Umrah and Hajj explained: Your simple guide to Islam’s pilgrimages

The fifth pillar of Islam, Hajj, or the act "to make pilgrimage," is a mandatory religious duty for Muslims

Shounaz Meky - Al Arabiya English
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Umrah is an Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca that can be made year-round. Mu’tamars, or pilgrims, travel to Islam’s holiest sites in Saudi Arabia from around the world to perform religious rites.

The Islamic ritual of Hajj, the Arabic word for pilgrimage, occurs once a year and lasts for five or six days during the last month of the Islamic calendar.

Read more: Saudi Arabia halts entry for Umrah in Mecca, tourism from coronavirus-hit states

This year, Hajj is set for July 28-August 2 this year. Unlike Hajj, Umrah is not compulsory for Muslims, but millions of Muslims make the trip annually.

The majority of external pilgrims last year were from Pakistan, Indonesia, India, Malaysia, and Turkey.

Saudi Arabia reported they issued 1.6 million Umrah visas through 2019 until early December of that year and hosted 1.3 million Umrah pilgrims. There are 1.2 billion Muslims worldwide.

While Saudi Arabia has recently revised its male guardianship system, for Umrah, only women over 45 years of age are allowed make the pilgrimage unaccompanied.

Two-week visas that are free to obtain are issued for Umrah, and the visa cannot extend beyond the last day of Ramadan. Visitors must leave before Eid al-Fitr.

Adult Muslims are required to perform Hajj at least once in lifetime if they have the physical and financial ability.

During, pilgrims follow the footsteps of Prophet Ibrahim and his family, said Ridwan al-Sayed, professor of Islamic studies at the Lebanese University in Beirut.


“Prophet Ibrahim preached the oneness of God, a message that was later revived and renewed by the last of all Prophets, Muhammad (peace be upon him),” Sayed told Al Arabiya English.

“Ibrahim, along with his son Ismail built the Kaaba in the holy city of Mecca. And accordingly, this pillar reflects the notion of complete submission to Allah and the Abrahamic faith.”

For many pilgrims, Hajj is perceived to be a journey of the body and the soul at the same time.

The first day of Hajj is 8 Zil Hijjah, the last month of the Islamic calendar. The holy journey requires the pilgrim to perform ten rituals before and during Hajj.

Here are the basic steps you may want to know about Hajj:

State of Ihram: This is considered the first step for any pilgrim wishing to perform Hajj. To enter the state of Ihram, a pilgrim has to recite an intention to perform hajj called the Talabiya. This is when a pilgrim prepares one’s soul, mind and body for journey to the Almighty God. Entering the stage begins from the Miqat, or a place that is outside the pilgrimage area.

Men and women going on Hajj adhere to a specific dress code which is aimed at showing modesty and shedding all signs of wealth. Men don unstitched white garments, while women wear normal stitched clothes and a headscarf. Women are forbidden however from wearing the burqa or niqab.

In fact, the word Ihram originates from the Arabic term Tahreem, which means prohibited. Because the state is believed to have a special essence of spiritual purity, there are certain acts that are not allowed for pilgrims. Among them are using perfumes, cutting hair or nails, and slaughtering animals.

Mecca: The Saudi Arabian city is considered Islam’s holiest site, as it holds al-Masjid al-Haram or the Grand Mosque that surrounds the Kaaba, a cuboid shaped building which Muslims believe has been put up together by Prophet Ibrahim and his son Ismail almost 4, 000 years ago.


Muslims call the Kaaba “the house of God” and are expected to face the direction of Mecca when praying in any part of the world.

Tawaf: Upon arrival to Mecca, pilgrims should make Tawaf or circumambulation. It is considered an integral part of the pilgrimage, and refers to the seven times pilgrims circle around the Kaaba at the beginning, during and at the end of Hajj.

The circuits are done in a counter-clockwise direction and are thought to express the unity between Muslims in worshipping one God. The rotations are marked by al-Hajar al-Aswad, or the Black Stone at the eastern corner of the Kabaa.

Sa’ey: To traverse the distance between the hills of Safa and Marwah for seven times, this is what is called Sa’ey. The term in Arabic means to walk or move quickly.

After Tawaf, pilgrims perform Sa’ey, in what commemorates the journey by Prophet Ibrahim’s wife to find water for her infant prophet Ismail, after they were left in the desert of Mecca at God’s command. The hills are now enclosed by the Grand Mosque.

Departure to Mina: Pilgrims proceed to the tent city of Mina on the first day of Hajj or what is called the day of Tarwiah. They converge to Mina for prayer, which lies roughly eight kilometers away from Mecca. Pilgrims are required to remain in Mina until the sunrise of the second day of Hajj, where they leave to Arafat.

They pay another trip to Mina on the third day of Hajj to perform the symbolic stoning of the devil, the sixth rite of Hajj.

Mount Arafat: After the dawn prayers in Mina, pilgrims start their journey to the desert planes of Arafat. Dubbed as the “most important day of Hajj,” Muslims spend the day of Arafat in the vicinity of the mountain, praying and repenting.


The rituals of this day end at sunset, when pilgrims move to Muzdalifah.

Muzdalifah: After descending from Arafat, pilgrims arrive to the open land of Muzdalifah, southeast of Mina. People gather in makeshift tents and are required to perform Maghrib and Isha prayers. It is also considered the best place to collect pebbles for Ramy al-Jamarat.

Ramy al-Jamarat: The symbolic stoning of the devil, where pilgrims fling pebbles, called jamarat, at three walls, in the city of Mina. The stoning marks the third day of Hajj or Eid al-Adha.

Eid al-Adha: The Eid al-Adha festival, or the Feast of Sacrifice, is celebrated by Muslims who are not on pilgrimage by slaughtering animals to mark Prophet Ibrahim’s willingness to sacrifice his son Ismail upon the command of God.

Pilgrims spend the three days of Eid stoning pillars that represent the devil.

They later purchase tokens to have a sheep slaughtered in the Mecca neighbourhood of Mina.



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