Saudi Arabia Table of Contents

The hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca, occurs annually between the eighth and thirteenth days of the last month of the Muslim year, Dhu al Hijjah. The hajj represents the culmination of the Muslim's spiritual life. For many, it is a lifelong ambition. From the time of embarking on the journey to make the hajj, pilgrims often experience a spirit of exaltation and excitement; the meeting of so many Muslims of all races, cultures, and stations in life in harmony and equality moves many people deeply. Certain rites of pilgrimage may be performed any time, and although meritorious, these constitute a lesser pilgrimage, known as umra.

Improved transportation and accommodations have increased dramatically the number of visitors who enter the kingdom for pilgrimage. In 1965 almost 300,000 Muslims came from abroad to perform the rites of pilgrimage, primarily from other Arab and Asian countries. By 1983 that number had climbed to more than 1 million. In addition to those coming from abroad, each year 600,000 to 700,000 people living in the kingdom join in the hajj rituals. In 1988 and 1989, a total of 1.5 million pilgrims attended the hajj, representing a drop of about 200,000 in the number of foreign pilgrims, probably the result of a temporary ban on Iranian pilgrims instituted after a violent confrontation with Saudi police. In the hajj season of 1992, the Saudi press claimed a record of 2 million pilgrims.

The Ministry of Pilgrimage Affairs and Religious Trusts handles the immense logistical and administrative problems generated by such a huge international gathering. The government issues special pilgrimage visas that permit the pilgrim to visit Mecca and to make the customary excursion to Medina to visit the Prophet's tomb. Care is taken to assure that pilgrims do not remain in the kingdom after the hajj to search for work.

An elaborate guild of specialists assists the hajjis. Guides (mutawwifs) who speak the pilgrim's language make the necessary arrangements in Mecca and instruct the pilgrim in the proper performance of rituals; assistants (wakils) provide subsidiary services. Separate groups of specialists take care of pilgrims in Medina and Jiddah. Water drawers (zamzamis) provide water drawn from the sacred well.

In fulfilling the commandment to perform the hajj, the pilgrim not only obeys the Prophet's words but also literally follows in his footsteps. The sacred sites along the pilgrimage route were frequented by Muhammad and formed the backdrop to the most important events of his life. It is believed, for example, that he received his first revelation at Jabal an Nur (Mountain of Light) near Mina.

The haram, or holy area of Mecca, is a sanctuary in which violence to people, animals, and even plants is not permitted. The word haram carries the dual meaning of forbidden and sacred. As a symbol of ritual purification, on approaching its boundaries the male pilgrim dons an ihram, two white seamless pieces of cloth, although many don the ihram upon first arriving in the kingdom. Women wear a white dress and head scarf and may choose to veil their faces, although it is not required. Once properly attired, pilgrims enter a state of purity in which they avoid bathing, cutting hair and nails, violence, arguing, and sexual relations.

Approaching Mecca, pilgrims shout, "I am here, O Lord, I am here!" They enter the Grand Mosque surrounding the Kaaba, a cube-shaped sanctuary first built, according to Muslim tradition, by Abraham and his son Ismail. The Kaaba contains a black stone believed to have been given to Abraham by the angel Gabriel, according to some sources, and by others, to have been simply part of the structure of the original Kaaba. In pre-Islamic times, the Kaaba was the object of pilgrimage, housing the idols of the pagan jahiliya, the age of ignorance, and, according to Islamic tradition, was cleansed by Muhammad of idols and rededicated to the worship of the one God.

On the eighth day, the pilgrims go to Mina, a plain outside Mecca, spending the night in prayer and meditation. On the morning of the ninth day, they proceed to the Plain of Arafat where they perform the central ritual of the hajj, the standing (wuquf). The congregation faces Mecca and prays from noon to sundown. Muhammad delivered his farewell sermon from a hill above the plain called the Mount of Mercy, or Mount Arafat, during his final pilgrimage. In performing wuquf, the pilgrim figuratively joins those the Prophet addressed. It is believed that the pilgrim leaves Arafat cleansed of sin.

A cannon sounds at sunset, and all rush to Muzdalifah, where they toss pebbles at one of three stone pillars representing Satan. Satan, in Islamic tradition, tempted Abraham not to sacrifice Ismail as God commanded. Ismail stoned Satan in response to the temptation, an act that symbolizes for the Muslim Ismail's total submission to the will of God, for he went as a willing victim to the sacrifice. In the stoning, pilgrims renounce evil and declare their willingness to sacrifice all they have to God. Following the stoning, each pilgrim buys a camel, sheep, or goat for sacrifice in imitation of Abraham, and the excess meat is distributed to the poor. The sacrifice is duplicated by Muslims the world over, who celebrate the day as Id al Adha, the major feast of the Muslim year. The sacrifice ends the hajj proper. The pilgrim may then bathe, shave, cut his hair, and resume normal clothing.

Lastly, the pilgrims go to the Grand Mosque in Mecca. In the sanctuary, the pilgrims walk around the Kaaba seven times and point to the stone or kiss it as a symbol of the continuity of Islam over time and of the unity of believers. They then pray in the Place of Abraham, the spot within the mosque where the patriarch prayed. During this time, the pilgrims may also reenact the running between the hills of Safa and Marwa and may drink from the sacred well of Zamzam, commemorating the frantic search by Hagar to find water for her son Ismail, and the opening of the well of Zamzam by the angel Gabriel, which saved the future father of the Arabs. These rites constitute the umra. Some pilgrims conclude their pilgrimage with a visit to the Prophet's Mosque in Medina.

The rite of pilgrimage not only has special significance in the life of Muslims but also has profound political significance for the Saudi monarchy. The king has claimed for himself the title Khadim al Haramayn, or "custodian of the two holy mosques," a title that complements the Saudi claim to legitimacy. To prove themselves worthy of the title, Saudi monarchs must show that they are not only capable of defending the interests of Arabian Muslims but also of defending the holy sites of Islam for the benefit of Muslims the world over. The Saudis have therefore invested heavily over the years in facilitating the arrival, transportation, feeding, and accommodation of pilgrims arriving annually for the rites of the hajj. New airport buildings, road networks, water supplies, and public health facilities have been provided. Much publicity has accompanied government contributions to the comfort of pilgrims. The government distributes bottled water, juices, and boxed lunches during the climbing of Mount Arafat; stations ambulances staffed with first-aid teams in strategic locations; shows health education videos on airplanes and ships bringing pilgrims; and relieves pilgrims of the task of having to slaughter their sacrificial animal. The Islamic Development Bank now sells vouchers for sacrificial animals, which are chosen by the pilgrim and then slaughtered, processed, and frozen for distribution and sale in slaughterhouses in Mina.

Since the late 1980s, the Saudis have been particularly energetic in catering to the needs of pilgrims. In 1988 a US$l5 billion traffic improvement scheme for the holy sites was launched. The improvement initiative resulted partly from Iranian charges that the Saudi government was incompetent to guard the holy sites after a 1987 clash between demonstrating Iranian pilgrims and Saudi police left 400 people dead. A further disaster occurred in 1990, when 1,426 pilgrims suffocated or were crushed to death in one of the new air-conditioned pedestrian tunnels built to shield pilgrims from the heat. The incident resulted from the panic that erupted in the overcrowded and inadequately ventilated tunnel, and further fueled Iranian claims that the Saudis did not deserve to be in sole charge of the holy places. In 1992, however, 114,000 Iranian pilgrims, close to the usual level, participated in the hajj.

To symbolize their leadership of the worldwide community of Muslims as well as their guardianship of the holy sites, Saudi kings address the pilgrimage gathering annually. The Saudis also provide financial assistance to aid selected groups of foreign Muslims to attend the hajj. In 1992, in keeping with its interests in proselytizing among Muslims in the newly independent states of the former Soviet Union, the Saudi government sponsored the pilgrimage for hundreds of Muslims from Azerbaijan, Tashkent, and Mongolia.

Custom Search

Source: U.S. Library of Congress