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An Introduction to the Hajj

Updated July 26, 2020 | Logan Chamberlain

What is the Hajj? 

The Hajj (literally "pilgrimage") is an annual pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca in Makkah Province in Saudi Arabia, undertaken by Muslims from around the world. Hajj is sometimes spelled Hadj, depending on how the writer transliterates Arabic. People who go on the pilgrimage are called hajjis. 

Who goes on the Hajj?

According to Islamic beliefs, every adult Muslim must go on one of the annual Hajj pilgrimages at least once in their life. If a person cannot go due to terminal illness or old age, someone else can go in their place. This is called Hajj Badal. Someone may also elect to go on the Hajj in the place of someone who has died. There are only Muslim pilgrims; even if a non-Muslim wanted to take the Hajj Badal on behalf of a Muslim associate, it would not count. And, non-Muslims are not permitted in the city of Mecca.  

Why do Muslims take the Hajj? 

The Hajj is one of the Five Pillars of Islam, the basic acts that all Muslims are supposed to perform. The pilgrimage follows the footsteps of the prophet Muhammad, the founder of Islam, as a way of deepening hajjis' connection with the prophet and his teachings. Walking the path of the pilgrimage is also supposed to demonstrate their submission to God ("Allah" in Arabic). 

When is the Hajj?

The Hajj always takes place during the Hijri or Islamic calendar month of Dhu al-Hijjah, the last month of the year. The event usually starts on the 8th. Because the Hijri calendar is shorter than the Gregorian calendar, it moves around. In fact, due to the difference, the Hajj can sometimes happen twice in the same Gregorian year. 

Many Muslims will make pilgrimages to Mecca outside of the official days. This kind of pilgrimage is called an umrah. Umrahs are encouraged, but they don't count as performing the Hajj.

What do pilgrims do during the Hajj?

The path of the Hajj follows a very specific series of steps, spread out over several days. We're going to spell it out as simply as we can. 

  • Hajjis first arrive at the Miqat (or starting point) for their place of origin. From then on they enter a holy state called Ihram. Being in a state of Ihram means refraining from certain activities, and wearing a plain white cloth. The uniform is meant to show the equality of all the pilgrims. 
  • On the first day, pilgrims go to the grand mosque in Mecca that houses the Kaaba, the holiest site in Islam. Tradition says the Kaaba was originally built by Abraham (or Ibrahim), of which only the Black Stone remains. 

    At the Kaaba, the pilgrims perform tawaf. Tawaf involves circling  counterclockwise around the Kaaba and kissing or touching the Black Stone with each turn around. If it's too crowded, they can just point. Traditionally, hajjis will run for three laps then walk for four.

    After tawaf, the pilgrims go to the nearby hills of Safa and Marwah. They run between them seven times in a ritual called sa'ay. After sa'ay, the pilgrims groom their hair. 

    Hajjis then depart the mosque and head to their nearby area of Mina. 
  • On the second day, the pilgrims go from Mina to Mount Arafat, where Muhammad delivered his last sermon. Pilgrims will listen to sermons there and spend the afternoon in contemplation.

    Pilgrims then leave Mount Arafat and go the a nearby area called Muzdalifah. This leg of the journey involves altering the normal course of daily prayers. The pilgrims pray twice, then gather pebbles from the area. They then sleep under the stars. 
  • On the third day, hajjis go back to Mina with the pebbles they gathered. Seven of the pebbles are thrown at a stone wall (jamarat) representing the devil. This is known as Ramy al-Jamarat.

    Next, pilgrims sacrifice animals. This begins the holiday Eid al-Adha, or the feast of the sacrifice, which honors Ibrahim and Ismael (better known to Christian audiences as Abraham and Isaac). After the sacrifice, pilgrims again cut their hair. 

    This night is spent in Mina. Hajjis can choose to make their next tawaf either before this night, or on the next day. 
  • On the fourth day, hajjis who did not perform their second tawaf will do so. They will them throw seven pebbles at each of the three jamarats in Mina. 
  • On the fifth day, the pilgrims will stone the devil again. They can then choose to stay in Mina an extra day, or go to Mecca.
  • On the sixth day, those that went to Mecca will perform a last tawaf bidding farewell to the Kaaba. Those that stayed in Mina will stone the devil again, then perform their last tawaf the next day. 
  • Many hajjis will then elect to go on a trip to Medina, another city in Saudi Arabia that houses the tomb of Muhammad. 

There are more details about specific prayers, codes of conduct, and so on, but this is the basic overview of the Hajj. 

Who coordinates the Hajj? 

As you might guess, the Hajj attracts a lot of people, and the number of pilgrims just keeps on growing. More than two million hajjis have gone to Saudi Arabia for their pilgrimage each year for the past several years. 

This massive influx of people from all over the world could end in disaster if left unmanaged, with stampedes or disease taking a huge toll. so the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has a Ministry of Hajj and Umrah. They often set limits on the number of pilgrims that can arrive from each country, to ensure that all of the Muslim world has fair access to their holy sites. They also provide accommodations for elderly or disabled people, so that they can participate in the whole pilgrimage without being caught up in the crowds.

The ministry, along with the ministry of health, are currently trying to tackle the health care risks involved with hosting so many pilgrims during the coronavirus pandemic. Much of the Middle East has suffered from major COVID-19 outbreaks, especially Iran. To prevent those numbers from skyrocketing, they are only letting in a limited number of hajjis and restricting them by age group. Indonesia, the world's largest Muslim country, has already pulled out of this year's Hajj. 

If the situation becomes worse, there are historical examples where the Hajj has been cancelled due to war or plague.

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