Saudi Arabia is expecting more than 2 million pilgrims to visit the country this year for the annual hajj pilgrimage to Mecca. More than half of the pilgrims are already there. The peak of the Muslim religious rites comes on 10 February, when worshippers climb nearby Mount Arafat, where the prophet Muhammad preached his last sermon. RFE/RL reports that modern transportation and ancient piety combine increasingly to make the hajj both a worldwide unifying force for Islam and a management challenge for the Saudis.
Prague, 5 February 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Making the hajj, the annual pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia, is a religious duty to be performed by every able Muslim at least once in his or her life. It is also a powerful unifying force for the 1.2 billion people who make up the world's second-largest religion.
Although the peak of this year's hajj comes on 10 February, Saudi officials say 1.2 million pilgrims have already arrived in the country and another million are expected.
Devout followers of Islam must openly profess their faith, pray five times a day, give alms, and fast from dawn to dusk during the holy month of Ramadan. Those that are physically and economically able must also make the hajj at least once.
The pilgrimage is an essential aspect of a Muslim believer's religious duties. But, as two-time Kyrgyz pilgrim Hajji (Hajji is the title for anyone who has made the pilgrimage) Abdyjapar Alymsak-uulu told our correspondent, the pilgrimage is also central to a Muslim's secular life. "The hajj plays a big role in growing up, because when you make the pilgrimage it does not matter where you work or what kind of profession you have. When you wear the ikram [a special garment for hajj pilgrims], it doesn't matter whether the person is poor, wealthy, or a king. Everybody is equal," Alymsak-uulu said.
The prophet Muhammad established Islam 14 centuries ago in what is now Saudi Arabia. Since then, the faith has spread from West Africa to the Philippines along a band encompassing East Africa, Central Asia and western China, Malaysia, and Indochina. It has 4.5 million followers in North America and nearly 32 million in Europe.
Like Christianity, the world's largest religion, Islam is not a monolith. It has two major divisions: the majority Sunni and the smaller Shia. Within these divisions, there are various permutations, from the ultraconservative Wahhabis of Saudi Arabia and the highly politicized bodies, such as the Taliban, Afghanistan's former ruling militia, to groups elsewhere distinguished by their casual observance of the faith.
In the early centuries of Islam, the pilgrimage to Mecca was only for those few within reasonable reach of Mecca or for unusually hardy souls who could afford the months and resources required to trek on foot and by camel caravan to the Arabian desert kingdom. But with the immense growth of Islam and the advent of highways and airliners, the number of pilgrims has grown from thousands to hundreds of thousands to millions. The hajj has emerged as a major unifying force within Islam.
Typical is the group of 280 Kazakh Muslims who left this week from Almaty airport on a flight arranged by Kazakhstan's Department of Religion and the Kazakh Sputnik Travel Agency. The oil-rich Saudi Arabian government annually subsidizes travel to Mecca for Muslims from around the world, but this Kazakh group is one of many paying its own way. It is but one of the trickles that grow into a torrent of Muslim travelers from around the world.
Cleric Bagdad Adukarimov, the naib (deputy) imam of the Central Mosque in the Kazakh capital Astana, emphasized the spiritual focus of the hajj. "In Islam, the hajj pilgrimage is one of the five most important duties. Every Muslim who can afford the pilgrimage in terms of finance and health should go to the holy places of Mecca and Medina at least once in his lifetime. By going there, a Muslim purifies himself from all the sins and misdeeds made intentionally or unintentionally in the past," Adukarimov said.
The Prophet Muhammad established the highly symbolic customs of the hajj as it is practiced today. But Islamic writings teach that the pilgrimage to Mecca itself dates to the prophet Abraham, the father of humanity in ancient Jewish scripture. Islamic teachings say that in the centuries after Abraham, idolatry and pagan customs contaminated the hajj. Muhammad's reforms abolished the false practices.
One symbolic rite of the hajj occurs when the pilgrims gather at Mina to cast stones at three pillars representing Satan's three failed efforts to tempt Abraham to defy God's -- or to Muslims, Allah's -- commandments. This ceremony also typifies one of the modern problems of the hajj. The crush of pilgrims seeking to stone Satan has grown so severe that the Saudis have had to create extensive infrastructure and to adopt stringent crowd-control regulations, as they have everywhere else in the holy region.
(RFE/RL's Kyrgyz and Kazakh services contributed to this report.)