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The holy journey

AP – Once a year, Muslim pilgrims flowing into Saudi Arabia unite in a series of religious rituals and acts of worship as they perform the haj, one of the pillars of Islam.

As they fulfil a religious obligation, they immerse themselves in what can be a spiritual experience of a lifetime for them and a chance to seek Allah the Almighty’s forgiveness and the erasure of past sins.

Here’s a look at the pilgrimage and its significance to Muslims.

WHAT IS HAJ?

Haj is the annual Islamic pilgrimage to Makkah in Saudi Arabia that is required once in a lifetime of every Muslim who can afford it and is physically able to make it.

Some Muslims make the journey more than once.

Haj is one of the five pillars of Islam, in addition to the profession of faith, prayer, almsgiving and fasting.

WHEN IS HAJ?

The haj occurs once a year during the Islamic lunar month of Zulhijjah, the 12th and final month of the Islamic calendar year. This year, haj will take place this month.

ABOVE & BELOW: Pilgrims pray around the Kaabah during the annual haj pilgrimage in Makkah, Saudi Arabia. PHOTO: AP
PHOTO: AP
ABOVE & BELOW: Pilgrims pray on the rocky hill known as the Mountain of Mercy, on the Plain of Arafat; and water mist is sprayed on the pilgrims as they pray. PHOTO: AP
PHOTO: AP

WHAT’S THE SIGNIFICANCE OF HAJ TO MUSLIMS?

For pilgrims, performing haj fulfils a religious obligation, but it’s also a deeply spiritual experience of a lifetime for many.

It’s seen as a chance to seek Allah the Almighty’s forgiveness for past sins, to grow closer to Allah the Almighty’s and to walk in the footsteps of prophets.

Communally, haj unites Muslims of diverse races, ethnicities, languages and economic classes from around the world in performing religious rituals and acts of worshipping Allah the Almighty at the same time and place. That leaves many feeling a sense of unity, connection, humility and equality. Pilgrims also show up with their own personal appeals, wishes and experiences. Many pilgrims bring with them prayer requests from family and friends that they would like to be said on their behalf.

Some spend years hoping and praying to one day perform haj or saving up money and waiting for a permit to embark on the trip.

In 2019, nearly 2.5 million Muslims performed haj before the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted religious and other gatherings the world over and took its toll on the Islamic pilgrimage.

Last year’s haj was the first to be held without COVID-19 restrictions since the start of the pandemic in 2020.Ahead of the journey, preparations may include packing various essentials for the physically demanding trip, seeking tips from those who’ve performed the pilgrimage before, attending lectures or consuming other educational material on how to properly perform a series of haj rituals as well as spiritually readying oneself.

At times, pilgrims brave intense heat or other challenging conditions during the pilgrimage.

WHAT ARE SOME OF THE RITUALS THAT PILGRIMS PERFORM?

Pilgrims make the intention to perform haj and they enter a state of ihram.

Being in ihram includes abiding by certain rules and prohibitions. For instance, men are not to wear regular sewn or stitched clothes that encircle the body, such as shirts, during ihram; there are simple ihram cloth garments for men instead. Scholars say the intention is to discard luxuries and vanity, shed worldly status symbols and immerse the pilgrim in humility and devotion to Allah the Almighty.

A spiritual highlight of haj for many is the standing on the plain of Arafat, where pilgrims praise Allah the Almighty, plead for forgiveness and make supplications.

Other rituals include performing tawaf circumambulating, or circling the Kaabah in Makkah counterclockwise seven times.

Among other rituals, pilgrims throw pebbles in a symbolic stoning of the devil.

WHAT IS AIDILADHA?

Aidiladha, or the Feast of Sacrifice, is the Islamic holiday that begins on the 10th day of the Islamic lunar month of Zulhijjah, during haj.

Celebrated by Muslims around the world, Aidiladha marks Prophet Ibrahim’s (pbuh) test of faith and his willingness to sacrifice his son as an act of submission to Allah the Almighty.

During the festive holiday, Muslims slaughter sheep or cattle and distribute some meat to the poor.

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