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Fulfilling the fifth pillar of Islam in sacred journey

MAKKAH, SAUDI ARABIA (AFP) – The annual haj pilgrimage, one of the five pillars of Islam, will start tomorrow with more than two million Muslims from around the world expected to take part this year.

It will be the largest pilgrimage since the coronavirus pandemic forced Saudi authorities to dramatically downsize the event.

More than 926,000 people took part in 2022, up from nearly 59,000 the previous year, according to official figures. In 2019, the haj drew in around 2.5 million pilgrims.

With COVID-19 restrictions completely lifted and age limits scrapped, the kingdom expects to return to pre-pandemic levels of more than two million.

All Muslims are expected to complete the haj to Makkah – from which non-Muslims are strictly banned – at least once in their lives if they have the means to do so.

Believers converge on the holy city for several days of rituals in which they retrace Prophet Muhammad’s (pbuh) last pilgrimage.

Photos show pilgrims around the Kaabah at the Grand Mosque in the holy city of Makkah, Saudi Arabia. PHOTO: AFP
Tents housing pilgrims are pitched together in Mina, near the holy city of Makkah. PHOTO: AFP

Here is a rundown of the ceremonies at what is usually one of the largest religious gatherings in the world.

Pilgrims must first enter a state of purity, called ihram, which requires special dress and behaviour.

Men wear a seamless shroud-like white garment that emphasises unity among believers regardless of their social status or nationality.

Women must wear loose dresses, also white, exposing only their faces and hands. Pilgrims are not allowed to argue or bicker and are prohibited from wearing perfume, cutting their nails, or trimming their hair or beards.

The first ritual requires walking seven times around the Kaabah, the large black cubic structure at the centre of Makkah’s Grand Mosque.

Made from granite and draped in an heavily-embroidered cloth featuring verses of Al-Quran, the Kaabah stands nearly 15 metres tall. Muslims, no matter where they are in the world, turn towards the Kaabah to pray.

The structure is said to have been first erected by Prophet Adam (pbuh) and then rebuilt by Prophet Ibrahim (pbuh) 4,000 years ago. Pilgrims next walk seven times between two stone spots in the mosque.

They then move on to Mina, around five kilometres away, ahead of the main rite of the pilgrimage at Mount Arafat.

The climax of the haj is the gathering on Mount Arafat, about 10 kilometres from Mina, where it is believed that Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) delivered his final sermon. Pilgrims assemble on the 70-metre high hill and its surrounding plain for hours of prayers and Al-Quran recitations, staying there until the evening.

After sunset they head to Muzdalifah, halfway between Arafat and Mina, where they each gather several dozen pebbles so they can perform the symbolic “stoning of the devil”.

The last major ritual of the haj is back at Mina, where pilgrims throw seven stones at each of three huge concrete walls representing Satan.

The ritual is an emulation of Prophet Ibrahim’s (pbuh) stoning of the devil at the three spots where it is said Satan tried to dissuade him from obeying Allah the Almighty’s order to sacrifice his son, Ismail.

After the first stoning, the Aidiladha feast of sacrifice begins, marking the end of the haj.

Sheep are slaughtered, in reference to the lamb that Allah the Almighty provided for sacrifice instead of Ismail, in a ceremony that is held at the same time around the world.

Men then shave their heads or trim their hair while women cut a fingertip-length off their locks.

The pilgrims can then change back into normal clothing, returning to circumambulate the Kaabah and complete their stone-throwing rituals before heading home.

The haj is the last pillar of Islam. The other four are: profession of the faith, daily prayers, alms-giving and fasting from dawn to dusk during the holy month of Ramadhan.