Prague, 10 January 2006 (RFE/RL) -- After spending the whole of yesterday (9 January) on Mount Arafat in prayer and meditation, some 2.5 million Muslim pilgrims who collected seven pebbles on the slopes of Muzdalifah hill, walked to the jamaraat in the early morning today.
Stoning the jamaraat, or three pillars symbolizing the devil, means cleansing and purification for hajjis.
Faisal Ali, an editor with "Arab News," Saudi Arabia's main English-language daily, was there and described the scene in a telephone interview with RFE/RL: "Thousands of people from all directions are heading toward the bridge of jamaraat, the bridge that symbolizes Satan. As of now, there [has been] no incident. No incidents have been reported. We arrived there, and people are coming from every direction. They are stoning the jamaraat, they are stoning the Satan, which is a symbolic ritual of cleansing, and [they are] moving toward the other direction to go back to their camp."
Stoning the pillars has been the riskiest part of all the hajj rituals as stampedes often start when surging crowds cross the jamaraat bridge leading to the pillars and approach the pillars themselves.
The pilgrimage has been marred by tragedies in recent years. More than 250 people were killed in a stampede in 2004, and almost 1,500 were trampled to death in 1990.
"[It is] so beautiful, it is a unique experience to see that many millions of people are here, everybody in peace and love and joy. You don't see a single case of conflict amongst all these people here." -- American hajji
Saudi authorities have attempted to improve the situation around the pillars. Last year, the pillars were made wider to facilitate the stoning.
This year, further improvements have been made. Faisal Ali said they can easily be noticed as all types of squatters and shops were removed from the site, and only pilgrims were allowed to go there. Buses and vehicles were blocked in that area to ensure a smooth passage of pilgrims stoning the jamaraat.
Saudi authorities also deployed 60,000 security personnel in an effort to avoid deadly stampedes or other problems.
After the challenging stoning ritual, hajjis walk to Mecca, about 1.5 kilometers away. There, pilgrims sacrifice sheep or other animals to commemorate Ibrahim’s (Abraham's) willingness to sacrifice his son Ismail (Ishmael) at God's command.
As written in the Old Testament, God substituted a ram or sheep for the boy. So, throughout the world, millions of sheep and goats are sacrificed, and the meat is usually given as a gift to those in need.
Over a million sheep are imported to Saudi Arabia for slaughter during the hajj alone. Today, the sheep market south of the Saudi capital Riyadh was packed with hundreds of trucks carrying different varieties of sheep.
Those who are not willing to kill an animal but want to make a sacrifice to God can buy coupons, and government-assigned butchers will do the sacrifice on their behalf. Today at 10 a.m. Saudi time was the deadline for making a sacrifice.
Then, Muslims changed from ihram -- the simple white cloths they wear during much of the hajj -- to ordinary clothes. Male pilgrims shaved their heads, women cut off a lock of their hair. This is a symbol of rebirth, signifying that their sins have been cleansed by completion of the hajj.
After that, they headed to perform the hajj’s final tawaf, or the walking around the Kaaba, the large stone structure inside the Grand Mosque in Mecca that Muslims face during their five daily prayers.
The human sea flowed around the Kaaba to celebrate the beginning of Eid Al-Adha, or the Feast of the Sacrifice.
In spite of the physical hardships, pilgrims who complete the hajj consider it one of the greatest spiritual experiences of their lives.
Muslims regard the hajj as one of the great achievements of civilization, because it brings together people from all parts of the world and focuses them upon a single goal -- completing the fifth obligation of every able-bodied Muslim.
Muhammad Elahi, a hajji from the United States, said: "[It is] so beautiful, it is a unique experience to see that many millions of people are here, everybody in peace and love and joy. You don't see a single case of conflict amongst all these people here."
Eid Al-Adha, a three-day holiday, is a time of giving and sharing for Muslims around the world. Non-pilgrims observe the holiday by gathering for congregational prayers and by giving alms to the needy.
Muslim clerics use prayers to address topical issues. A top Saudi cleric, Sheikh Abd al-Rahman al-Sudeis, spoke to pilgrims in Mecca today.
The state-appointed preacher at the Grand Mosque in Mecca said that the West was using the global phenomenon of terrorism to scare people away from Islam and discredit legitimate Muslim causes. "The campaign against Islam has become fierce and Muslims are being described in insulting terms to distort the image of Islam and scare people away from it," he told pilgrims in a sermon.
He also called for stability in Iraq and said Islam was innocent of the charge of "terrorism."
World leaders congratulated Muslims on the holiday today. In Moscow, Russian President Vladimir Putin said Eid Al-Adha is a reminder of Islam's positive traditions. In a greeting issued by the Kremlin, Putin also spoke of the need to "jointly oppose extremism."
Click on the map for an enlarged image.
THE HAJJ: 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...(more)