MAKKAH, SAUDI ARABIA (AFP) – The annual Haj pilgrimage, one of the five pillars of Islam, will start today with one million vaccinated Muslims from around the world allowed to take part this year.
In 2019, some 2.5 million pilgrims from around the world participated.
But then the coronavirus outbreak forced Saudi authorities to dramatically downsize the Haj, and just 60,000 fully vaccinated citizens and residents of the kingdom took part in 2021 up from a few thousands in 2020.
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.
Here is a rundown of the ceremonies at what would usually be 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, regardless of 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 a heavily-embroidered cloth featuring verses of Al-Quran, the Kaabah stands nearly 15 metres tall.
Muslims turn towards the Kaabah to pray, no matter where they are in the world.
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 Arafah, 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 Arafah and Mina, where they 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 the devil.
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, 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 during Ramadhan.