Among the some 2 million Muslim pilgrims that converged on Mount Arafat in Saudi Arabia today for the high point of the annual hajj were thousands of people from the Caucasus and Central Asia.
Prague, 10 February 2003 (RFE/RL) -- An estimated 2 million Muslim pilgrims converged on Mount Arafat in Saudi Arabia today for the climax of the yearly hajj pilgrimage.
Saudi Arabia's grand mufti, Sheikh Abdul Aziz al-Sheikh, delivered a sermon on Mount Arafat before midday prayers. He warned pilgrims against "enemies" of Islam, saying Muslims cannot be defeated by military might as long as they remain steadfast in their faith.
He said Islam is passing through a crucial phase but avoided directly specifying Islam's enemies or making reference to a possible U.S.-led attack on Iraq. He said "the enemy has exposed its fangs and is fighting our religion and is doing its best to drive Muslims away from their religion."
Official figures indicate that about 1.4 million pilgrims have come from outside Saudi Arabia for this year's hajj, with up to 800,000 arriving from various parts of the kingdom.
According to Islamic teaching, the hajj, or annual pilgrimage to Mecca, is a spiritual obligation that cleanses the soul and wins absolution. Every Muslim who is physically and financially able to perform the journey is expected to do so at least once in his or her lifetime.
Praying at Mount Arafat, where the prophet Muhammad delivered his last sermon, is the main ritual in the hajj.
Sultan Abdyrakhman, a Kyrgyz journalist and hajj pilgrim, gave some of his impressions to RFE/RL yesterday. "Today, all the pilgrims arrived in the Mina Valley, and now they are being located in tents. Tomorrow, in the morning, the pilgrims will head to Mount Arafat for praying and shortly after sunset will go to the Muzdalifa Valley. After staying there overnight, they'll return to the Mina Valley on [11 February], the day of Kurban Ait [Eid al-Adha]. There are pilgrims from about 250 countries here."
Despite the expense and physical demands, Muslims make the pilgrimage to Mecca each year from every corner of the globe, providing a unique opportunity for those of different nations to meet one another. The hajj begins in the 12th month of the Islamic year, which is lunar, not solar, so that the hajj and Ramadan fall sometimes in summer, sometimes in winter.
Hajj pilgrims wear special clothes -- simple garments which strip away distinctions of class and culture.
The rites of the hajj include circling the cube-shaped Kaaba -- Islam's holiest shrine -- seven times and traveling seven times between the mountains of Safa and Marwa. Then the pilgrims stand together on the wide plain of Arafat and join in prayer.
In previous centuries, the hajj was an arduous undertaking. Today, however, Saudi Arabia provides millions of pilgrims with water, modern transport, and health facilities.
The close of the hajj tomorrow will be marked by the traditional feast of sacrifice, or Eid al-Adha, which is celebrated with prayers, the ritualistic slaughter of animals -- whose meat is given to the poor -- and the exchange of gifts. This, and the Eid al-Fitr, a feast-day commemorating the end of Ramadan, are the main festivals of the Muslim calendar.
This year's hajj is taking place under tight security. There have been fears of demonstrations against any U.S.-led war in Iraq. Beefed-up security teams have been on hand to prevent stampeding, which killed some 1,400 pilgrims in 1990 and 180 in 1998.
This year, tens of thousands of elderly pilgrims and people assisting them traveled directly to Mount Arafat, skipping their stay in Mina to avoid the difficulties caused by masses of pilgrims converging on the hill, located 19 kilometers southwest of Mecca.
Central Asian countries are usually well-represented at the hajj. This year, about 3,800 pilgrims from Uzbekistan are participating, according to Sukhrat Ismailov, deputy head of the Religious Commission of Uzbekistan. Ismailovv also commented on the assistance and facilities provided for the Uzbek pilgrims. "The Uzbek government is providing aid and Uzbekistan Airlines has organized special flights to Jeddah," he said.
It was reported from Bishkek, meanwhile, that as many as 3,000 pilgrims were expected to travel to Mecca this year for the hajj. This is significantly more than the 1,600 who went to the hajj from Kyrgyzstan last year.
Chechen mufti Akhmed Shamaev told Interfax on 30 January that about 140 pilgrims from Chechnya were making the pilgrimage to Mecca this year despite terrorist fears.
The head of Russia's Council of Muftis, Ravil Gainutdin, spoke today to RFE/RL in Moscow on the occasion of Eid al-Adha. "On behalf of the Council of Muftis of Russia, with all my heart I wish you a happy Eid al-Adha [Qorban Bairam]. May God bring peace to the world, may God spare the lives of innocent Iraqis. We should also pray for peace in Palestine. And in our country, too, may God bring peace to Chechnya," he said.
From Azerbaijan, a total of 825 people are on the pilgrimage to Mecca, according to a report from the Caucasian Muslim Religious Department.