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Middle East: The Hajj -- Its History, Rituals, And Meaning

By Mohammad Khalaji Every year, Islamic pilgrims converge on the Saudi holy city of Mecca for what is considered to be the world's largest single gathering of human beings -- the annual hajj pilgrimage, the fifth and final pillar of Islam. Hajj literally means "to set out for a place," and every able-bodied Muslim with the means to do so is expected to make the pilgrimage at least once in their lifetime, traditionally after first settling all their wordly affairs.

Prague, 3 January 2006 (RFE/RL) -- The hajj brings together the entire spectrum of Islam. Pilgrims dress in simple white sheets called "ihram," an act intended to erase all signs of class and culture -- allowing merchants and prime ministers, the rich and the poor, pacifists and extremists to worship as equals.

One of the first rituals of the hajj -- and also the last -- is called the "tawaf," or the turning. A sea of humanity circles counterclockwise seven times around the cube-shaped building at the center of the Grand Mosque in Mecca. That central structure is the Kaaba, the House of Allah, the holiest shrine of Islam, toward which Muslims face when they pray, wherever they are in the world. According to Islamic tradition, the Kaaba was built by the Prophet Ibrahim (Abraham) and his son, Ismail, and contains the Black Stone, which the faithful say was brought to Earth by the angel Jibril, the Muslim name for the Archangel Gabriel.

Many religious scholars say the hajj has always been a purely religious ritual. But some Koranic scholars also believe trading and business are functions of the hajj pilgrimage -- particularly in Mecca, long considered a town of commerce. Despite being the most communal ritual in Islam, the hajj pilgrimage cannot, of course, be devoid of political elements, as well.

"The hajj pilgrimage per se has been a purely religious issue that dates back to the ancient Arab tradition founded by the Prophet Abraham," said Rizwan al-Sayyid, a professor of history at Lebanon University in Beirut. "Therefore, one cannot say that the hajj pilgrimage in the time of the prophet of Islam contained deliberate political objectives. However, after the prophet conquered Mecca, one can say that the hajj found political and social implications which have to do with the unity of the Islamic ummah [community of believers]."

Yet, to what extent does the hajj reflect the unity of Muslims?

"Although a sense of belonging to a vast community like the Islamic ummah enhances the idea of Muslim unity, this unity is very much a pretension, because in reality, the Islamic ummah is increasingly losing its integrity and suffers from political and even religious diversities and divisions," said Borhan Ghalyoon, a professor of sociology at Sorbonne University in Paris.

The 19th century was marked by the colonization of many Islamic countries and the beginning of the crisis within the Ottoman Empire. During this time, a number of Muslim scholars and writers tried to turn the hajj into a political event by having pilgrims express en masse their resistance to the military and political power of the West. However, with the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in the early 20th century and the gradual independence of Islamic countries after World War II, the idea of Mecca becoming the capital of the communal power of Muslims failed.

"With the domination of the Saud dynasty and the formation of Saudi Arabia, efforts to turn the hajj pilgrimage into a political congress was confined to the framework of countries and lost its legitimacy," said al-Sayyid. "Again, the hajj pilgrimage returned to its religious nature, devoid of any political or cultural meaning."

In the 1970s and '80s, analysts say states such as Iran attempted to turn the hajj into an exhibition of protest against the United States. However, as Borhan Ghalyoon noted, security measures taken by Saudi Arabia, which enjoyed good relations with the United States, foiled any such attempts. Anti-Western movements were prevented from using Mecca and the hajj for their political goals.

"I think all Islamist movements -- not Muslims -- that is, those who defend the thesis of an Islamic state or revolution, particularly the movement of [Ayatollah Ruhollah] Khomeini, tend to give a political interpretation to religious rituals," said Ghalyoon. "However, before anything else, it was the Saudi state itself that combated this trend and prevented the formation of a political demonstration during the time of the hajj pilgrimage. And then it was the consensus of Islamic countries, who did not want the rituals of the hajj to be turned into a political demonstration."

Ayatollah Sayyid Abulqasim Dibaji is Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani's representative in Kuwait. Dibaji, who is also performing the hajj this year, said the hajj should be a ritual that conveys the message of peace, nonviolence, and the oneness of human beings, regardless of their culture, race, language, or social status.

"[I]n one valley, more than 1 million people will stand side by side and not a single drop of blood will be shed. This is the highest expression of a love that is created in the heart," Dibaji said. "All these people wear the same clothes and have only one slogan -- 'Labbayk, Allahomma Labbayk. ['I accept thee, oh Lord, I accept thee.'] Oh God, you invited us. Now we have come. You ordered us to attend here with bare heads and bare feet. We do not even know each other's language.' In the hajj pilgrimage, it is the human beings who send and receive messages of love and affection."

The other hajj rituals include the Sa'i -- traveling seven times between the Marwah and Safah hills. This commemorates the search for water in the desert by the Prophet Ibrahim's wife, Hagar, after she was left alone with the baby, Ismail. Pilgrims also visit Mount Arafat, where Mohammad delivered his last sermon in the year the 632 A.D., three months before his death. At Mount Arafat, Muslims come to ask God for forgiveness and to reaffirm their faith, in the zenith of the hajj rituals.

The travelers will also visit the Valley of Mina, where they will take part in the three-day stoning of the three pillars representing the devil, called Jamrah. Stoning the pillars represents Satan being driven off by the Prophet Ibrahim, his wife, and his son, Ismail. The people throw the stones to symbolically ward off their own temptations.

The stoning of the pillars is followed by the slaughter of an animal, usually a sheep, to mark the beginning of a three-day holiday called Eid al-Adha, or Feast of Sacrifice. This feast is observed by Muslims around the world. To complete the hajj, everyone must perform the tawaf around the Kaaba one last time on the fifth day.