American Muslims join millions of Muslims from around the world to prepare for a journey of a lifetime and take part in the Hajj, the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca. The basic acts of Hajj last for five days during the 12th month of the lunar Islamic calendar called Dhul-Hijjah.
An estimated total of 1,500 Muslims will leave from California in late September for Mecca, a city in Saudi Arabia. The dates for Hajj are October 2-5, but people generally arrive a week earlier. The pilgrimage to Mecca will include young and old, men and women, from different ethnicities and backgrounds. American Muslims will be part of the world’s largest religious gathering – more than 2 million people coming from every corner of the world.
Eid ul-Adha (Festival of the Sacrifice) is celebrated by Muslims worldwide on the third day of the Hajj, which this year will fall on October 4th. The Eid celebration begins with a special prayer in the morning, followed by a sermon. After the sermon, Muslims are recommended to sacrifice a lamb or goat, re-enacting the story of Abraham who was ready to sacrifice his son in obedience to God. Eid prayers will be held across the Bay Area in different Muslim communities in San Francisco, San Jose, Santa Clara, Oakland, Fremont and other cities.
*Note: Because the beginning of Islamic lunar months depend on the actual sighting of the new moon, the start date for the beginning of Hajj, and therefore Eid ul-Adha, may vary by one day.
Purpose of Hajj
Muslims make a pilgrimage to Mecca for several reasons. The ultimate goal of Hajj is the forgiveness of sin. The pilgrim journeys as a humble penitent, wearing only two simple, white pieces of cloth, seeking approach to God’s grace. The Prophet Muhammad said that a person who performs Hajj properly "will return as a newly born baby (free of all sins)."
The pilgrimage’s great gathering of Muslims representing every nationality in the world, wearing the same simple white garment, demonstrates and symbolizes the remarkable diversity and unity of Muslims.
The Hajj also re-enacts and commemorates the story of Abraham, who was ready to sacrifice his son in obedience to God’s command. Muslims believe that Abraham built the first house of worship to the one God, the Ka’bah.
As the fifth pillar of Islam, Muslims are obligated to make a pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in their lifetime if it is financially and physically possible for them to do so.
The Timing of Hajj
The Hajj takes place in the month of Dhul-Hijjah, the 12th month of the lunar Islamic calendar. The main acts of Hajj take place over a period of 3-5 days, beginning on the 8th day of the month, climaxing on the 9th day, and ending on the 12th day. However, pilgrims usually arrive about one to two weeks before the Hajj actually starts, and stay a week afterwards in order to visit the mosque of Prophet Muhammad in Medina.
The Hajj Experience
Leaving for Hajj - Performing Hajj is viewed as a great honor in the eyes of Muslims. Therefore, Muslims who intend to make Hajj are often made honored guests of special dinners and seen off at the airport by relatives, friends and members of the local mosque. Upon their return, some mosques organize celebratory dinners, during which pilgrims recount their journey.
Ihram - This is the state of ritual consecration that the pilgrim enters when he or she removes his or her worldly clothes and dons the pilgrim’s garb of 2 seamless, white sheets. Women pilgrims do not wear the white sheets, but can wear any simple modest clothes. Pilgrims put on the ihram before entering Mecca, at which time pilgrims begin the chant, "Here I am at your service. O God Here I am." The white garments of Ihram symbolize the equality and brotherhood/sisterhood of all Muslims. While in Ihram, pilgrims should not harm any living thing, cut their hair or nails, wear perfume or have intimate relations with their spouses.
1st Day - 8th day of Dhul-Hijjah: Pilgrims leave Mecca and camp at nearby Mina.
2nd Day - 9th day of Dhul-Hijjah: The Day of Arafat is the real climax of the Hajj. Pilgrims move at sunrise from Mina to the plain of Arafat where they spend the entire day in earnest supplication and devotion. It is a time of tears and seeking God’s forgiveness. At sunset, the pilgrims move and camp at Muzdalifa which is a site between Mina and Arafat. (It is highly recommended for Muslims around the world to fast on the day of Arafat in spiritual union with the pilgrims who are standing on the plain of Arafat seeking God’s forgiveness).
3rd Day - 10th day of Dhul-Hijjah: The pilgrims return to Mina where they may spend up to three days in devotion and prayer. They also perform a ritual known as Ramy al-Jamarat, throwing stones at stone pillars. This ritual represents the trials experienced by Abraham when he was ordered by God to sacrifice his son and Satan tempted him to disobey God. Stoning the three pillars with seven stones each symbolizes rejecting Satan’s temptations. Then the pilgrim sacrifices a sheep in re-enactment of the story of Abraham who slaughtered a sheep after he was prepared to sacrifice his son in obedience to God’s command. In recent years the sheep are slaughtered by the government and the meat is airlifted to poor Muslim countries. After the stay in Mina, the pilgrims return to Mecca to end the formal rituals of Hajj by making tawaf and sa’i. (see below for definitions)
Returning from Hajj - Most accounts of Hajj from pilgrims returning from Hajj speak of the great spiritual exaltation, wonderment at the incredible diversity of Muslims, and the physical hardships of the journey, which have been immensely reduced in modern times with pilgrims staying in nice hotels before and after Hajj.
Eid al-Adha (Festival of the Sacrifice) is a major religious holiday for Muslims. Eid al-Adha occurs on the 10th day of Dhul-Hijjah. The Eid celebration begins with a special prayer in the morning, followed by a sermon. The theme of the Eid is Abraham’s example of unconditional surrender to God. Afterwards or on the following weekend, families or communities hold celebrations with food, games, and gifts for children.
Each family is recommended to sacrifice a lamb on the Eid as a re-enactment of Abraham’s sacrifice. The meat of the sacrifice is divided up between one’s family, relatives, and the poor. In most instances today, the actual sacrifice is done by a trained butcher, although Muslims often assist in the sacrifice.
Key Terms Related to the Hajj
Ka’bah - The cubical building that Muslims believe was constructed by Abraham and Ishmael (Isma’il), which is described in the Qur’an as the first house of worship dedicated to God. Ka’bah means cube in Arabic. Although the Ka’bah is the place of pilgrimage, it is not an object of worship. The Ka’bah is covered by an elaborate black covering with gold lettering. The precincts of the Ka’bah are a sanctuary where no living creature should be harmed.
Black Stone - Resting at the corner of the Ka'bah, the Black Stone was one of the original stones of the structure built by Abraham, and is said to have descended to earth from paradise. The Black Stone is not an object of worship.
Tawaf - Refers to circling the Ka’bah. Upon arriving at the Ka’bah, the pilgrim circles the Ka’bah seven times in a counter clockwise direction.
Sa’i - Refers to walking swiftly between the small hills of Safa and Marwah seven times, re-enacting Hagar’s desperate search for water for her son Ishmael.