The haj: A unique experience for Muslims
Jeddah - Kharizada Kasrat Rai, his body thin and his skin darkened by the sun, performed in 2013 what so many men and women endured before him over the centuries: He walked from his homeland through dangerous territory to perform the haj in Mecca.
Rai, at 37, walked 6,387 km from Karachi through Pakistan, Iran and Jordan to reach Saudi Arabia. In Jordan he took the old western route, a path worn deep from the footsteps of millions of the faithful before him, south to Tabuk. He then moved on to Medina and Mecca.
“My determination to reach Mecca and witness the marvels of Medina only added to my resilience to complete my journey,” Rai said.
Probably few pilgrims are prepared for the hardships of such a journey. In previous centuries, it took a lifetime of saving and sometimes a year to make the trek. Pilgrims performing haj numbered in the thousands.
Cheap air travel and tour companies now have enabled just about any Muslim to perform the most important religious duty of his life. An estimated 2.5 million worshippers are expected to perform the rites in 2015.
The fifth pillar of Islam, haj is a ritual Muslims should perform at least once in their lifetime. To perform the rite one must be a Muslim and an adult with a sound mind and possess the physical ability to perform the rituals. The worshipper must also have the financial resources to make the pilgrimage and still provide for one’s dependents at home. Successfully completing haj, usually over five days during Dhu al-Hijjah, the last month of the Islamic calendar, gives the worshipper a place in paradise.
Given that haj is performed in Mecca, where the weather can be inhospitable and the terrain rocky and unforgiving, the ritual can be difficult for the elderly.
Men must wear the Ihram, a plain white garment that eliminates the appearance of wealth and status and allows all worshippers, now standing in purity, to appear as equals before Allah.
The haj ritual dates to about 2000BC when Allah commanded the Prophet Abraham to leave his wife, Hajar, and son, Ishmael, in the Mecca desert. Hajar ran between the hills searching for water for her son but found none. Just when she had given up hope, Ishmael scratched the ground with his leg and a spring erupted under his foot. Afterwards Allah commanded Abraham to build the Kaaba to invite people to perform pilgrimage.
The pilgrimage consists of Tawaf by circumambulating the Kaaba and walking between the Safa and Marwah hills to re-enact Hajar’s search for water. The ritual is followed by standing on Mount Arafat, the most important act of haj, from morning to sunset to pray for Allah’s forgiveness. Pilgrims also climb the Mount of Mercy for prayers.
The last significant act requires pilgrims to stop at Muzdalifah to collect seven small stones to carry to Mina. Once they arrive, and over three days, they move along a wide pedestrian walkway to cast the stones at three stone pillars, which represent Satan. Here, the worshippers praise Allah while rejecting Satan.
At the end of haj the faithful circle the Kaaba seven times in farewell and have their hair shaved to signify the end of the rituals.
Jeddah resident Irfan Mohammed, who performed his pilgrimage in 1997 and had an opportunity to be in Mecca on business during the haj in 2014, said the Ministry of Haj has made tremendous improvements in increasing the comfort to worshipers.
“There are a lot less illegal pilgrims in Mecca in recent years,” Mohammed said. It makes for a more comfortable haj because there is more space and better lodging. Sanitation has improved. Eighteen years ago it was very ugly but the hygienic conditions have improved.”
He noted that safety has been the government’s top priority. Between 1990 and 2006 nearly 2,500 pilgrims died in stampedes, due mostly to crowding, particularly at the stone pillars representing Satan and Jamaraat Bridge. The bridge and pillars were demolished and replaced by a multi-level bridge and large columns.
Just before the 2015 haj, on September 11th, a crane accident resulted in the deaths of more than 100 people.
“It was very hectic before,” Mohammed said. “Now the entrance points are better organised and the crowd movement is orderly.”
The holy days of the Eid al-Adha follow haj and begin with the slaughter of a goat or a sheep to honour Allah. The slaughter stems from Allah’s test of Abraham to slaughter his son, Ismael, as a gesture of submission. God intervened in the sacrifice.
The meat from the animal is supposed to be divided into three parts: one-third for charity, a third for extended relatives, friends and neighbours and one-third for the family. It’s a period when families may fast or increase their worshipping.
Technology has dramatically changed how pilgrims arrive in Mecca to perform haj. Better organisational methods have made it possible to safely accommodate millions but the rituals remain identical to the time of Abraham. On rare occasions pilgrims, such as Rai, continue to emulate Muslim ancestors by making the difficult journey on foot as an expression of honouring those who have achieved paradise.