Every year millions of Muslims across the globe gather at Islam's holiest city of Mecca to participate in the five days Hajj pilgrimage. The pilgrims circle Islam’s most sacred site, Kaaba and take part in a series of rituals intended to bring about a greater unity among world Muslims.
Hajj (literally means pilgrimage) is the fifth and final pillar of Islam and occurs in the month of Dhul Hijjah which is the twelfth and the last month of the Islamic lunar calendar. It is the journey to Islam’s holiest place Mecca that every sane adult Muslim must undertake at least once in their lives if they can afford and are physically fit.
The Hajj is seen as a chance to cleanse past sins and start fresh life. Those who are not financially capable enough to cover their expenses, sometimes financed by charity organizations or community leaders. Others save money over their entire lives to make the journey and a few even walk thousands of kilometers by foot to arrive Saudi Arabia.
Historical background of the Hajj
According to Islamic traditions, Prophet Ibrahim was ordered to bring his wife Hajar and his son Ismail from Palestine to Arabia to protect them from the jealousy of his first wife Sarah.
Ibrahim left them to their own with some supplies of food and water. Unfortunately, the supplies quickly ran out and within a few days the mother and her son were suffering from hunger and dehydration.
In her desperation, Hajar ran up and down two hills called Safa and Marwa trying to see if she could spot any help in the distance. Finally, she collapsed beside Ismail and prayed for rescue. Ismail then struck his foot on the ground and this caused a spring of water to stream forth from the earth. Today pilgrims trace Hajar’s trace, whom they believe ran between two hills seven times searching for water for her dying son.
Tradition holds that God then brought forth a spring that runs to this day. That spring, today known as Zamzam Well, is believed to possess healing powers and pilgrims often return from the Hajj with bottles of its water as gifts. Prophet Ibrahim was ordered by God to build a shrine and he and his son Ismail constructed a stone structure known as the Kaaba in Mecca to be a place to monotheistic worship.
Tribute to its reliable water resources, Zamzam, Mecca became a prosperous city attracting many tribes from the Arabian Peninsula and beyond. Gradually, the people began to adopt polytheistic ideas and worship spirits and many different gods. The shrine of the Prophet Ibrahim was used to store idols.
After many years, God instructed Prophet Muhammed that he should restore the Kaaba to the worship of himself and in the year 628 the Prophet set out on a journey with his 1,400 followers. This was the first pilgrimage in Islam and many generations follow the suit.
Rituals performed during the Hajj
Ethiopian Islamic Affairs Supreme Council Hajj and Umra Sector Head Sheikh Ahmed Yusuf said the Hajjis or pilgrims are expected to be in a state of ritual purity and put on simple white clothes called Ihram that is aimed at shedding materialism, giving up worldly pleasures and focusing on the inner self than that of external outlook. Muslims are forbidden from engaging in sexual intercourse, cutting their hair or trimming nails while in Ihram. It is also forbidden for pilgrims to argue, fight or lose their tempers during the Hajj.
The Hajj traditionally begins in Mecca with a smaller pilgrimage called the umrah, which can be performed year-round. To perform the umrah, Muslims circle the Kaaba counter-clockwise seven times while reciting and praising God and this is called the Tawaf. Then the pilgrims walk between the two hills to commemorate Hajar's travel in search of water at Masjid- al-Haram, the world's largest mosque, which encompasses the Kaaba and the two hills.
Before heading to Mecca, many pilgrims visit the city of Medina where the Prophet Muhammad is believed to be buried and where he built his first mosque. After spending the night in Mina, neighborhood of Mecca where hundreds of thousands tents are set up to house them, the pilgrims head to Mount Arafat, some 20 kilometers east of Mecca, for the highpoint of the pilgrimage.
Thousands of pilgrims climb Jabal al-Rahma / Mountain of Mercy/ in Arafat. The mountain is believed to be a place where Prophet Muhammad delivered his final sermon, calling for equality and for Muslim unity and reminded his followers of women's rights.
Around sunset, pilgrims head to an area called Muzdalifa, nine kilometers west of Arafat. They spend the night there and pick up pebbles along the way that will be used in a symbolic stoning of the devil back in Mina, where Muslims believe the devil tried to talk Ibrahim out of submitting to God's will.
The last three days of the Hajj are marked by three events such as a final circling of the Kaaba, casting stones in Mina and removing the Ihram. Men often shave their heads at the end in a sign of renewal.
The final days of Hajj coincide with Eid al-Adha, / Feast of the Sacrifice/ celebrated by Muslims around the world to honor the willingness of Ibrahim to sacrifice his son, as an act of obedience to God’s command. According to Islamic traditions, God intervened before Ibrahim sacrificed his son by sending Angel Jibrail (Gabriel), who then put a sheep in his son’s place.
In commemoration of this, Muslims sacrifice cattle and divided the meat into three parts while the family holds one third of the share; another third is meant to relatives, friends and neighbors.
The religion instructed the faithful to observe Eid al-Adha by supporting the needy and exercising empathy. In this regard, one-third of all meat prepared for the Eid is given to the poor to enable them be part of the festivity.
The faithful begin Eid al-Adha by traveling to perform pray known as Salat-al-Eid that has been always performed in congregation in big mosques or open spaces. Many Muslims also take this opportunity to invite their non-Muslim friends, neighbors, co-workers and classmates to their Eid festivities to better acquaint them with Islam and Muslim culture.
Hajj a place asserts human’s equality
Hajj is a ritual that is designed to promote the bonds of Islamic brotherhood and sisterhood by showing that everyone is equal in the eyes of God and Muslims regardless of ethnic group, color, social or cultural backgrounds gather in Mecca and stand before the Kaaba to praise their creator.
In the Hajj, Muslims are not divided by nationalities, passports and flags and while women omit makeup and perfumes and wear loose-fitting clothes locally known as Abaya and a head covering, men dress in unified, white garments.
The white garments are forbidden to contain any embroidery as a restriction meant to emphasize the equality of all Muslims and prevent wealthier pilgrims from differentiating themselves with more decorative garments.
Millions of men and women, young and old of different colors, languages and classes facing the same Kabba in orderly lines, wearing the same simple pilgrim dresses, all of which symbolizes the way that Islam brings unity in peoples of different racial and economic backgrounds.
The Hajj symbolizes the need to live together and harmony and accommodating political, economic and social differences under the umbrella of humanity.
Hajj is a place that is supposed to reassure people that all ethnic, cultural, linguistic, geographical, wealth-based, race and color differences have no place in the face of God and the purpose of the ritual is to create a universal humanity that stands to the well-being of every one and would not be influenced by sort of affiliations.
Hajj and Ethiopia
In the pre-1974 Revolution, Ethiopian Muslims faced restrictions to manifest their religion in worship, observance, practice and teaching and their rights had been largely denied.
Assuming political power in 1974, the military government made some changes including making Islamic observances public holidays. The Derg, however, imposed strict restriction in the practice of Islam and also in the Hajj pilgrimage.
After the collapse of the military regime in 1991, the Transitional Government of Ethiopia adopted the Charter which guaranteed religious freedom and entitled Ethiopian Muslims equal political, economic and social participation and benefits with their fellow non-Muslim brothers and sisters.
The 1995 Constitution further cementing freedom of belief in entitling everyone with the right to hold or adopt a religion or belief of his/her choice and the freedom, either individually or in community with others, and in public or private, to manifest their religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching.
The Constitution prohibited any forms of restriction or prevention of citizens’ freedom to hold a belief of their choice. Furthermore, the current government lifted restriction the military junta set up on Ethiopian Hajj pilgrims.
Despite the fact that Ethiopia is among countries with large Muslim populations, its Hajj quota has been limited to 8,000 and 9,000 over years.
Taking in to account the two countries evolving relations, Saudi Arabia’s government accepted Ethiopia’s long time request for quota expansion and decided to extend the number of Ethiopian Hajj pilgrims by 6,000 in the current year.
Sheikh Ahmed Yusuf stated that the Council is closely working with various stakeholders including Saudi Arabia's Embassy, Ethiopian Immigration and Nationality Affairs Department, Ethiopian Airlines, Commercial Bank of Ethiopia, Oromia International Bank and others to deliver an effective and efficient service for the Hajj pilgrims in home and Saudi Arabia.
The council also employed strict screening mechanisms to deter illegal migration in the name of Hajj pilgrimage and to meet the decree Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Hajj and Umrah issued against Hajj infiltrators.
Information obtained from Ethiopian Islamic Affairs Supreme Council indicated currently 15,000 Ethiopians pilgrims are performing Hajj.
The fact that millions of Muslims transcending geographical, linguistic, level of practice, cultural, ethnic, color, economic, and social barriers converge in unison on Mecca attests to the universality of the Hajj.
In this regard, pilgrims are expected to return home enriched by this pluralistic and universal outlook of celebrating common humanity with a new appreciation of their own origins.
BY BILAL DERSO