MOUNT ARAFAT, Saudi Arabia (AFP) – Tears flowed and prayers filled the air as the annual Muslim Haj by about 1.4 million believers from around the world reached its zenith on a vast plain in western Saudi Arabia Friday.
“I am now a newborn baby and I don’t have any sin,” Nigerian pilgrim Taofik Odunewu told AFP, standing at the foot of Mount Mercy on the Arafat plain, tears streaming down his face.
Odunewu raised his hands to the heavens in the seamless two-piece white “ihram” outfit that he wore.
All male pilgrims dress in ihram to symbolise a state of purity, which also emphasises their unity regardless of social status or nationality.
“I pray for prosperity, long life and.. I pray for my country,” Odunewu said with a broad smile.
“I feel great… I’m on top of the world,” he said at the world’s largest Muslim gathering.
“I’m very blessed to be part of this occasion. I don’t think I will go back to the sinful way,” he pledged.
The Haj, which officially ends on Tuesday, is one of the five pillars of Islam that every capable Muslim must perform at least once.
Hundreds of thousands of pilgrims arrived at Arafat on Friday carrying suitcases and other luggage among thousands of white tents which stood ready to provide temporary homes for the multitude.
Many set up their own tents along the roads. Others even made rough shelters from large yellow garbage bags. Elderly pilgrims sat in wheelchairs, little ones in prams, and others leaned on sticks as they pushed their way towards Mount Mercy, the hill where Muslim Prophet Mohammad (pbuh) made his final sermon 14 centuries ago.
From early morning, pilgrims crowded onto the slippery, rocky hill, which their uniform attire turned white in colour.
Some prayed and wept, some slept, while others spread their mats and sat reciting the Al-Quran.
Security forces were deployed en masse across Arafat plain and Mount Mercy to organise the flow of pilgrims, who have come from 163 countries as well as Saudi Arabia, home to Islam’s holiest sites.
“This way Haji. Don’t stop here. You’re blocking the way,” security men shouted through loudspeakers, trying to control the crowds.
The number of faithful seemed fewer than past years following a crackdown by authorities on illegal pilgrims. This year’s Haj comes with Saudi Arabia and four other Arab nations joining Washington in air strikes against Islamic State group militants who have committed a spate of atrocities in Syrian and Iraqi territory they seized.
Saudi authorities are also striving to protect pilgrims from two deadly viruses, Ebola and the MERS coronavirus.
No such cases have been recorded among the Haj visitors, officials say.
Odunewu and other pilgrims from Nigeria were permitted to enter Saudi Arabia for Haj, despite eight Ebola deaths in their country.
Three West African states hardest hit by Ebola have not been allowed Haj visas.