The Hajj pilgrimage occurs in the last month of the Islamic calendar and is based on the sighting of the crescent moon.
But while the Hajj is a religious practice of Muslims today, the pilgrimage began thousands of years before the birth of Islam’s prophet Mohammed.
Pop up and listen: Muslims gather for Hajj
According to religious scholars, it goes back to the time of biblical prophet Abraham, when he was commanded by God to sacrifice one of his sons, to prove his devotion.
Vice President of The Islamic Council of Victoria, Sherene Hassan, says the rituals performed today are symbolic of what Muslims believe Abraham and his wife did more than two thousand years ago.
“It is all about honouring Abraham and his wife, Hajar in Arabic, or Hagar in English. In fact some Muslim scholars have stated that the word Hajj actually derives its name from Hajar, Abraham’s wife. Basically it involves visiting Mecca, circumambulation of the black building, the Kaaba, and also visiting Medina” she said.
“There is a ritual where individuals go and actually throw stones at pillars which are supposed to be symbolic of throwing stones at the devil. So you make this pact that when you go back to your home, that you make a pact that you are going to try and not listen to the whispers of Satan and you are going to try to lead a very good life.”
Scholars say that tribes from all over the Arabian Peninsula – including Christians and pagans – performed the pilgrimage before the 7th century, but that Mohammed led his followers in the first Muslim pilgrimage from Medina to Mecca in 631AD.
They say after Mohammed cleansed the sacred Kaaba building, the Hajj pilgrimage became one of the Five Pillars of Islam.
Sherene Hassan performed the Hajj with her husband a couple of years ago, and says it is just as important for Muslim women as it is for Muslim men.
“Prayer five times a day, Fasting, Ramadan, Charity to the poor, and Pilgrimage. And those five pillars are mandatory for all males and females”
Once in a lifetime – at least
President of the Australian National Imams Council, Abdul Azim Afifi, says every Muslim is encouraged to do the pilgrimage once in their lifetime, if they are both physically and financially able to do so.
Imam Afifi says men are expected to shave or cut their hair short, while they are on the Hajj.
“It’s part of the Hajj, it’s part of the cleanliness, because even if some people don’t go to Hajj in some Muslim countries, before they do the sacrifice, before they slaughter the lambs, they are allowed or required to do that.
Khodr Saleh is a councillor with Canterbury City Council in western Sydney, where Australia’s largest mosque, Lakemba, is located.
He performed the Hajj last year and says both male and female pilgrims have to wear very plain clothes, that show no adornments or wealth.
“They must enter a holy state – city of Mecca – wearing the Hajj garment called ihram. For men this garment consists of two links of white material, one covering the body from waist to ankle, the other thrown over the shoulder. Women wear normal clothes, a white robe, and do not wear a veil. It’s a sign of purity, a sign of cleanliness, because we believe actually when we finish the Hajj, we just be clean like a newborn baby.”
Big job for Saudi
Councillor Saleh says the Hajj is a massive logistical exercise for the Saudi authorities each year, spanning health and sanitation, food, accommodation and transport.
But he says for the first time this year, there will be a train service to assist in the mass movement of people going between the different holy sites, in addition to cars, buses and going by foot.
Sherene Hassan says the accommodation varies – from hotels, to sharing air-conditioned tents with other pilgrims in a huge tent city that she describes as being set up a bit like an Olympic Village in country groupings.
While no intimate contact is allowed between married couples during the Hajj, Hassan says she was surprised by the different arrangements for praying.
“Males and females pray completely together. There is absolutely no segregation between the sexes during the prayers and also during most of the rituals. Which is in stark contrast to what it’s like in suburban mosques here in Australia. So I found that really interesting that males and females completely worship freely together.”
For Councillor Saleh, the spirit of the Hajj means that pilgrims do not focus on the physical and practical discomforts presented by the crowds or the facilities, even if they experience flooding in their tents, like he did last year after heavy downpours.
“You should be able to handle the pressure and handle all the challenges.. of the patience. You focus not about the facilities as such, you focus on how you can perform Hajj. When you get more tired you get more enjoyment, if I can say.”
Hassan says it was a gruelling physical challenge over one week, with long days, millions of people, and sometimes involving walking more than ten kilometres a day.
But she says the Hajj was one of the most spiritually uplifting things she has ever done.
“You go to a place towards the very end – it’s called Arafat. It’s basically a mountain. And you spend from about 2 o’clock in the afternoon til about 5 o’clock in the afternoon, just supplicating, just praying to God. And initially I thought, oh goodness, I am not going to be able to pray for three hours, I’ve never prayed for more than ten minutes in my life. But it’s just amazing, you just feel that closeness to God. And what’s so uplifting, there are millions of people. But people are not arguing, people aren’t losing their temper, everyone seems to be on this spiritual high. And it’s really quite amazing.”
The head of the Australian National Imams Council, Imam Afifi, agrees that performing the Hajj is very special.
“You feel that you are very close to God. You are visiting his house, you are doing something for Him, you leave your family, you leave your kids, you leave everyone, just go there to repent, to pure yourself. To be just there for Him. Actually, you feel that you want to stay there if you can, in that particular place of worshipping, So you feel that you don’t want to go back to your normal life”, Afifi laughs.
“It’s a beautiful feeling.”