The Hajj: Pilgrimage to Mecca

From the lecture series: Great World Religions: Islam

By John L. Esposito, Ph.D, Georgetown University

The Hajj is one of the five Pillars of Islam and is probably the most well-known among non-Muslims: the pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia.

Muslim pilgrims from all over the world gather to perform a small Umrah or Hajj at the Grand Mosque in Mecca, Saudi Arabia
Prayers during Hajj at the Grand Mosque in Mecca, Saudi Arabia. (Image: BiksuTong/Shutterstock)

The Hajj

Every year, more than 2 million believers, representing a tremendous diversity of cultures and languages and more than 100 countries from all over the world, descend upon the holy city of Mecca, to form one community living out their faith and to re-enact sacred events from the past.

At least once in his or her lifetime, every adult Muslim who is physically and financially able is required to make this pilgrimage. They are putting themselves completely and totally at God’s service. The ritual of the pilgrimage commemorates and re-enacts events in the lives of Abraham, Hagar, and Ismail, as well as the Prophet Muhammad.

family dressed in traditional clothing for the hajj
Special clothing, designed to unify followers and transcend class, nationality, or race, is worn by pilgrims during the Hajj. (Image: zainabsoly/Shutterstock)

The men who participate in this pilgrimage wear two simple pieces of white cloth—to symbolize purity, as well as the unity and equality of all believers. This is an equality that transcends class, wealth, privilege, power, nationality, race, and color. Whether poor or rich, you put aside your tattered clothes or your Gucci wardrobe. The idea is that you can’t see the difference. Women are supposed to wear a modest dress or modest clothes. Their bodies should be covered except their faces, hands, and feet.

Approaching Mecca, and throughout the pilgrimage, pilgrims will cry out, “I am here, O my God! You are without any associate. I am here! I am here! I am here!” Indeed, as they leave a city like Cairo or New York, many will begin to say this on the plane in anticipation, and then as they approach Mecca.

Among the major rituals is the circumambulation seven times around the Kaaba, a cube-shaped building, the “house of God,” the house believed to have been built by Abraham and Ismail.

At the grand mosque of Mecca, and in the adjacent areas, pilgrims participate in rituals that symbolize key religious events. Muslim tradition teaches that those who perform the hajj with great devotion and sincerity will be forgiven their sins.

This is a transcript from the video series Great World Religions: Islam. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Thus, many of the elderly and sick will hope that they will die on the hajj, having been cleansed of their sins, or shortly thereafter. Among the major rituals is the circumambulation seven times around the Kaaba, a cube-shaped building, the “house of God,” the house believed to have been built by Abraham and Ismail. It symbolizes the believers’ entry into the divine presence, re-enacting, as it were, the movement of angels around the heavenly throne of God.

Learn more: Islam Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow

The Kaaba

the kaaba, the central building and focus of the hajj
Muslim pilgrims, from all around the World, revolving around the Kaaba at night during Hajj in Saudi Arabia. (Image: REEDI/Shutterstock)

The Kaaba itself is about 40 feet long, 33 feet wide, and 50 feet high, covered in black cloth with a richly inlaid, embroidered gold thread of Quranic verses. In its eastern corner is the Black Stone, approximately 12 inches in diameter, which tradition says came from Heaven. It is a relic from the original Kaaba, symbolizing God’s covenant with humankind. Many pilgrims seek to touch or kiss the Black Stone as they pass it in their circular procession around the Kaaba.

Another ritual is walking or running between the nearby hills of Saffa and Marwah, commemorating Hagar’s frantic search of the desert for water for her son Ismail. In the midst of her running back and forth, water sprang up, as it were, miraculously from the earth, producing the well of Zamzan.

Indeed, one of the rituals is drinking the water from Zamzan, and many will continue to drink water from Zamzan throughout. Many also, in small vials and bottles, bring samples of that water home to distribute to friends and family, commemorating the Hajj.

According to Islamic tradition, both Hagar and Ismail are buried in an enclosed area next to the Kaaba. A ritual that few non-Muslims have seen (aside, perhaps, from on a television documentary) is the casting of seven pebbles; it’s a symbolic stoning. Pebbles are cast at a stone pillar symbolizing Abraham’s, or Ibrahim’s, rejection of Satan’s temptation for Abraham to not follow God’s command to sacrifice his son.

Learn more: Muhammad—Prophet and Statesman

The Plain of Arafat

photograph of Muslim pilgrims assembling on Mount Arafat and the surrounding plains during the Hajj
Muslim pilgrims assembling on Mount Arafat and the surrounding plains. (Image: AHMAD FAIZAL YAHYA/Shuttersotock)

A climax of the pilgrimage is the assembling of these 2 million Muslims at the Plain of Arafat. This is where Muhammad delivered his farewell sermon. For as far as the eye can see, tents can be seen over valleys, and on the sides of mountains, erected to house these pilgrims. They spend hours reflecting on God and reflecting on Muhammad’s sermon, in which Muhammad said, “Hear me, O people, for I know not if I ever shall meet with you in this place after this year. … I have left among you that which, if you hold fast to it, shall preserve you from all error, a clear indication, the Book of God, and the word of His Prophet.”

Then Muhammad recited to them the last revelation that he had just received: “This day the disbelievers despair of prevailing against your religion, so fear them not, but fear Me. This day have I perfected for you your religion, and fulfilled My favor unto you, and it has been my good pleasure to choose Islam for you as your religion.”

Muslims will spend hours here at the Plain of Arafat, talking, exchanging news and information, as well as reflecting religiously. On the Hajj there is this exchange of information, as there always has been, of news mundane, as well as sacred, and a certain amount of trading is also done.

Learn more: Paths to God—Islamic Law and Mysticism

Eid al-Adha

The Hajj ends with a feast, the Eid al-Adha. It is celebrated not only by those on pilgrimage but by Muslims around the world. This is the Feast of Sacrifice. It is a day for prayer, a day for sacrificing an animal—a sheep, or some other acceptable animal—commemorating Abraham’s ability to substitute an animal for the sacrifice of his son, Ismail.

The excess meat will be distributed to the poor. This feast is one of grand celebration, in which Muslim families come from far and wide—come home, as it were, to celebrate. Members come together, share meals, and go to the mosques. In some societies, it lasts for days, even weeks. Those who have made the hajj leave with the right to put a prefix before their names, to refer to themselves as al-hajj, or hajji, indicating that they are pilgrims and they have made the pilgrimage.

Learn more about the Five Pillars of Islam

Common Questions About the Hajj

Q: How can one prepare for Hajj?

One prepares for Hajj by preparing spiritually, financially, mentally, and physically. Spiritually, one must purify oneself of every type of shirk or unlawful behavior and practice. Submission to Allah encompasses the entire journey. Financially, one must prepare for however long to keep one’s affairs in order both at home and for the long journey. Mentally, one must write a wassiyah or will, and educate oneself in the rituals and customs. Physically, one must be fit for travel and extended periods of fasting and prayer.

Q: What do you wear to Mecca?

Before entering Ihram, the sacred state one must be in to participate on the journey to Mecca means the men and women wear very conservative clothing. After bathing, men wear sandals, a pair of white sheets without a hem, and no underwear, socks, or restricting clothing. Women’s clothing varies and reflects their individual religion. No one is to shave, cut fingernails, or fornicate. The garment similarity is to symbolize the equality of men in the eyes of God.

Q: What can you eat at Hajj?

Suggestions for a Hajj diet include very simple foods without grains and avoiding all foods with fiber such as legumes, fruits, and vegetables. One can eat chicken, fish, potatoes, white pasta, white bread, and dairy (if one can intake dairy).

Q: How long does Hajj last?

Muslims try to go in the last month of the Islamic calendar Dhu al-Hijjah, and Hajj takes around 6 days to complete.

This article was updated on May 5, 2020

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