The Hajj is the fifth pillar of Islam for Sunni Muslims and is one of ten branches of religion as prescribed by Shiite Muslims. It requires that all able-bodied Muslims with the financial ability to do so, make, at least once in their lives, a pilgrimage to Mecca. The Hajj must be completed during the twelfth month of the Islamic calendar, called Dhu al-Hijjah. For the many Muslims who make the Hajj, it is an extremely spiritual time, since one walks in the footsteps of Muhammad and performs rituals that duplicate parts of Muhammad’s journey on earth.
Men may make the Hajj alone, or in the company of friends and family. Women who travel alone while making the Hajj often must have permission from a male family member for the journey. Women are further encouraged to travel with a family member, or may be permitted to make the Hajj with an exclusively female group.
All pilgrims who make the Hajj wear a simple white garment and sandals. Women may wear a simple white or black dress, but most men dress in an unhemmed wrapped garment called the Ihram. The Ihram, being worn by all signifies the equality of all people making the Hajj, and stands for one’s sins being wiped clean by the Hajj.
The first step after changing into the Ihram and saying a prayer praising Allah is to complete the Umrah. This begins in Mecca with all pilgrims circling the Ka’aba, a great black stone in the center of Mecca that was set there by Mohammed. Many people then walk between the hills of Safa and Mawah seven times.
Once the Umrah is completed, pilgrims making the Hajj spend a day in Arafat in prayer that lasts until sunset. Next, they progress to Muzdalifah where they will collect 21 pebbles for use in a ritual stoning at three places that represent Satan.
After spending the night in Muzdalifah, those making the Hajj go to Mina where they must spend two days. On the first day, an animal is sacrificed. Many people simply purchase a voucher for the sacrifice of an animal. Part of the animal must be given to the poor. The next day, pilgrims throw the pebbles at three defined stations to metaphorically reject and defeat Satan.
Once the two days in Mina are finished, pilgrims return to Mecca, where they remove the Ihram and dress in regular clothes. Most men shave their heads and women must cut off an inch of their hair. This completes the Hajj, although some may also make the trip to Medina to visit the tomb of the prophet Mohammad and the seat or locus point of Islam’s rise to power.
The Hajj can be challenging to make, and some people have occasionally been hurt in the process. In particular the walk between the hills and the ritual stonings have resulted in people being trampled or injured. Yet, this religious exercise is to most Muslims one of the greatest life works they will achieve. It offers spiritual renewal, jihad, and the fulfillment of a promise to Allah, who has made specific how Muslims must live their lives through the prophet Muhammad.