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The Hajj and Umrah

Article - June 19, 2012
Following in the footsteps of the Prophet fulfils a lifelong ambition for millions

The Hajj, or pilgrimage to Makkah, occurs annually between the eighth and 13th 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. Certain rites of pilgrimage may be performed any time during the year; these constitute a lesser pilgrimage, known as Umrah.

The Ministry of Hajj and Umrah handles the immense logistical and administrative affairs generated by such a huge international gathering, which in the past years have exceeded two million pilgrims. The government issues special pilgrimage visas that permit the pilgrim to visit Makkah and to make the customary excursion to Madinah to visit the Prophet’s tomb.

The Supreme Hajj Committee is entrusted with supervising every detail and aspect of the Hajj and Umrah process under the capable guidance of its chairman Prince Naif bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, the Second Deputy Premier and Minister of the Interior. Its members are the governors of Makkah and Madinah provinces and the ministers of the relevant ministries involved in serving and regulating hajjis and Umrah performers from the moment they arrive until their departure.

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

In fulfilling the commandment to perform the Hajj once – if possible – during their lifetime, 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 (PBUH) 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 Makkah, 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 headscarf. Once properly attired, pilgrims enter a state of purity physically, mentally and emotionally.

Approaching Makkah, pilgrims chant, “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 belief, by Abraham and his son Ismail. The Kaaba contains a black stone believed to have been given to Abraham by the angel Gabriel. In pre-Islamic times, the Kaaba was the object of pilgrimage, housing the idols of the pagan during 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 Makkah, 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 Makkah and prays from noon to sundown.

“O Allah, here we are responding to your call. Oh God, (we witness that) there are no partners with You. To You belongs all Praise, Grace and Dominion.” (Labayka Allahuma Labayk, Labayka, La Sharika Lak, Labayk. Inn al Hamda wal Ne’mata Lak wal Mulk). All pilgrims chant these prayers together on Mount Arafat standing side-by-side as equal regardless of their colour, race or wealth, saying the same words on the same day during the same period of time, responding to Allah’s call. On that awesome moment, they are united as one soul.

Prophet Muhammad delivered his farewell sermon from a hill above the plain called Jabal Al-Rahmah (Mount of Mercy), 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 and considered as a newborn.

A cannon sounds at sunset and all rush to Muzdalifah, where they toss pebbles (Jamarat) at one of three stone pillars representing Satan. Satan, in Islamic tradition, tempted Abraham not to sacrifice Ismail as God commanded. Abraham stoned Satan in response to the temptation, an act that symbolises for the Muslim Abraham’s total submission to the will of God, for he was willing to sacrifice his son, who also obliged without resistance. However, Allah sent Abraham a sheep to sacrifice it instead. Allah saved the son when the father surrendered completely to the will of Allah.

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 carried out  by Muslims the world over, who celebrate the day as Eid al Adha, the major feast of the Muslim year. The sacrifice ends the Hajj proper. The pilgrim may then resume normal clothing.

Lastly, the pilgrims go to the Grand Mosque in Makkah. In the sanctuary, the pilgrims circumambulate the Kaaba (tawaf) 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 also re-enact the running (saa’i) between the hills of Safa and Marwa (Massa’a) a few steps away from Kaaba and may drink from the sacred well of Zamzam, commemorating the frantic search by Hajer to find water for her son Ismail and the opening of the well of Zamzam by the angel Gabriel with the tip of his wing, which saved the future father of the Arabs. These rites constitute the Umrah. Some pilgrims conclude their pilgrimage with a visit to the Prophet’s Mosque in Madinah.

Ready for Hajj 2010

The Supreme Hajj Committee in one of its regular meetings in the recent months discussed the partial launch of the Makkah Metro, the new railway system linking the holy sites of Mina, Arafat and Muzdalifah to the holy city.

Prince Naif bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, the Second Deputy Premier, Minister of Interior and Chairman of the Supreme Hajj Committee, chaired the meeting at his office in Jeddah.

Prince Naif stressed the keenness of the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud and the Vice Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques Prince Sultan bin Abdulaziz Al Saud of achieving more success in this year's Hajj season. He urged the committee to double the efforts to achieve high levels of security, safety and comfort for all pilgrims and Umrah performers. He also called for greater efforts by public and private agencies to make the upcoming Hajj season a success.

During the meeting, a number of issues on the agenda were discussed and a number of decisions were taken.

The first phase of the Makkah Metro, which is also known as Mashair Railway and is designed to transport 70,000 pilgrims in an hour between the holy sites, would be launched during this Hajj season.

Thirty-five per cent of its capacity would be used during this year’s Hajj. It will have 20 trains next year when it operates with full capacity. Each train will have 12 carriages.

The railway project would bring about remarkable improvements in the transportation of pilgrims between the holy sites, one of the main challenges for Saudi Hajj managers.

The Hajj committee meeting also discussed the best ways to manage crowds on the mataf (the circumambulation area around the Holy Kaaba) during the peak days of Hajj and Ramadan.

In addition, the meeting discussed prospects of using hospitals at the holy sites of Mina and Arafat throughout the year.

The meeting, which was attended by Makkah Governor Prince Khaled Al Faisal and 10 ministers, emphasised the need to improve arrangements at airports and seaports to receive Umrah pilgrims.

The committee decided to improve the conditions of miqats, the locations where pilgrims put on their ihram before heading to Makkah, and building mosques in those places. More lockers would also be established in Makkah and Madinah for use by pilgrims and visitors.

Other topics discussed were the linking of new Mina with the Jamarat Bridge, the electrification of the Hijrah Expressway between Makkah and Madinah using solar energy, the organisation of pilgrim movement to the Jamarat for the stoning ritual, and the application of electronic systems for Hajj and Umrah affairs.

Preparing for Hajj is an on-going process. Once a Hajj season ends, plans and provisions are laid out and set in motion for the following season, learning from mistakes and improving on every aspect of the experience.