The Hajj

If you’re reading this, and 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), then presumably the Hajj pilgrimage has either begun or is about to begin. Here we’ll talk about the Hajj and look at some relevant vocabulary. I will add some Persian and Turkish pilgrimage vocabulary as well. You can also find more information on Islamic pilgrimage in general at my regular blog.

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 make it at least once in his or her life, though Sunni women below the age of 45 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.). Shiʿa women are permitted by Saudi authorities to make the pilgrimage on their own, provided that their own government allows it.

The annual Hajj is meant to repeat 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, nearly died of thirst, but were saved when 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 particular branch of Islam, were harmed during the journey. 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 (Saudi officials set limits by country in order to keep each year’s pilgrimage at least within the realm of manageability) 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 (it’s not a perfect cube) structure in the center of the Masjid al-Haram (المَسجِد الحَرام, al-masjid al-ḥarām, “Mosque of the Holy Place”), seven times. 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 Kaaba 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. It is possible to go inside the Kaaba–it’s a nice looking if fairly nondescript thing from the photos I’ve seen–but not during the Hajj. There are just too many pilgrims for such a small structure to handle.

The Kaaba has a fascinating history, or at least legend, around it. Though it was built by Abraham and Ishmael as a place of worship for God, the story goes that as Mecca’s people got further away from their roots they began to worship multiple gods and store idols to those gods in the Kaaba. They even dedicated the shrine to one of those deities, Hubal. When leaders of the Quraysh, Muhammad’s tribe and the dominant tribe in the city, surrendered Mecca to Muhammad and his followers, Muhammad is said to have entered the Kaaba and smashed the idols in order to rededicate it to the monotheistic God, ostensibly its original patron.

After prayers in the mosque, pilgrims 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. 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 the pilgrims 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 Muslim tradition 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 Festival of the Sacrifice or Eid al-Adha (عيد الأضحى, ʿīd al-aḍḥā), which is celebrated by Muslims worldwide.

The pilgrims return to Mecca and complete at least one more tawaf (usually two) before leaving the city. Though it is not technically part of the Hajj, quite a few pilgrims will (either before or after the Hajj) visit the Jabal al-Nour (جَـبَـل الـنُّـوْر, “mountain of illumination”), just outside of Mecca. The Jabal al-Nour contains the Cave of Hira (غَـار حِـرَاء, Ghār Ḥirāʾ), where Muhammad regularly meditated and is said to have received his first revelation. Many pilgrims will also avail themselves of their proximity to visit Medina, where they will see 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). This mosque is 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.

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:

  • As an alternative to Hajji, people who have completed the Hajj may be called حاجّ (ḥājj) for men or حاجّة (ḥājjah) for women
  • Umrah, a lesser, recommended but not required pilgrimage to Mecca that can be undertaken at any time (but that does not fulfill the lifetime requirement for completing the Hajj): العُمرة (al-ʿumrah)
  • The sacred Black Stone in the Kaaba, allegedly provided to Abraham by God to serve as 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.”
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11 thoughts on “The Hajj

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