In the coming days, around 2 million Muslims from all over the world will flock to Mecca, Saudi Arabia, to perform a hajj, or pilgrimage. The hajj is one of the five pillars of Islam and is a once-in-a-lifetime obligation for all able-bodied Muslims who can afford it. This event commemorates the trials of Prophet Abraham and his family in Mecca.
According to Islamic tradition, Muslims believe that Abraham and his son Ishmael erected the Kaaba, the cubic temple in Mecca, as a place of worship to God. When Ishmael was 13, Abraham had a dream of sacrificing his son. Out of obedience to God and submitting to his will, he was about to sacrifice his beloved son when God stopped him and offered him a ram instead. A difference with the Judeo-Christian tradition is that it is the second-born son Isaac who was offered in sacrifice instead of Ishmael.
The commemoration of Abraham’s trials is marked by a second major Islamic celebration called the Eid ul-Adha, or celebration of the sacrifice which occurs on the 10th day of the month of Dhul-Hijjah, or the month of the hajj, which is the 12th month of the Islamic calendar. The center of this worldwide celebration is held in the small village of Mina, a few miles outside Mecca. The event is celebrated by Muslims all around the world by sacrificing sheep or other animals. The meat of the slaughtered animals is equally divided between family, relatives or neighbors, and the poor. This charitable behavior of Muslims ensures that no destitute Muslim is left without sacrificial meat during this joyous celebration.
Before arriving in Mecca, the pilgrims first assume a state a consecration called ihram by donning two seamless white sheets for men, while the women are allowed to keep their white dresses and scarves. The simple white garments symbolize human equality before God and remind pilgrims of the Day of Resurrection, when all of humanity will be brought before God. Upon arriving in Mecca, pilgrims circumambulate seven times around the Kaaba all the while chanting, “Here I am at your service, Lord, here I am!” This circumambulation is meant to focus their consciousness on God, who is the center of their lives and their reality, and that each person is a part of the larger community of believers. Another ritual performed by the pilgrims is the running back and forth several times between two hilly tops named Safah and Marwah, re-enacting Hagar’s desperate search for water and food.
On the 8th of Dhul-Hijjah, the pilgrims travel a few miles and set up camp in Mina. From there, they will travel the next day to Mount Arafat, where they spend the entire day worshiping God and making earnest supplications. Then they stop in the evening at Muzdalifah, between Mina and Arafat, and offer various prayers. They return to Mina on the 10th of Dhul Hijjah and throw a number of pebbles at three stone pillars symbolizing Abraham’s rejection of Satan, who tried to dissuade him from sacrificing his son. After the sacrifice, the pilgrims return to Mecca to formally end the hajj by circumambulating around the Kaaba and by running or walking briskly between the Safah and Marwah.
The benefits of the hajj for Muslims are to awaken or renew God’s consciousness in their minds and hearts during the entire journey, and to repent and atone for their sins. A Muslim believes that a proper and successful hajj can erase all past sins and enable him or her to return home “as a newly born baby,” according to the Prophet’s tradition. The hajj is also a unique experience in human diversity that brings people of different colors, languages, races and ethnicities in a spirit of human brotherhood for the sake of worshiping God alone.
Said Ahmed-Zaid is a Boise State University engineering professor and the 2004 recipient of the annual HP Award for Distinguished Leadership in Human Rights.
The Idaho Statesman's weekly faith column features a rotation of writers from many different faiths and perspectives.