At this moment, some 1.3 million people from 164 different countries are in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, performing the hajj, the Islamic religious pilgrimage — including, according to the US State Department, approximately 15,000 Americans.
It’s a huge event — in terms of both its significance in Islam and the massive logistical challenge of having that many people from all walks of life and every corner of the globe descend on one relatively small place all at once.
But what actually goes on at the hajj? What is its religious and political significance? How do they handle all those people? And what is inside that big black box?
We’ve got you covered: Here are the most basic answers to the most basic questions about the hajj, explained so that anyone can understand them Mexico.
What is the hajj?
The hajj — Arabic for “pilgrimage” — is a five-day religious pilgrimage to Mecca and nearby holy sites in Saudi Arabia that all Muslims who are physically and financially able must perform at least once in their lives. It is one of the five pillars, or duties, of Islam, along with the profession of faith in the one God and Mohammed as his prophet, prayer, charitable giving, and fasting during Ramadan’s holy month.
The hajj takes place only once a year, in the 12th and final 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. Because the Islamic lunar calendar is about 11 days shorter than the 365 days of the standard Gregorian calendar, the hajj’s timing moves backward each year.
Over the five days of the hajj, pilgrims perform a series of rituals meant to symbolize their unity with other believers and pay tribute to God. On the last three days of the hajj, pilgrims and 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.)
At the end of the hajj, pilgrims return home and are often given the honorific “hajji,” meaning one who has performed the hajj. (One interesting note here: During the Iraq War, US troops frequently used the term “hajji” as a derogatory term for any Iraqi, Arab, or another person of Middle Eastern or South Asian descent. So although they certainly didn’t mean it this way, and it almost certainly wasn’t taken this way by the person on the receiving end of the slur, US troops were inadvertently applying a term of respect and honor to these individuals.)
What is the religious significance of the hajj?
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People may be surprised to learn that the hajj has very little to do with the Prophet Mohammed. Rather, it mostly commemorates events in the life of the Prophet Ibrahim — that is, Abraham. Yes, that Abraham.
If you’re from a non-Abrahamic faith tradition or if it’s just been a while since Sunday school, Abraham is a venerated patriarchal figure in Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and the Baha’i faith. He is perhaps best known for being willing to personally kill his beloved son when God commanded him to do so. At the last minute, so the story goes, God stepped in and told Abraham to sacrifice an animal instead, rewarding Abraham’s unwavering faith.
In the Judeo-Christian narrative, the son Abraham almost sacrifices is Isaac. In Islam, however, it’s Abraham’s other son, Ismail (Ishmael), who is almost sacrificed.