The Hajj, or pilgrimage, is the fifth of the five pillars (duties) of Islam. Every able-bodied Muslim should make the pilgrimage at least once in his or her lifetime, finances permitting.
The Hajj takes place annually during the first 10 days of the Dhu al-Hijja, the twelfth month of the Islamic year. The Islamic calendar is based on lunar months, so the actual date moves forward about 11 days each year in relation to the western solar calendar.
During the Hajj, pilgrims must be in a state of ihram (consecration). Men wear two pieces of white unstitched cloth - covering the waist and legs, the other around the shoulders covering the upper body. While in ihram, pilgrims must not cut hair or nails, wear perfumes, kill animals or insects, or engage in any kind of sexual relations (including proposals of marriage).
Rituals of the Hajj
The rituals of the Hajj are complex and vary slightly according to different Islamic traditions. The following summary of the basic points is adapted from the The Oxford History of Islam:
1. Circumambulation of the Ka'aba
Pilgrims walk seven times round the Ka'aba at the Great Mosque in Mecca, in an anti-clockwise direction. Many also attempt to touch the Black Stone - a meteorite believed to have been sent from heaven - in the Ka'aba's wall, and run seven times along a passageway in the Great Mosque, commemorating a search for water by Hajar, wife of the Prophet Ibrahim/Abraham.
2. Standing at Arafat
On the ninth day of the month, pilgrims go to Arafat, a plain about nine miles southeast of Mecca. They may listen to a sermon delivered from Mount Arafat, where the Prophet Muhammad gave his final sermon.
3. Night at Muzdalifah
Pilgrims spend a night in the open at Muzdalifah, near Mecca.
4. Throwing stones ("stoning the Devil")
Pilgrims throw pebbles - usually about 70 - at three spots where Satan is believed to have tempted the Prophet Ismail.
5. Sacrifice at Minah
Pilgrims sacrifice an animal (usually a sheep or goat). This commemorates the incident related in the Old Testament when the Prophet Ibrahim/Abraham was about to sacrifice his son and God accepted a sheep instead. Nowadays many pilgrims pay someone to slaughter the animal on their behalf and obtain a certificate to say that the sacrifice has been carried out. The meat is not wasted: much of it is frozen and distributed to poor countries.
6. Repeat circumambulation of the Ka'aba
7. Drinking Zamzam water
Pilgrims drink water from the Zamzam well, which is inside the Great Mosque. Muslims believe this is where God provided water from Hajar and her son, Ismail, when they were wandering in the desert.
8. Prayers at the Station of Abraham
Pilgrims pray at the Station of Abraham (Maqam Ibrahim), where Ibrahim and Ismail are believed to have prayed after building the Kaaba.
The minimum rituals that must be performed by all pilgrims are wearing ihram, standing at Arafat, and the second circumambulation of the Kaaba. Others may be omitted on payment of kaffarah (expiation).
The Hajj emphasises the brotherhood of Muslims and their equality in the eyes of God, regardless of wealth, class or power. It is also an opportunity for Muslims from all parts of the world to meet and discuss topics of common interest. This helps to maintain the overall unity of Islam.
The Hajj culminates, on the 10th day of Dhu al-Hijja, in the start of a three-day festival known as 'Eid al-Adha (Feast of the Sacrifice), which is celebrated by Muslims around the world with prayer, the exchange of gifts and the sacrifice of animals. Surplus meat is donated to the poor.
Before the age of mass air transport, making the pilgrimage involved a long, arduous and often dangerous journey, and numbers attending were smaller. Today, more than two million Muslims from all over the world make the pilgrimage.
This creates a huge organisational burden for the Saudi authorities – not to mention the expense. There is a quota system which is intended to prevent overcrowding while ensuring that all regions of the Muslim world are fairly represented.
A further difficulty is that many of the pilgrims can be quite elderly and are possibly venturing for the first time outside the familiar surroundings of their birthplace.
Despite efforts to improve safety, accidents with mass casualties do occur. People are sometimes crushed to death in the crowds and diseases can spread easily – though the authorities do their best to provide hygienic conditions. Occasionally, religious or political extremists also cause trouble. The most lethal year for the Hajj in modern times was 2015.
2015: Many died in a crush on the road to Jamaraat Bridge. International news agencies put the death toll at well over 2,000 (AP: 2,411; AFP: 2,236). The official Saudi figure was 769 dead. Shortly before the 2015 Hajj got under way, a crane toppled on to the Grand Mosque in Mecca, killing more than 100 people.
2006: At least 362 pilgrims died in a stampede during the "stoning of the devil" ritual; a hostel collapsed in Mecca, killing at least 76 people.
2004: Some 250 pilgrims died in a stampede during the "stoning of the devil" ritual.
2001: 35 pilgrims crushed to death at Arafat.
1998: 180 pilgrims crushed to death.
1997: 350 pilgrims killed when in a fire started by a gas cooker swept through the tents at Mina.
1994: 270 pilgrims crushed to death.
1990: 1,400 pilgrims killed during a stampede in a pedestrian tunnel linking Mecca with Mount Arafat. The stampede is thought to have been caused by the great heat when a ventilation system in the tunnel broke down.
1987: More than 400 pilgrims died as a result of demonstrations.
Hajj: the journey of a lifetime
by Ni'mah Isma'il Nawwab, Aramco World, July-August 1992 (islamicity.com)
Hajj: step by step guide
The rituals, artistically designed and presented, but a bit slow to download (islamicity.com)
Hajj: a personal experience
by Mir Mohammed Assadullah