The Hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca) is the
fifth of the fundamental Muslim practices and institutions known as
the five pillars of Islam. Pilgrimage is not undertaken in Islam to
the shrines of saints, to monasteries for help from holy men, or to
sights where miracles are supposed to have occurred, even though we
may see many Muslims do this. Pilgrimage is made to the Kaaba, found
in the sacred city of Mecca in Saudia, the ‘House of God,’ whose
sanctity rests in that the Prophet Abraham built it for the worship
of God. God rewarded him by attributing the House to himself, in
essence honoring it, and by making it the devotional epicenter which
all Muslims face when offering the prayers (salah). The rites of
pilgrimage are performed today exactly as did by Abraham, and after
him by Prophet Muhammad, may God praise them.
Pilgrimage is viewed as a particularly meritorious activity.
Pilgrimage serves as a penance - the ultimate forgiveness for sins,
devotion, and intense spirituality. The pilgrimage to Mecca, the
most sacred city in Islam, is required of all physically and
financially able Muslims once in their life. The pilgrimage rite
begins a few months after Ramadan, on the 8th day of the last month
of the Islamic year of Dhul-Hijjah, and ends on the 13th day. Mecca
is the center towards which the Muslims converge once a year, meet
and refresh in themselves the faith that all Muslims are equal and
deserve the love and sympathy of others, irrespective of their race
or ethnic origin. The racial harmony fostered by Hajj is perhaps
best captured by Malcolm X on his historic pilgrimage:
Every one of the thousands at the airport, about to leave for
Jeddah, was dressed this way. You could be a king or a peasant and
no one would know. Some powerful personages, who were discreetly
pointed out to me, had on the same thing I had on. Once thus
dressed, we all had begun intermittently calling out “Labbayka! (Allahumma)
Labbayka!” (At your service, O Lord!) Packed in the plane were
white, black, brown, red, and yellow people, blue eyes and blond
hair, and my kinky red hair - all together, brothers! All honoring
the same God, all in turn giving equal honor to each other.
That is when I first began to reappraise the ‘white man’. It was
when I first began to perceive that ‘white man’, as commonly used,
means complexion only secondarily; primarily it described attitudes
and actions. In America, ‘white man’ meant specific attitudes and
actions toward the black man, and toward all other non-white men.
But in the Muslim world, I had seen that men with white complexions
were more genuinely brotherly than anyone else had ever been. That
morning was the start of a radical alteration in my whole outlook
about ‘white’ men.
There were tens of thousands of pilgrims, from all over the world.
They were of all colors, from blue-eyed blonds to black-skinned
Africans. But we were all participating in the same ritual
displaying a spirit of unity and brotherhood that my experiences in
America had led me to believe never could exist between the white
and the non-white... America needs to understand Islam, because this
is the one religion that erases from its society the race problem.
Throughout my travels in the Muslim world, I have met, talked to,
and even eaten with people who in America would have been considered
white - but the ‘white’ attitude was removed from their minds by the
religion of Islam. I have never before seen sincere and true
brotherhood practiced by all colors together, irrespective of their
Thus the pilgrimage unites the Muslims of the world into one
international fraternity. More than two million persons perform the
Hajj each year, and the rite serves as a unifying force in Islam by
bringing followers of diverse backgrounds together in worship. In
some Muslim societies, once a believer has made the pilgrimage, he
is often labeled with the title ‘hajji’ ; this, however, is a
cultural, rather than religious custom. Finally, the Hajj is a
manifestation of the belief in the unity of God - all the pilgrims
worship and obey the commands of the One God.
At certain stations on the caravan routes to Mecca, or when the
pilgrim passes the point nearest to those stations, the pilgrim
enters the state of purity known as ihram. In this state, the
certain ‘normal’ actions of the day and night become impermissible
for the pilgrims, such as covering the head, clipping the
fingernails, and wearing normal clothing in regards to men. Males
remove their clothing and don the garments specific to this state of
ihram, two white seamless sheets that are wrapped around the body.
All this increases the reverence and sanctity of the pilgrimage, the
city of Mecca, and month of Dhul-Hijjah. There are 5 stations, one
on the coastal plains northwest of Mecca towards Egypt and one south
towards Yemen, while three lie north or eastwards towards Medina,
Iraq and al-Najd. The simple garb signifies the equality of all
humanity in God’s sight, and the removal of all worldly affections.
After entering the state of ihram, the pilgrim proceeds to Mecca and
awaits the start of the Hajj. On the 7th of Dhu al-Hijjah the
pilgrim is reminded of his duties, and at the commence of the
ritual, which takes place between the 8th and the 12th days of the
month, the pilgrim visits the holy places outside Mecca - Arafah,
Muzdalifah, and Minaa - and sacrifices an animal in commemoration of
Abraham’s sacrifice. The pilgrim then shortens or shaves their head,
and, after throwing seven stones at specific pillars at Minaa on
three or four successive days, and heads for the central mosque
where he walks seven times around the sacred sanctuary, or Kaaba, in
the Great Mosque, and ambulates, walking and running, seven times
between the two small hills of Mt. Safaa and Mt. Marwah. Discussing
the historical or spiritual significance of each rite is beyond the
scope of this introductory article.
Apart from Hajj, the “minor pilgrimage” or umrah is undertaken by
Muslims during the rest of the year. Performing the umrah does not
fulfill the obligation of Hajj. It is similar to the major and
obligatory Islamic pilgrimage (hajj), and pilgrims have the choice
of performing the umrah separately or in combination with the Hajj.
As in the Hajj, the pilgrim begins the umrah by assuming the state
of ihram. They enter Mecca and circle the sacred shrine of the Kaaba
seven times. He may then touch the Black Stone, if he can, pray
behind the Maqam Ibrahim, drink the holy water of the Zamzam spring.
The ambulation between the hills of Safa and Marwah seven times and
the shortening or shaving of the head complete the umrah.