The Hajj (Arabic: حج Ḥaǧǧ “pilgrimage”, also spelled haj) is the Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca, Saudi Arabia. It is one of the largest pilgrimages in the world, and is the fifth pillar of Islam, a religious duty that must be carried out at least once in their lifetime by every able-bodied Muslim who can afford to do so.
One finds the institution of pilgrimage in all religions of the world, but the sites for pilgrimage are scattered at different places in one or more countries. One does not find a single central place which all the followers of a religion must visit at least once in their lifetime. Amazingly in Islam we find exactly such a place in Mecca, where Muslims from all over the world are expected to gather and spend about ten days entirely dedicated to the memory of God. The pilgrims come from all countries, all nations, all races and in all ages. Men, women and children, they all gather once a year for a fantastic rally, sometimes running into million. This grand display of universality is seen nowhere else in any other religion. Hence all these fingers which were raised in different areas of Islamic teaching, point to the same message of unification of man on earth under the Unity of God.
The pilgrimage occurs from the 8th to 12th day of Dhu al-Hijjah, the 12th and last month of the Islamic calendar. Because the Islamic calendar is a lunar calendar, eleven days shorter than the Gregorian calendar used in the Western world, the Gregorian date of the Hajj changes from year to year. Ihram is the name given to the special spiritual state in which Muslims live while on the pilgrimage.
The institution of pilgrimage can be traced back to the time of Abraham [peace be upon him]. But there are very clear statements in the Qur’an describing it as an ancient institution, starting from times immemorial when the first House of God was built in Mecca. In the olden times, Mecca was pronounced Bakka (Arabic: بكة),
Bakka is mentioned in sura 3 (Al-i-Imran), ayah 97 of the Qur’an, where it is said to be the site of the first place of worship
The first House (of worship) appointed for men was that at Bakka: Full of blessing and of guidance for all kinds of beings:
In it are Signs Manifest; (for example), the Station of Abraham; whoever enters it attains security;Pilgrimage thereto is a duty men owe to Allah,- those who can afford the journey; but if any deny faith, Allah stands not in need of any of His creatures.—Qur’an, sura 3 (Al-i-Imran), ayat 97-98
So the Holy Quran refers to the first house as being built not in Mecca but in Baka. It is also called Bait-ul-Ateeq, or the most ancient house. Abraham raised it from the ruins, which he discovered under Divine guidance, and about which he was. commissioned by God to rebuild with the help of his son Ishmael. It is the same place where he had left his wife Hagar and infant son Ishmael, again under Divine instruction. But work on the House of God awaited attention until Ishmael grew to an age where he could be of some help. So, both of them worked together to rebuild the house and restart the institution of pilgrimage.
Many rites performed during pilgrimage are rooted in those early days of the reconstruction of the House of God, and some even go beyond that. For instance, the running between Safa and Marwah, two small hillocks close to the House of God, is done in memory of Hagar’s search for some sign of human presence to help her and her child in their dire hour of need. The child is described as having become extremely restive with the agony of thirst, striking the earth with his heels in desperation. There, it is said, sprouted a fountain which still exists today in some form, and water in the well which was created later on around that spot, is considered to be a blessed water. Most of the pilgrims who perform the Hajj try to bring some water from there by way of blessing for their relatives and friends.
The greater Hajj (al-hajj al-akbar) begins on the eighth day of the lunar month of Dhu al-Hijjah. On the first day of the Hajj (the 8th day of the 12th month in other words, Dhu al-Hijjah), if they are not already wearing it upon their arrival, pilgrims put on ihram clothing and then leave Mecca for the nearby town of Mina where they spend the rest of the day. The Saudi government has put up thousands of large white tents at Mina to provide accommodations for all the pilgrims
Rites and Traditions:
There are other rites and traditions which should be briefly explained. In Hajj, the pilgrims do not wear any sewn garments; rather, they dress in two loose sheets. This is further indicative of the tradition being most ancient. It indicates that the institution of Hajj began when man had not learnt to wear sewn clothes. They had only started to cover themselves. As such, it seems that it is in memory of those ancient people who used to circuit the first house built for the worship of God in that preliminary dress that the pilgrims are required to do the same. Again, the shaving of the head is an important feature which is also universally found as a symbol of dedication among monks, priests, hermits (In Christianity, the term hermit was originally applied to a Christian who lives the heremitic life out of a religious conviction, namely the Desert Theology of the Old Testament) and Vishnu (Vishnu is a popular Hindu god). This further adds to the universality of its character. Women are exempt from shaving, but they have to symbolically cut their hair as a token. Also, in the places where Hadhrat Abraham (as) is known to have remembered God in the style of an intoxicated lover, and extolled his glory with loud chanting, the pilgrims are required to do the same at the same places.
Number of foreign pilgrims by year:
- 1920: 58,584
- 1921: 57,255
- 1922: 56,319
- 1996: 1,080,465
- 1997: 1,168,591
- 1998: 1,132,344
- 2001: 1,363,992
- 2005: 1,534,759
- 2006: 1,654,407
- 2007: 1,707,814
- 2008: 1,729,841
- 2009: 1,613,000
- 2010: 1,799,601
- 2011: 1,828,195
Source: A book by Hadhrat Mirza Tahir Ahmad (aba) An Elementary Study of Islam, 1996, pages 37-39, Wikipedia and others