The Hajj is the most ritualistic obligation in Islam and one of the largest Muslim pilgrimages in the world. It takes place once a year across several sacred sites in and around the holy city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia—the birthplace of Islam.
The Hajj involves performing a series of rituals set out by the Prophet Muhammad that link the pilgrimage to Adam and Hawa (biblical Eve), the prophets Ibrahim (biblical Abraham) and Ishmael, and the Day of Judgement.
Most Muslims consider the Hajj to be one of the five pillars of Islam alongside the declaration of faith (shahadah); observing daily prayer (salah); fasting during the month of Ramadan (sawm) and giving to charity (zakat). As a result, they believe every Muslim who has the means is obligated to perform the Hajj before they die. If someone is sick or otherwise unwell, a person may appoint another to perform the hajj by proxy.
When Is the Hajj in 2023?
The Hajj is performed every year between the 8th -13th of Dhu al-Hijjah, the last month of the Muslim calendar. In 2023 the start of the Hajj falls on June 26 and numbers attending are expected to return to pre-pandemic averages of around 2.5 million pilgrims.
The Story of the Hajj
The Hajj rituals were formalized by the Prophet Muhammad when he performed his one and only pilgrimage in the year A.D. 628. Many of the key rituals are centered on stories about God testing the prophet Ibrahim.
The first example is when Ibrahim is ordered to abandon his wife, Hajirah (biblical Hagar), and their baby son Ishmael—later, a prophet in his own right—in the desert near the ruins of the Kaaba (the stone building near the center of the Great Mosque in Mecca).
When mother and child run out of provisions, Hajirah puts down her baby and runs up and down two hills called Safa and Marwa looking for help. Defeated, she cries out to God and returns to her baby who is scratching away at the sand with his feet. When Hajirah lifts up Ishmael, she sees freshwater bubbling up from beneath him and immediately begins forming a well around this, thus saving both mother and child. Hajirah’s frantic search is re-enacted by pilgrims in the ritual called saiy, and throughout the Hajj, pilgrims drink water from the well of Zamzam, believed to be fed by the same spring Ishmael dug with his feet.
The second example is when God tests Ibrahim’s faith by commanding him to sacrifice his son. Muslims believe that on his way to do this, Iblis (Satan) tries to dissuade Ibrahim. The spots where these "temptations" took place are now marked by three immense pillars in the desert outside of Mecca called Jamarat. One of the key Hajj rituals involves throwing stones at these pillars in a literal re-enactment of what Ibrahim did to cast Iblis aside, and in a symbolic rejection of one’s own temptations. Having rejected Iblis, when Ibrahim attempts to kill his son as he has been commanded to do, God replaces him with a ram to sacrifice instead. This act is also commemorated by pilgrims and Muslims around the globe on the 10th of Dhu al-Hijjah when they sacrifice an animal to mark the start of the Eid al-Adha.
There is one other way the Hajj connects pilgrims to Ibrahim and this is at the Maqam Ibrahim or "Station of Ibrahim"—believed to be the platform he used to rebuild the Kaaba with Ishmael more than 4,000 years ago. Pilgrims try to pray behind this after performing tawaf (circling the Kaaba seven times).
However, the most important rite of the Hajj acknowledges the entire story of humanity at the plain of Arafat, also in the desert outside Mecca, where pilgrims must stand on the 9th of Dhu al-Hijjah. This is where Muslims believe God forgave Adam and Hawa; it is where the Prophet Muhammad delivered his final sermon to complete the faith of Islam, and where the Last Judgement is believed to take place in the future.
Hajj can be performed in at least three ways; Hajj Qiraan, Thamattu and Ifraad. The most popular is Hajj Thamattu, in which pilgrims perform the "lesser Hajj," the Umrah, alongside the Hajj proper. Hajj Qiraan is the same but pilgrims perform both in one go. Hajj Ifraad sees pilgrims only perform the Hajj, and there is no obligation to sacrifice an animal.
To perform Hajj Thamattu Muslims first enter ihram (a state of purity) at one of the designated stations outside of Mecca; ihram is best symbolized by the two simple unstitched white sheets worn by men, resembling Muslim funerary shrouds.
The pilgrim then heads to the Kaaba to perform tawaf, starting and ending at the Black Stone. They then try and pray behind the Maqam Ibrahim before performing saiy, by walking and running seven times between the sacred hills, Safa and Marwah. After this the pilgrim come out of ihram by shaving or trimming their hair.
The pilgrim again assumes ihram ahead of the 8th of Dhu al-Hijjah when they head to Mina, a large tent city in the desert outside Mecca to spend the day in worship, contemplation and prayer. The next day at dawn, they make for the plains of Arafat where they spend as much time as possible in prayer before sunset; this is the most important act of the Hajj. Every other rite can be missed for valid reasons (though a compensation must be paid), but not this one. Once the sun sets, pilgrims head to another site in the desert, Muzdalifah, to spend the night under the stars, praying and collecting the small stones they will use the following day.
At sunrise on the 10th of Dhu al-Hijjah, the first day of Eid al Adha, all pilgrims make their way to one of the three Jamarat pillars called the Jamarat al-Aqabato and throw seven stones at it. After this each pilgrim arranges for an animal (cow, goat, sheep or camel) to be sacrificed on their behalf (hady) and the meat distributed to the needy before shaving or cutting their hair to exit ihram. The pilgrim then returns to Mecca to perform another tawaf; another prayer behind Maqam Ibrahim and another saiy.
Some Shi’a Muslims perform tawaf one more time at this point. All pilgrims then return to Mina for the next two or three days to stone all three pillars seven times each day and perform further acts of worship. After leaving Mina for Mecca, they perform one more tawaf, known as the farewell tawaf (if they didn’t do so earlier) to conclude their Hajj journey.
If properly conducted, the entire pilgrimage is believed to wipe out sins for true believers.
— Authored by Tharik Hussain, fellow at the Centre for Religion and Heritage at the University of Groningen and the Royal Geographical Society in London, and author of Minarets in the Mountains: a Journey into Muslim Europe published by Bradt.
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Hajj: pilgrimage to Mecca, BBC.
"Hajj 2023: Dates, cost, packages and what you need to know," by Mariam Nihal, May 24, 2023, The National.