Every Muslim's submission to the will of Allah is based on the five 'pillars of Islam', as proclaimed by His Prophet Mohammed (may peace be upon Him):
- The first pillar is Sha'haddah, the profession of faith: "There is no god but Allah, and Mohammed is His Prophet".
- The second pillar is Salah or prayer, which provides the Muslim with direct communion with Allah five times a day.
- The third is Zakah, the obligatory payment of alms to the poor.
- The fourth is Siyam, the obligatory fasting during daylight hours throughout the Holy month of Ramadan (when the Holy Qur'an was revealed to the Prophet).
- Last is the fifth pillar: Al-Hajj, the pilgrimage to Makkah and its holy places during Dhul Hijjah, the closing month of the Islamic year.
The Haj differs considerably from Umrah, which is an individual act of pilgrimage to Makkah made by Muslims at any other time of the year. Haj is the worldwide gathering of the family of Islam in a devout and lengthy act of corporate worship, regardless of social status, wealth, nationality or colour. It is an invitation open to every Muslim, with all rivalries forgotten, and with full safety guaranteed for every pilgrim.
To symbolise the brotherhood of Islam, each pilgrim approaches the holy places dressed exactly alike: an unseamed length of white cloth girded around the waist with a cord and another draped across the left shoulder.
The pilgrim's aim is to reach the Holy Qaaba in Makkah's Grand or Inviolable Mosque, and the nearby landmarks honoured for their association with Ibrahim (Abraham), his wife Haggar, their son Ismail (Ishmael), and the Prophet Mohammed.
The Qaaba is, quite literally, the focus of Islam, as it is the direction every Muslim must face each time he prays. A simple cube-shaped building, 50 feet (15 metres) high, it is revered as the House of God, and was built, on the order of Allah, by Ibrahim and Ismail. One corner holds the famous Black Stone (Al-Hajar al-Aswad), protected by a huge silver frame.
The Qaaba is draped with a black silk covering, the Kiswa, beautifully embroidered with Qur'anic texts in gold and silver. This is replaced every year in a special ceremony.
The central role of the Qaaba in Islamic pilgrimage is ordained in the Qur'an:"When we prepared for Ibrahim the place of the House we said: 'Worship none beside me. Keep My House clean for those who walk around it and those who stand upright or kneel in worship.' Exhort all men to make the Pilgrimage. They will come to you on foot and on the backs of swift camels from every distant quarter; they will come to avail themselves of many a benefit and to pronounce on the appointed days the name of Allah over the beasts which he has given them. Eat of their flesh yourselves, and feed the poor and unfortunate. Then let the pilgrims prepare themselves, make their vows, and circle the Ancient House. Such is Allah's commandment". (22:22/29-30)
The major rites of Haj which are performed by Muslims today were established in the days of the Prophet Ibrahim, who built the Qaaba and made Makkah a place of pilgrimage. These rites include Tawaf, the sevenfold circling of the Qaaba, originating from Allah's command that Ibrahim take his wife Haggar and their son Ismail into the desert to entrust them to the protection of Allah. In a desperate search for water, Haggar ran seven times between the hills of Safa and Marwah before beseeching the help of Allah, whereupon the well of Zam Zam burst forth at her feet. Haj pilgrims have ever since evoked this story in their sevenfold running between Safa and Marwah. This is known as the rite of Saiy ('striving').
The abandoning of Haggar and Ismail was only one of Allah's many ways of testing Ibrahim's faith. Others are remembered by the three rocky pillars at Mina, about 3.7 miles/6km east of Makkah. Each pilgrim collects seven stones on the slopes of Muzdalifah hill, and uses them in a ritual stoning of the three pillars, which are known as 'satans'. The ritual is known as Jamarat and follows the sacrifice of a sheep by every pilgrim who can afford it. The sacrifice takes place in memory of that offered by Ibrahim at Allah's command.
The most important ritual of Haj takes place at Arafat, 10 miles/16km from the Qaaba in Makkah. This is Wukuf, when the pilgrims spend the best part of a day standing in prayer on the Arafat plain. Here they also meditate and hear sermons, according to the command of the Prophet.
Every year, pilgrims begin to arrive in Saudi Arabia about two months before the beginning of Dhul Hijjah. Most of them arrive in Jeddah, whose seaport has received pilgrims by ship for many centuries from the furthest corners of the Islamic world. More recently, the superb, custom-built Haj Terminal at King Abdul Aziz International Airport (KAIA) has given an enormous boost to the flow of pilgrim traffic since its opening in 1981.
Pilgrims must register with a mutawwif or pilgrims' guide and, although pilgrims may prefer to perform their Haj on their own, the mutawwif is responsible for them during their stay in the Kingdom. He plays an important role in arranging accommodation, transport, food and water.
After registration, pilgrims are transferred to the Pilgrims' City at KAIA, or to another at Jeddah seaport, where there are facilities for short-term accommodation.
The usual form of transport from Jeddah to Makkah is by bus. The Government Pilgrims' Transportation Service is just one of the many facilities funded by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia for use by pilgrims. Care of pilgrims is a solemn duty commanded by the Prophet for all Muslims, a duty which is most proudly and generously upheld by the Kingdom today with the provision of more facilities every year. Many of these facilities are funded by the King himself, one of the most important of which is the distribution of millions of bags of iced water prepared, at the King's expense, at a special factory in Makkah. Other services which are of great benefit to pilgrims include mobile facilities for banking and telecommunications.
Quarters are assigned to the pilgrim when he first arrives in Makkah. Then his first duty is to enter the Grand Mosque and circle the Qaaba in the Tawaf of 'Arrival' (qudum). The beginning of the month Dhul Hijjah sees the erecting of enormous 'tent cities' at Mina and Arafat, in preparation for the commencement of Haj on the eighth day of the month. This is known as Yaum at-tarwiya, the 'Day of Watering', and it is on this day that the pilgrim prepares his own water store for the succeeding days of the pilgrimage. He then journeys to Mina to spend the night of Yaum at-tarwiya in the tent city there, and on the next day -- the ninth day of Dhul Hijjah -- the congregation of Islam musters at Arafat.
The 'Halt' or 'Standing' at Arafat (Wukuf) is the focal point of the Haj. The Prophet ordered that all Muslims must journey there in an orderly and peaceful manner, to assemble by noon. Between midday and sunset the massed pilgrims stand at Arafat in joint prayer and meditation before walking from Arafat to the hill of Muzdalifah at sunset. The most devout prefer to make this procession on foot, but many choose motor transport instead.
At Muzdalifah, the pilgrims join in the evening prayers, before gathering the pebbles with which they will ritually stone the 'satans' at Mina on the following day.
The tenth day of Dhul Hijjah -- Yaum-an-Nahr, the 'Day of Sacrifice' can, in effect take up to three days, due to the vast crowds gathering around the 'satans'. Sacrifices begin after the Eid prayers in the morning and here the mutawwifs are of great service, helping pilgrims arrange the buying and slaughtering of their sacrificial animals.
After the sacrifice, pilgrims perform Tawaf Ifada, the ceremonial hair-cutting or head shaving. The pilgrim then emerges from the consecrated state of ihram which he entered on reaching miqat at the outset of his pilgrimage. Two or three more days -- the Ayyam at-tashriq -- will be required for the pilgrim to complete his Jamarat, and once this rite has been completed the pilgrim returns to Makkah to perform a farewell Tawaf of the Qaaba. He will then either head homewards via Jeddah, or will perhaps travel on to Al Madinah to visit the Mosque of the Prophet.
The Prophet's Farewell Pilgrimage in the year 632CE is said to have been attended by 200,000 Muslims and the annual numbers of pilgrims saw very little increase for over 13 centuries. Pilgrim access to Makkah was restricted to travel by ship to Jeddah and overland by foot and by camel. Official figures for the 1950 Haj indicate only 250,000 pilgrims, but over the past 30 years, and more particularly in the past 15, pilgrim traffic has undergone a dramatic increase. The main reason for this has been the parallel growth of Saudia, the Kingdom's national airline, and the enormous boost to pilgrim air transport afforded by low-cost flights. Custom-built air transport facilities such as the Haj Terminal at Jeddah's KAIA, the excellent modern road network developed in the Kingdom over the same period, and the expansion of port facilities at Jeddah have all contributed to ease of access for today's pilgrims.
Every year the Kingdom takes great pains to meet the needs of its pilgrims. Months of detailed planning, and an army of administrative staff, help keep the millions of pilgrims moving smoothly to their holy destinations, speeding them safely on their way once the pilgrimage is over. Thus, more than 1,300 years after the Prophet bequeathed the duty of Haj to the faithful of Islam, the spirit of the world's greatest annual pilgrimage is more alive than ever. In the words of the Prophet Ibrahim, as quoted in the Holy Qur'an:"God, I have settled some of my offspring in a barren valley near Your Sacred House, so that they may observe true worship. Put in the hearts of men kindness towards them, and provide them with the earth's fruits, so that they may give thanks. God, You have knowledge of all that we hide and all that we reveal; nothing in heaven or earth is hidden from Allah. Praise be to Allah who has given me Ismail and Ishaq in my old age! All prayers are heard by Him. God, make me and my descendants steadfast in prayer. God, accept my prayer." (14:32/38)