hardest part behind them, pilgrims will now spend the next two or three days in Mina, reflecting and praying some more.
Once the stoning is complete, pilgrims gather their belongings and begin exiting the tent city.
Unfortunately a lot of trash is left behind despite there being ample trashcans provided. I am not sure what Saudi recycling policy is but think about how many plastic bottles are used by millions of thirsty people in the span of a week.
The easiest way to the Holy Mosque is through tunnels that pedestrians now share with cars and speeding motorcycles.
The clock tower signals you have arrived.
Before leaving, we stayed for one more Friday prayer in the Holy Mosque. In order to be able to pray comfortably inside the mosque walls, one had to get there before 9 a.m. for a prayer that would start at 1 p.m.
Many entrances were blocked by police trying to control traffic.
If you could not make it inside for prayer (or any of the five daily prayers), you have no choice but to pray outside in the heat. If you are lucky, you secure a spot with carpet already laid out.
A pilgrim’s hajj is finished when they perform Tawaf al-Wadaa, the ‘farewell tawaaf,’ by circling the Kaaba counterclockwise seven times.
Once the Tawaf al-Wadaa is performed, you must hastily exit Makkah within a few hours. Many decide to go to Madinah from here although it is not part of the pilgrimage. Others, like us, bid the Holy Cities farewell and headed for the airport in Jeddah.
Once in Jeddah, you are able to get several gallons of Zamzam water if you want. Pilgrims usually take Zamzam water back home, often as a gift for their friends and families.
When the pilgrims return to their home countries after Hajj, they return spiritually refreshed, hopefully forgiven of their sins, and ready to start life anew, with a clean slate. Those who have performed Hajj are often called by an honorific title, “Hajji,” (one who has performed the Hajj).
“Whoever performs Haj for the pleasure of Allah and therein utters no word of evil, nor commits any evil deed, shall return from it (free from sin) as the day on which his mother gave birth to him.” - Prophet Muhammad
He also said, “Verily there shall be no reward for a Mabroor Haj except Paradise.”
A Hajj Mabroor is one that is fully accepted and the person returns home a changed person.
I wish everyone who had the opportunity to be invited on Hajj this year a Hajj Mabroor. And pray for the ability to return once again.