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The East: Muslims' Hajj Pilgrimage Begins

Prague, 3 April 1998 (RFE/RL) -- This year's Muslim pilgrimage or Hajj has started. The Hajj is regarded as a fundamental tenet of Islam, and every practicing Muslim should make the journey to Mecca and pray at the "Ka'ba," an open-air sacred structure there, at least once during a lifetime.

The traditional pilgrimage predates Islam, having begun as a traditional pilgrimage for Arabs. It might have started as a pagan ritual, but its documented history goes back to the seventh century.

The Arabian peninsula was besieged then by waves of foreign invaders: the Abyssinians, the Sassanians, the Persians and the Romans. The city of Mecca was the only area capable of holding out against the assaults. Arabian tribes often came to the city to use it as a religious sanctuary. During these periods of pilgrimage wars and other disputes were suspended and often the interval was used to settle claims and debts. The major shrine of the city centered around the Ka'ba. Prophet Muhammed was born in Mecca in the Christian year 570. He had his first revelations about the year 610. In 613, after having received the revelation "Rise and warn," Muhammed began his teachings.

In 622 Muhammed made a journey, the "Hijra," to Medina. This event marks year one of the Islamic calendar. It was in Medina That Muhammed defined five "pillars" of Islam: salat (ritual prayer), zakat (almsgiving), Hajj (pilgrimage), the fast of Ramadan and shahada (profession of faith). They have since constituted the main tenets of Islam.

In 628 Muhammed made the journey to the Ka'ba. At the Ka'ba he and a large group of his supporters decided that the pilgrimage there should be a part of Islam. But it was only two years later that Mecca was declared the holiest shrine of Islam.

The Hajj is made during the twelfth lunar month of the year (Ramadan is during the ninth). Pilgrims circle the Ka'ba reciting prayers and when possible touch a black stone situated in the center of the structure and kiss it. Because of the crowds it is not always possible to reach the stone, so in most cases the pilgrims merely face the stone and point to it. Each time a pilgrim passes the stone he must say "Allah is the Greatest."

Toward the end of the Hajj, on the eleventh and twelfth days, the pilgrims spend the nights at Mina and during the afternoons engage in a ritual of stoning the three Jamrah, or rocks representing Satan.

The pilgrims to Mecca should go through a ritual of cleansing themselves. Their heads must be shaven. Prior to entering the region of Mecca regular clothing must be left out and replaced by two unsewn sheets, symbolizing life and death. The faces and heads must not be covered. Once all this is done, it is forbidden for the pilgrim to cut his hair or nails, hunt, or engage in sex until after the sacrifice at Mina is completed.

For centuries the Hajj was beyond the means of most Muslims. Modern transportation has changed that. This year the Saudi Arabian government expects one million of their own citizens to make the Hajj as well as at leas a million of other pilgrims from the countries of the Islamic world.

Limits have been placed on the number of people coming from individual country, with no more than 1,000 pilgrims per million inhabitants of a country allowed.

The Hajj has been marred by tragedies in recent times. An attempt by Iranian pilgrims to hold a political rally during the Hajj in 1987 led to clashes with Saudi Arabian security forces in which 402 people died. In 1990 and 1994 stampedes in tunnels leading to the area caused the deaths of more than 1,500 people. Last year fires in the camps surrounding the holy site caused the deaths of 343 people and injured another 1,500.

But those accidents have not diminished the appeal of making the Hajj. Taking part in the Hajj remains a symbol of special respect in Muslim communities. Every pilgrim making the Hajj earns the title "Al-Hajj" or "Haji."

This year, many pilgrims from the CIS countries are expected to take part in the Hajj. The Saudi king has reportedly invited 1,400 pilgrims from Russia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, promising personally to pay for their visit. Many more are expected to come at their own expense, including more than 2000 from Kyrgyzstan and still more from Uzbekistan.