The Hajj

Pending the observed phase of the moon (as with every other annual Islamic event, which if you recall are dated according to the lunar Hijri calendar), it appears that the Hajj for the year 1434 AH will begin either Sunday or Monday. I thought I would take the opportunity to write a post about Islamic pilgrimage in general, which you can find at my regular blog. Here we’ll talk about the Hajj and look at some relevant vocabulary. I will add some Persian and Turkish pilgrimage vocabulary as well.

The Hajj (الحَجّ) is a group pilgrimage to the city of Mecca (full name: مكة المکرمة makkah al-mukarramah, “the Honored Mecca” or “the Holy City of Mecca”), in the western region of Saudi Arabia known as the Hejaz (الحِجاز, al-ḥijāz). It is, with the exception of Ramadan, the central event of the Islamic calendar. Its completion is one of the Five Pillars of Islam, and every able-bodied Muslim who can afford the journey is obliged to complete it at least once in his or her life, though women must be accompanied either by a husband or a مَحرَم (maḥram), a male relative (blood or in-law) who could not legally marry her (brother, son, father, etc.).

The Hajj is meant to invoke the pilgrimage of Muhammad and his followers from Medina (full name: المدينة المنورة al-madīnah al-munawwarah, literally “the Radiant City”) to Mecca in 632, the first truly Islamic pilgrimage during which Muhammad taught his followers its ceremonial rites. However, that pilgrimage was itself rooted in pre-Islamic Arabian practice; Mecca was a regional holy site long before Muhammad began preaching, something that Mecca’s merchant community used to its advantage in boosting commerce. Legend says that the pilgrimage was founded to commemorate the struggles of Hagar (هاجَر) and her son Ismāʿīl (إسماعيل, the Biblical Ishmael), who wandered in the desert after being cast away by Abraham (إبراهيم, Ibrāhīm) and Sarah, dying of thirst, until God opened a well for them, the Well of Zamzam (زَمزَم), in what is now Mecca.

Historically Muslims journeyed to Mecca via Hajj caravan, both as an expression of group solidarity and for safety. Both imperial and local rulers were at pains to see that any caravans that originated in or passed through their territories were protected, and failure to do so could lead to diplomatic crises if the subjects of another ruler, or if the practitioners of a powerful ruler’s sect, were harmed during the journey (if, say, a group of Shiʿa pilgrims were harmed while traveling through a region controlled by a Sunni ruler, that ruler could probably expect to hear from the pre-eminent Shiʿi monarch of the time). Nowadays, of course, we don’t do things by caravan very much anymore, and most of the ~1.5-2 million pilgrims who come from outside Saudi Arabia (last year about 3.2 million total pilgrims made the Hajj, about 1.7 million of whom came from outside the Kingdom) do so by plane, landing either in Medina or (more commonly, since it’s much closer to Mecca) Jeddah. The pilgrims then process from these cities on to Mecca, camping in the desert at night.

The rituals include the requirement that pilgrims enter a sacral state of bodily and spiritual cleanliness, known as إحرام (iḥrām). This includes wearing very simple white robes and avoiding any scents like deodorants, cologne, perfume, and scented soaps (unscented soap is provided to pilgrims for bathing, which is also part of the iḥrām requirement). It also demands that the pilgrim cleanse his or her mind of negative/impure emotions and thoughts and that he or she abstain from things like smoking, swearing, killing animals, and quarreling.

The Kaaba during the Hajj

The Kaaba during the Hajj

After arriving in Mecca the pilgrims then act out a series of rituals meant to commemorate the lives and experiences of Ibrahim, Hagar, and Ismaʿil. First they perform a طَواف (ṭawāf), or circumnabulation (moving around a sacred object) of the Kaaba (الكَعبة, al-kaʿbah), the large black cube-shaped structure in the center of the Masjid al-Haram (المَسجِد الحَرام, al-masjid al-ḥarām, “Mosque of the Holy Place”), which is done seven times around the Kaaba. Ibrahim and Ismaʿil are said to have built the Kaaba together after being commanded by God to build a structure where He could be worshiped, and the tawaf, done by all pilgrims in harmony, is meant to symbolize the unity of the Islamic community in its worship of the One God. The Kaabah is covered by a cloth, called the Kiswah (كِسوة), which is manufactured every year; each year’s cloth is cut into pieces and given to pilgrims, dignitaries, and Islamic organizations. After prayers in the mosque, they perform the سَعي (saʿī), during which they run back and forth between two hills in the mosque courtyard, Safa (الصَفا, al-ṣafā) and Marwah (المَروة, al-marwah), commemorating an episode in which Hagar is said to have run frantically between those hills searching for water to give to the infant Ismaʿil before God revealed the Zamzam well (drinking water from the well is part of the ritual).

Map of the Hajj rituals

Map of the Hajj rituals

The next day the pilgrims process to Mina, a neighborhood outside Mecca, and spend the day in prayer, camping there that night. The following morning they journey further outside Mecca (now around 13 miles outside the city), to Mount Arafat (جَبَل عَرَفات, jabal ʿarafāt), where Muhammad gave his final sermon during that first Hajj in 632. They spend the day in prayer, reflection, and reciting Qurʿan, and this ritual, called the Wuquf (الوُقوف, al-wuqūf, “stopping,” or “standing”) is the centerpiece of the pilgrimage (failure to spend the day at Arafat renders the whole effort moot). That night they sleep in the open air in an area about halfway on the trek from Arafat back to Mina. The next day they return to Mina and participate in the commemoration of Ibrahim’s near-sacrifice of Ismaʿil (this is the Biblical Abraham-Isaac story, but according to Islam it was Ismaʿil who was to be sacrificed). They throw stones and pebbles at three walls (which used to be three pillars) that symbolize the three times Satan tested Ibrahim’s faith and willingness to sacrifice Ismaʿil as God commanded. The “Stoning of Satan” (رَمي الجَمَرات, ramī al-jamarāt) leads into a celebration of the Feast of the Sacrifice or Eid al-Adha (عيد الأضحى, ʿīd al-aḍḥā), which is celebrated by Muslims worldwide and about which I’ll say a little more in a later post.

The pilgrims will return to Mecca and complete at least one more tawaf (usually two) before leaving Mecca. Many will avail themselves of the proximity to then make a pilgrimage of sorts to Medina, where they will visit the Prophet’s Mosque (المَسجِد النَبَوي, al-masjid al-nabawī) and other important sites like the Mosque of the Two Qiblas (المَسجِد القِبلَتَين, al-masjid al-qiblatayn), where Muhammad is said to have commanded his followers to stop praying in the direction of Jerusalem and start praying toward Mecca and which consequently had two prayer niches (قِبلة, qiblah, the marker in every mosque showing the direction that the worshipers should face) until the Saudis destroyed the one facing Jerusalem because the Saudis enjoy destroying pieces of Islamic heritage. Travelers might also visit Muhammad’s grave, located within the Prophet’s Mosque, and graves of other prominent figures in the early Islamic community (أمة, ummah), or at least the ones that the Saudis haven’t yet bulldozed. Those who have completed the Hajj earn the right to be called Hajji (الحَجّي) and may be greeted with a simple الحَج مُبارَك, “Hajj Mubarak” (“Congratulations on the Hajj”); more ostentatious welcomes or greetings would run counter to the spirit of the pilgrimage, of humbling oneself before God).

So that’s the story of the Hajj. Now here’s some additional pilgrimage-related vocabulary:

  • Pilgrim or Hajji (one who has completed the Hajj): حاجّ (ḥājj), or حاجّة (ḥājjah) for women
  • Umrah, a lesser pilgrimage to Mecca that can be undertaken at any time (but that does not fulfill the requirement for completing the Hajj): العُمرة (al-ʿumrah)
  • The sacred Black Stone in the Kaaba, the structure’s eastern cornerstone, which is kissed ritually by pilgrims (at least the ones who can reach it) during their circumnabulations: الحَجَر الأسوَد (al-‎ḥajar al-aswad)
  • The Maqam Ibrahim, the stone on which Ibrahim is said to have stood in order to build the upper parts of the Kaabah, which is kept in a large display in the Mosque of the Holy Place and around which pilgrims gather to pray after performing tawaf: مَقام إبراهيم
  • Other kinds of pilgrimage, particularly Sufi and Shiʿa pilgrimage to sites associated with the family of Muhammad and the Imams, and notable Sufi figures, may be referred to as زِيارة (ziyārah), or “visiting.”

The Hajj is among the most remarkable events of the year anywhere in the world, bringing over three million pilgrims together from all over the world in one place, with one purpose, performing the Hajj rituals in unison. Hopefully this post has provided you with some basic details and useful vocabulary about the pilgrimage.

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10 thoughts on “The Hajj

  1. Pingback: Hajj and pilgrimage vocabulary | Persian Word a Day
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  5. Pingback: هج مبارك | Arabic Word a Day
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