Prague, 18 January 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Nineteen-year-old Islam Shoev, a student from Dushanbe, is one of thousands of young Muslims who are performing the hajj, which began today.
Shoev spoke to RFE/RL from the holy city of Mecca: "I pay my religious debt to God. I perform my duty, and I would like to be a [better] person. I have started praying, by the way."
The hajj is one of the key requirements of the Muslim faith. Adults must perform the hajj at least once in their lifetime, if health and means permit.
Faisal Ali is an editor with "Arab News," Saudi Arabia's main English-language daily. Although there are no statistics available, Ali believes the number of young Muslims traveling to Mecca is increasing.
"This is what I see every day, in every flight when I go to the airport, when I go to visit the places where hajjis have been accommodated, I find a lot of younger faces, younger people living there," Ali said. "And today I have seen a lot of younger hajjis coming out of the train. And you'd be surprised to know that even from countries like Turkey younger hajjis are coming in large numbers, but particularly the number is pretty high from the Arab world."
Mona Siddiqui, director of the Center for the Study of Islam at the University of Glasgow in Scotland, confirmed that there does seem to be increasing numbers of young people -- in their mid-20s to mid-30s -- performing the hajj.
"In traditional terms, it was seen as something that you try and do once in your lifetime," Siddiqui said. "And so, therefore, for lot of people it meant that you do it perhaps in later years, or you do it when your children are older, when you have many of your personal and economic commitments out of the way. But for a lot of younger people now, they don't see this as something that should be deferred. They see it as an intrinsic part of their piety and devotion and worship."
Adults must perform the hajj at least once in their lifetime, if health and means permit.
For many young Muslims, traveling to the birthplace of Islam and performing the hajj rituals is a way of getting closer to their faith. Many believe the hajj will make them a more spiritual person throughout their lives.
"The saying is that if you do your hajj with the right intention, then it can be a life-transforming event. So for most people, they're going to God's house," Siddiqui said. "They're going to all the holiest sites within the Muslim faith, and for them that spiritual experience -- as well as that whole mental focus -- on the fact that they're going on this journey and they're going to perform the hajj, and if they do it well, they will come out the other end perhaps a more cleansed person."
Ali of "Arab News" believes that factors such as the war in Iraq and the ongoing crisis in the Middle East also contribute to the desire of young Muslims to go on this most spiritual of journeys.
"After the attack of Iraq and the attack on Afghanistan and due to persisting problems in the Middle East, people are in dismay," Ali said. "They don't feel anyone is coming to their support, so they are looking towards Allah for support and [help in] resolving their issues."
The cost of traveling to the hajj is around 1,000 to 2,000 euros, depending on the country of origin.
Dushanbe student Shoev is one of the lucky ones. Many young people in Central Asia, where poverty and unemployment are widespread, do not have the financial means to make the pilgrimage.
"It is crucial to go to the hajj. It is the way to purify yourself from sin," said 18-year-old Aibar Anarbekov, a first-year student at Almaty State University. "If the state could support us financially, many young people would go [to the hajj], because everybody who considers himself a Muslim and prays five times a day should go there."
Some 80,000 to 90,000 Muslims from Iran are expected in Mecca this year for the hajj. But 25-year-old Kazem from Tehran said the numbers could be even higher. He said strict enforcement of Islamic law in Iran is turning many young people away from religion.
"Due to the current economic situation and young people's view on events, they don't have a real interest [in going on the hajj]," Kazem said. "Maybe they don't even think about it. They probably have a greater interest in visiting European countries than going to Mecca. Or they have so many financial problems that they don't even think about [going on the hajj]."
Saudi Hajj Minister Iyad Madani said that 1.6 million pilgrims are expected from abroad this year, in addition to 500,000 from within Saudi Arabia itself.
(RFE/RL's Kazakh and Tajik services contributed to this report.)