What the Heck Happens at the Hajj?

The Hajj, or Muslims’ annual pilgrimage to Mecca, is happening now (October 13-18).  Some of you may be wondering what exactly is the Hajj.  Let’s start with the basics.  Islam has 5 pillars of faith:

1) There is no God but God.

2) Pray 5 times a day towards Mecca.

3) Fasting during Ramadan.

4) Giving to charity.

5) Make a pilgrimage to Mecca (if one is physically and financially able to do so)

The Hajj is that pilgrimage.  (Disclaimer for theologians or to those who heard a different story in church or in a synagogue: I am telling the history of the Hajj as those of the Islamic faith describe it. When it comes to Islam, Judaism, and Christianity, major players are found in all three religious traditions but their stories may be different between faiths.)

The story of the pilgrimage to Mecca goes back to the story of Abraham. When Abraham (yeah the same one in Jewish Torah and the Christian Old Testament) was unable to conceive a child with his wife Sarah, Sarah offered her maidservant Hagar to Abraham as a wife in an attempt to conceive a son. As Sarah went down in history as the most understanding wife ever (and future mother of Isaac), Hagar did indeed produce a son for Abraham. That son was named Ishmael.  At some point, Sarah feels a little twinge of jealousy and takes her unhappiness out on Hagar. Some legends even say Sarah was unhappy with Ishmael mocking or teasing Isaac (which, for any of you with siblings know just comes with the territory).  Hagar and Ishmael where banished to the desert.  As Hagar ran between two mountains seven times (key point!) looking for food and water, she prayed for God to help her.  Placing Ishmael on the ground, he kicked his heel into the dirt and miraculously a well is said to have sprung up, providing Hagar and Ishmael with much needed water as well as something to trade for food with passing caravans.  When Abraham returned, he saw the spring and immediately built a Kabah; a stone, one-room structure.

The Kabah in Mecca stood as a pilgrimage site for all sorts of religions- Jews, Christians, and even pagans came to circumambulate (or walk around) the structure, as well as pray there.  This made Mecca a very popular commercial city for traders and the like.  It was also the birthplace of Muhammad.  It was in Medina, however, where Muhammad lived with his wife Kadhija, who was to become the first convert to Islam. In 630, Muhammad lead his followers in the first pilgrimage of the purely Islamic to Mecca. Muhammad would eventually rid the Kabah of all pagan idols and return the structure to the glory of God.

So what happens during the Hajj is unbelievably profound and ritualized. The first stop for pilgrims is the purifying rite of the Ihram.  That’s where everyone changes his or her clothes into more uniform clothing (white cloths).  This is a symbolic of the fact that we are all equal in God’s eyes (whether or not you showed up in Versace or Old Navy).  There is also ritual cleansing at this time. (Side note: that is why many mosques have what are called “ablution fountains” outside where believers bathe their faces, hands, and feet before entering the mosque.)  Next, Muslims go to the Kabah and walk around it seven times in a counter clockwise direction, saying prayers.  Circumambulation is also popular in other traditions. For Buddhists, the stupa is the center they walk around while praying.  Also, Christians sometimes walk in a labrynth  circle while reciting prayers. Parents walk around in circles, praying for a toddler to lose interest in whatever they have decided to walk around.

After circumambulating around the Kabah, pilgrims walk down a large corridor in order to perform the Sa’y, the running (or brisk walking) between two hills as in a sort of recreation of Hagar’s struggle to find water and food for herself and her son. And yup, that’s done seven times as well.  And if all that running (or brisk walking) has made you thirsty, the Zam Zam well is still there and is another stop for the pilgrims. That well has never gone dry.

On the eighth day of The Hajj, the pilgrims migrate into the Mina Valley where they continue gathering, but this time in a more celebratory mode.  They eventually end up on the Plain of Arafat, where according to their tradition is the same place Adam and Eve ended up post apple picking season.  It is at these gatherings where they come together as a people, reflecting on the past and contemplating the future of their lives.  Moving from Mina to another plain, (Muzdalifa) for a night of prayer and sharing of experiences.  I am exhausted just writing this but the pilgrims keep moving.  This time, pilgrims enter an area of the plain where believers throw stones at pillars to symbolize their defiance to the devil and as a remembrance to Abraham who almost sacrificed Ishmael to God. (You read that correctly- Muslims believe it was Ishmael and not Isaac who God commanded Abraham to sacrifice. Either way, thank Him for sending an angel to stop that nonsense!)

At the end of all that walking and praying is a three-day feast, which I can only imagine is needed after so much walking!  There is also a ritual slaughtering of animals, with the meat from the animals given to the local poor and the poor around the world.

To me, there is something powerful about the Hajj and its group dynamic.  Last year, approximately 3 million people took the pilgrimage to Mecca and I doubt it just because they felt it was an obligation.  In Christianity, we learn about those eremitic monks, with their withdrawal from society seen as a way to get closer to God.  But at the opposite end are these pilgrims currently in Mecca, walking a circle with millions of other people, all praying to the creator, all becoming closer to mankind because they are feeling closer to God.  If you get annoyed by the crowd at Disneyland, Mecca during the Hajj might not be for you.

(This is in no way an exhaustive study of the Hajj. PBS has an incredible website that not only has cool infographics but also more information about Muhammad.)

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