About 5000 years ago the Prophet Abraham was ordered by God to lay the foundations of the Kabah—the House of God in Mecca—and to call people to make a pilgrimage to this House: "Exhort all people to make the Pilgrimage. They shall come to you on foot and on the backs of swift camels; they shall come from every deep ravine..." (Qur’an, 22:27)
Today, still responding to that original call of Abraham and following in the footsteps of the Prophet Muhammad, over two million people from every corner of the globe gather at Mecca to perform their Hajj.
Along with the profession of faith, daily prayers, a month-long annual fast and charity to the poor, Hajj is one of the five tenets of Islam. Hajj is a once-in-a-lifetime obligation for every Muslim, male or female, provided he or she is healthy enough to travel and has the means to undertake the pilgrimage.
The Hajj period lasts from the 8th to the 13th of the Islamic month of Dhul Hijjah, and, as the pilgrims arrive in Mecca, they are lodged in hotels and houses.
One very important obligation during Hajj is the wearing of unstitched clothing comprised of two sheets (women wear normal clothes with a scarf to cover the head). All hajis, rich and poor, black and white, are dressed in this way, so that all men of all countries look alike in identical, simple garments, and no pilgrim may then feel tempted to take pride of place over another.
The Sacred Mosque of Mecca, due to continuous expansion, can accommodate about one million pilgrims at one time. Here the pilgrims encircle the holy Kabah seven times, which symbolically represents how man’s life must revolve around God. Near the Kabah, are two small hills called Safa and Marwah—"Signs of God" as they are described by the Qur’an. The hills, which were previously outside the precincts of the Sacred Mosque, have now been enclosed within its boundaries. The pilgrims walk briskly back and forth seven times between these hills, a distance of about 394 metres. This rite is performed in memory of Abraham’s wife, Hagar, who ran helplessly between the two hills seven times in search of water for her baby, Ishmael, who was suffering from thirst. God was pleased and a miracle took place—a spring gushed forth from which the baby could drink water. The well, known as Zamzam, still quenches pilgrims’ thirst.
On the first day of Hajj, the pilgrims set out for Mina, a small town about 3 miles from Mecca. Here the pilgrims stay three nights and three days. The town, which normally has no more than a few hundred inhabitants, bursts into life on the days of Hajj, when over two million people pour in to settle in tents to perform the rites of stoning the pillars that represent the Devil. It is the place where, in obedience to God’s commandment, Abraham took his son Ishmael to sacrifice him. At that very moment, Satan appeared here to tempt Abraham to disobey God’s command. But he threw pebbles at Satan to drive him away. So did young Ishmael and his mother. God was pleased with Abraham’s response and sent an angel with a ram to be sacrificed instead of Ishmael. In commemoration of this act, Muslims sacrifice an animal on the Eidul Azha. Today three pillars stand on the very spot where the incident took place. As one of the rites of Hajj, the pilgrims also throw small pebbles at these stone pillars, which symbolize the Devil within ourselves. This is meant to kill the soul’s desires and the ego.
From Mina, the pilgrims go on to Arafat, where the climax of the pilgrimage—"the Standing of Arafat" takes place. For this reason the Prophet said, "Arafat is Hajj." The center of attention is the 200 feet high Mount of Mercy from which the Prophet Muhammad preached his last sermon in 632 AD. Seated on a camel, he addressed a crowd of 100,000 laying emphasis on the importance Islam attaches to human equality, regardless of social distinctions, the equal sharing of rights and duties by husband and wife, and the prohibition of usury, etc. Again, speaking with equal emphasis, the Prophet said: "No Arab is superior to a non-Arab and no non-Arab is superior to an Arab. No black man is superior to a red man and no red man is superior to a black, except through taqwa (fear of God). Indeed the noblest among you is the one who is deeply conscious of God."
Here the pilgrims stand "before God," praying and listening to sermons. Everyone invokes God in his own way: standing or sitting, motionless, going on foot, or mounted. After a short stay here the pilgrims return to Mina via Muzdalifa. After staying again in Mina for two nights, they return to Mecca for the last encircling of the Kabah, which ends the Hajj. Medina, where the Prophet Muhammad’s mosque and grave are situated, also attracts pilgrims in great numbers. Though it is not part of Hajj, the pilgrims, out of their great reverence for the Prophet, stay there for a few days also, praying in the Prophet’s Mosque and visiting histori