More than two million Muslims on Friday began the annual Muslim pilgrimage- “Hajj” - one of the five pillars of Islam, as the host country seeks to deter politicization of the pilgrimage amid simmering Gulf tension.
Hundreds of thousands of Muslims across the globe had arrived in Saudi Arabia by land, air and by sea by Wednesday, according to Saudi officials, to take part in a five-day religious journey, a once in a lifetime obligation for capable Muslims.
This year the Saudi king has invited the survivors and relatives of Christchurch victims of the New Zealand mosque attack on March 2019.
Also, hajj visas for DR Congo were suspended by Saudi administration over the fear of Ebola.
Knowing the 'Hajj'
Hajj, a physically demanding journey that Muslims believe offers a chance to wipe clean past sins and start anew before God.
It takes place during Dhul al-Hijjah, the final lunar month of the Islamic year.
All Muslims who are physically and financially able are expected to make the journey to Mecca and Madina at least once in their lifetime.
Those who take part wear simple clothing as a sign of purity and equality, is considered a unifying ritual for Muslims of all sects and nationalities. For men, it’s customary to wear a white, seamless draping garment, while women wear loose-fitting clothing and a headscarf, often white.
On the first day, pilgrims circle the Kaaba, the black-and-gold cube-shape structure at the centre of the Great Mosque where worshipers around the world direct their prayers five times a day, walk counterclockwise around it seven times.
On the second day after spending the night in the massive valley of Mina, the pilgrims head to Mount Arafat, some 20 kilometres (12 miles) east of Mecca, for the pinnacle of the pilgrimage where they ask for forgiveness for their sins.
The last three days of the hajj are marked by three events: a final circling of the Kaaba, casting stones in Mina and removing the ihram. Men often shave their heads and women clip a lock of hair at the end in a sign of renewal.
The final days of hajj coincide with Eid al-Adha, or the festival of sacrifice, celebrated by Muslims around the world to commemorate Ibrahim's test of faith. During the three-day Eid, Muslims slaughter livestock and distribute the meat to the poor.
The historical backdrop
While following a route the Prophet Muhammad once walked, Muslims trace the rites of hajj back to the prophets Ibrahim and Ismail, or Abraham and Ishmael as they are named in the Bible.
Muslims believe Ibrahim's faith was tested when God commanded him to sacrifice his only son Ismail. Ibrahim was prepared to submit to the command, but then God stayed his hand, sparing his son. In the Christian and Jewish version of the story, Abraham is ordered to kill his other son, Isaac.
Pilgrims also trace the path of Ibrahim's wife, Hagar, who Muslims believe ran between two hills seven times searching for water for her dying son. Tradition holds that God then brought forth a spring that runs to this day.
In 632 CE, shortly before the death of Muhammad performed his only and last pilgrimage with a large number of followers, and taught them the rites of the Hajj and the manners of performing them. In the plain of Arafat, he delivered a famous speech – known as The Farewell Sermon – to those who were present there.
Since then Hajj became one of the five pillars of Islam that were made compulsory on 9th Hijri (Dhul al-Hijjah).
Some interesting facts
Half a million pilgrims are from Southeastern Asia
More than half a million of them usually come from Indonesia, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.
The number of pilgrims entering the holy city, whose entry is exclusively allowed to Muslims, is strictly supervised by the Saudi authorities who impose country quotas relying on the number of Muslims living there. This year, the Saudi government have announced that the largest contingents come from Egypt, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sudan.
80% of the pilgrims are not Arabic speakers
The supervision of the pilgrims and their orientation in the various places where they must go during 5- to 6-day-long pilgrimage represents a major challenge for the Saudi authorities. Alongside the 60,000 security agents and the 22,000 medical and paramedical staff deployed, many translators are present to cover a dozen languages in total. In addition, the event is now supervised by digital and high technologies with e plethora of applications developed to provide instructions and lead visitors to services such as emergency care.
20 million pilgrims by 2020
Thanks to the democratization of transport, they are always they are more and more to gather under torrid temperatures exceeding on average 40°C. Given that each foreign pilgrim spends an average of $4,500, religious tourism is the country’s second-largest source of income, after oil. Adding the Hajj and Umrah – the small pilgrimage -, Saudi Arabia welcomes nearly 9 million pilgrims each year, a figure that could reach 20 million by 2002 with revenues estimated at nearly $90 billion for the country.
The door of the Kaaba
The Kaaba’s then gold-and-silver door went through several changes over the years. It took three years to build this particular door, which had a metal base, with two wooden shutters fixed on its surface. It was decorated with silver and copper and plated with gold.
A pre-islamic tradition
This tradition goes back to the pre-Islamic period where Kaaba was still the centre of their worship for the pagan Arabs. The present pattern of the Islamic Hajj was established by Prophet Muhammad, around 632 CE, who made reforms to the pre-Islamic pilgrimage of the pagan Arabs. During the medieval times, pilgrims would gather in chief cities like Basra, Damascus, and Cairo to go to Mecca in groups and caravans comprising tens of thousands of pilgrims.
1987 - More than 400 people, mainly Iranian Shiite pilgrims, are killed in clashes with Saudi security forces during anti-Western protests in Mecca.
1990 - 1,426 pilgrims are trampled to death.
1994 - A stampede near Jamarat Bridge kills 270 pilgrims.
April 1997 - A fire in Mina, Saudi Arabia, tears through a sprawling, overcrowded tent city, trapping and killing more than 340 pilgrims and injuring 1,500.
1998 - One hundred eighty people die in a stampede near Mecca at the end of Hajj.
February 1, 2004 - A stampede kills 251 Muslim pilgrims and injures 244 more at a stone-throwing ritual which has been the source of deadly trampling in the past.
January 5, 2006 - A small hotel in Mecca collapses, killing at least 76 people. The hotel, Luluat Alkheir, is occupied by Asian pilgrims when it collapses.
January 12, 2006 - A stampede kills at least 363 people. The stampede, like others in the past, happens during the stone-throwing ritual in which the pilgrims stone a symbolic devil.
September 11, 2015 - Days before the start of the Hajj, 107 people are killed when a powerful storm topples a construction crane, sending it crashing through the roof of the Grand Mosque in Mecca. At least 238 others are injured, according to the nation's civil defence authorities. The Grand Mosque is the largest in the world and surrounds the Kaaba.
September 24, 2015 - During the annual Hajj pilgrimage, a stampede kills more than 700 people and injures nearly 900 others, according to state media. The incident occurs during the ritual known as "stoning the devil" in the tent city of Mina.
May 30, 2016 - Iran bars its pilgrims from travelling to Mecca to take part in the Hajj pilgrimage after accusing Saudi Arabia of failing to guarantee the safety of its citizens.