A sea of pilgrims descends upon Islam’s holiest city of Makkah once every year. All the men are dressed in two pieces of white cloth and the idea is that one should not be able to tell a prince from a pauper.
“Hajj is a pilgrimage which shows we are one nation, bound by religion,” said Dr. Bilal Philips, founder of the Qatar-based Islamic Online University.
“It provides us with a universalist view of mankind,” added Philips, a Jamaican convert who studied at the renowned Umm-al-Qura Islamic University in Makkah.
Infographic: The Ka'aba
Hajj, attended by millions of pilgrims each year, is the fifth and final pillar of Islam. It takes place in the month of Dhul Hijjah which is the 12th month of the Islamic lunar calendar.
The pilgrimage is obligatory for all Muslims once in their lifetime. However, “there are two conditions,” explained Dr. Tarak Abdallah, associate professor and assistant director of the Institute for Islamic World Studies in Dubai’s Zayed University.
“The first is that you must be physically able and the second is that you must be financially able.”
During the religious event, those Muslims who make the journey are required to spend five days in the desert surrounding the city of Makkah in modern-day Saudi Arabia. They travel between specified points to perform rites laid down in Islam’s holy book, the Quran.
These rites commemorate the life of Prophet Ibrahim, or Abraham, who built Islam’s most revered structure, the Ka’aba, with his son Ismail, said Mohammad Alkobaisi, grand mufti in Dubai’s Ministry of Islamic Affairs and presenter of Dubai One TV show “Understanding Islam.”
Of special significance is the story commemorated by the celebration of Eid-al-Ahda, which marks the end of Hajj.
Many Muslims believe Ibrahim was ordered by God to sacrifice his son. As the prophet was about to do so, God stopped him and sent an animal to be slaughtered instead.
“Ibrahim was dedicated in his relationship with Allah as was his son Ismail and they were willing to make the greatest sacrifice necessary,” Abdul Nasir Jangda, founder and director of the U.S.-based Qalam Institute, told Al Arabiya News.
On the other hand, “today we’ve become very comfortable and unwilling to even slightly inconvenience ourselves for the sake of our relationship with [God] and in the struggle for spirituality,” that is why performing Hajj is so important, he explains.
It is a struggle, it is difficult, adds Abdallah.
“That is why it is significant, it teaches a person patience. It also gives a person the change to be absolved of his sins, to restart life.”
He is referring to a hadith, or saying, of Islam’s Prophet Mohammad.
Infographic: The grand mosque
Infographic: The grand mosque
“Whoever performs Hajj, only for the sake of Allah (God) and does not have sexual relations with his wife [during Hajj], and does not do evil or commit sins, then he will return [after Hajj free from all sins] as if he were born anew,” reads a written record of the hadith collected by Persian Muslim scholar Muhammad al-Bukhari during the 9th century.
“Hajj, if performed properly, is like a shower, it washes the dirt off,” Abdallah states.
However, the professor cautions pilgrims saying: “it is what happens after this shower that matters. Do you go home and go straight back to your bad ways?”
He said Hajj “recharges you.”
“Imagine you are a mobile phone and your battery of piousness and faith is dipping, Hajj jumpstarts your battery. It is an opportunity to go back out into the world refreshed and continue strengthening your faith.”
Hajj also reminds you to be kind, explains Abdallah.
“That is why we sacrifice an animal during Hajj,” he said, referring to the obligatory slaughter of a goat or sheep on the 10th of Dhul Hijja.
“The meat must be distributed among the needy; this sense of humanity and solidarity with all sections of society is a crucial lesson of the pilgrimage.”