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17. Understanding Islam

4.5. PILLAR 5: Hajj (pilgrimage)

Hajj is the fifth pillar of Islam. It is a pilgrimage made to holy sites in the Muslim holy cities of Mecca and Madina in modern-day Saudi Arabia, and always takes place at the same time each year according to the Islamic calendar. It is required of every free, adult, sane, physically and financially able Muslim once in a lifetime. According to Islam, the rites of Hajj go back to the time of Abraham who is said to have re-built the Kaaba after it had been first built by Adam. Hajj starts on the eighth day of Dhu al-Hijjah, the twelfth month of the Islamic calendar and ends on the thirteenth day of the same month.

Hajj includes several different rites. It starts with preparation, known as Ihram. For a male, this requires dressing in two white seamless cloths, with the one wrapped around the waist reaching below the knee and the other draped over the left shoulder and tied at the right side; a female should wear a regular dress of any colour with her head covered but her hands and face uncovered. A pilgrim may not engage in marital relations, shave or cut their nails, use cologne or scented oils, kill or hunt animals, or fight or argue. Women must not cover their faces, even if they would do so in their home country. Men may not wear clothes with stitching. Bathing is allowed but scented soaps are better avoided.

After Ihram, Muslims should declare their intention, or Niyah. They then travel to the neighbourhood of Mina in Mecca on the 8th of Dhul Hijjah and remain there until dawn the next morning. Then they travel to the valley of Arafat and stand in the open, praising Allah. At the end of the day, they travel to the nearby area of Muzdalifa for the night, where they gather together small stones to use the next day. In the morning they return to Mina and throw the stones at pillars called Jamarât. These stone pillars represent the devil. Then they carry out a sacrifice to commemorate the story of Ibrahim (Abraham) and his son (whom they believe to be Ismail, or Ishmael, rather than Isaac as per the Biblical account). For this they traditionally slaughter a lamb or sheep, though today many pilgrims buy a voucher in Mecca before Hajj begins, which allows an animal to be slaughtered there in the name of Allah on the 10th without the pilgrim being physically present. Either way, the meat is distributed among the poor. After this, men's heads are shaved and women cut off a lock of their hair. Then they return to Mecca for the Tawaf, which is a ritual circumambulation of the Ka‘aba seven times. Then it’s back to Mina for 3 or 4 days, stoning the pillars which represent Satan on each day.

Finally they complete a farewell Tawaf around the Ka‘aba on the twelfth day of the month of Dhul Hijjah, ask Allah’s forgiveness for all the sins they have committed in their life thus far, and the Hajj is finished. Many Muslims then visit the mosque where Mohammed is buried in Madina, but this is not a stipulated part of the Hajj.

Some Muslims today go on Hajj several times in their life and some even go every year even though this is by no means required of them. In some countries it is a sign of social and religious status; the more times a person goes on Hajj, the higher their perceived status.

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