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Volume 25, Number 6November/December 1974

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The Hajj

An Introduction

Written by Ismail Ibrahim Nawwab
Photographed by S. M. Amin

The Hajj—the Pilgrimage to Mecca—is essentially a series of rites performed in and near Mecca, the holiest of the three holy cities of Islam—Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem. As it is one of the five pillars of Islam—that is, one of five basic requirements to be a Muslim—all believers, if they can afford it and are healthy enough, must make this Pilgrimage at least once in their life.

The Hajj must be made between the eighth and the 13th days of the 12th month (called Dhu al-Hijjah) of the Muslim lunar year.

Donning the Ihram

In a general sense, the Pilgrimage begins with the donning of the Ihram, a white seamless garment reminiscent of the robes worn by the Patriarch Abraham (the same Abraham known to Jews and Christians from the Bible) and Muhammad, the Prophet of Islam. The Ihram is also a symbol of the pilgrims' search for purity and their renunciation of mundane pleasures. For men this garment consists of two lengths of white material, one covering the body from waist to ankle, the other thrown over the shoulder. For women it is customarily—but not necessarily—a simple white gown and a headcovering without a veil.

At the moment of donning the Ihram the pilgrims enter a state of grace and purity in which they may not wear jewelry or other personal adornment, engage in any disputes, commit any violent acts or indulge in sexual relations.

Uttering the Talbiyah

In donning the Ihram the pilgrims also make a formal Declaration of Pilgrimage and pronounce a devotional utterance called the Talbiyah: "Doubly at Thy service, O God," a phrase which they will repeat frequently during the Pilgrimage as an indication that they have responded to God's call to make the Pilgrimage.

Entering the Haram

After donning the Ihram—and only after—the pilgrims may enter the Haram, or Sanctuary (1 on map). In a sense, the Haram is merely a geographical area which surrounds Mecca. But because its frontiers were established by Abraham and confirmed by Muhammad, the Haram is considered a sacred precinct within which man, undomesticated plants, birds and beasts need fear no molestation, as all violence, even the plucking of a wild flower, is forbidden.

For the duration of the Hajj, Mecca and the Sanctuary that surrounds it have a special status. To cross the frontiers of the Haram—which lie outside Mecca between three and 18 miles from the Ka'bah—pilgrims from outside Saudi Arabia must now have a special Hajj visa in their passports. The visa must be stamped by immigration officials stationed at various check points on roads leading into the Haram and it entitles pilgrims to travel only within the Haram and to certain other places that pilgrims must, or customarily do, visit. Non-Muslims are strictly forbidden to enter the Haram under any circumstances.

Going to Mina

On the eighth day of Dhu al-Hijjah the assembled pilgrims begin the Hajj by going—some by foot, most by bus, truck and car—to Mina (2 on map), a small uninhabited village five miles east of Mecca, and there spend the night—as the Prophet himself did on his Farewell Pilgrimage—meditating and praying in preparation for "the Standing" (Wuquf), which will occur the next day and which is the central rite of the Hajj.

Standing at Arafat

On the morning of the ninth, the pilgrims move en masse from Mina to the Plain of 'Arafat (3 on map) for "the Standing," the culmination—but not the end—of the Pilgrimage. In what is a basically simple ceremony the pilgrims gather on the plain and, facing Mecca, meditate and pray. Some pilgrims literally stand the entire time—from shortly before noon to just before sunset—but, despite the name of the ceremony, are not required to do so. Pilgrims may, and most do, sit, talk, eat, and, although not required to do so, climb to the summit of a 200-foot hill called the Mount of Mercy (Jabal al-Rahmah) at the bottom of which Muhammad delivered his Farewell Sermon during his Pilgrimage.

Going to Muzdalifah

Just after sunset, which is signalled by cannon fire, the pilgrims gathered at 'Arafat immediately proceed en masse to a place called Muzdalifah (4 on map) a few miles back toward Mina. There, traditionally, the pilgrims worship and sleep under the stars after gathering a number of pebbles for use during the rites on the following days. Some gather 49 pebbles, others 70, and still others wait until they get to Mina.

Stoning the Pillars

Before daybreak on the 10th, again roused by cannon, the pilgrims continue their return to Mina (5 on map). There they throw seven of the stones which they collected at Muzdalifah at one of three whitewashed, rectangular masonry pillars. The particular pillar which they stone on this occasion is generally thought to represent "the Great Devil"—that is, Satan, who three times tried to persuade Abraham to disobey God's command to Abraham to sacrifice his son—and the throwing of the pebbles symbolizes the pilgrims' repudiation of evil.

Performing the Sacrifice

Now begins the greatest feast of Islam: the 'Id al-Adha —the Feast of Sacrifice. After the throwing of the seven stones the pilgrims, who can afford it buy a sheep, a goat or a share of some other sacrificial animal, sacrifice it and give away a portion of the meat to the poor. The Sacrifice has several meanings: it commemorates Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son; it symbolizes the believer's preparedness to give up what is dearest to him; it marks the Muslim renunciation of idolatrous sacrifice; it offers thanksgiving to God; and it reminds the pilgrim to share his blessings with those less fortunate. But as Muslims everywhere are the same day performing an identical sacrifice—and thus vicariously sharing in the elation of the pilgrims in Mecca—the Sacrifice is also an integral part of a worldwide Muslim celebration that unites those on the Hajj with those elsewhere.

Doffing the Ihram

As the pilgrims have now completed a major part of the Hajj, men shave their heads or clip their hair and women cut off a symbolic lock to mark partial deconsecration. At this point the pilgrims may remove the Ihram, bathe and put on clean clothes, but although the period of consecration is now at an end, the prohibitions against intercourse still obtain, for the Pilgrimage is not yet over.

Making the Tawaf

The pilgrims now proceed directly to Mecca and the Sacred Mosque (6 on map), which encloses the Ka'bah, and, on a huge marble-floored oval, perform "the Circling" (Tawaf). The Tawaf consists essentially of circling the Ka'bah on foot seven times, reciting a prayer during each circuit. It signifies the unity of God and man and reminds believers that the Patriarch Abraham, his son Ishmael and the Prophet Muhammad emphasized the importance of the Ka'bah.

Kissing the Hajar al-Aswad

While circling the Ka'bah the pilgrims should, if they can, kiss or touch the Black Stone (the Hajar al-Aswad), which is embedded in the southeastern corner of the Ka'bah (see p. 6) and which is the precise starting point of the seven circuits. Failing this, they salute it. Kissing the Stone is a ritual that is performed only because the Prophet did it and not because any powers or symbolism attach to the Stone per se.

After completing the last circuit of the Ka'bah, the pilgrims go to the "Place of Abraham," also within the courtyard, and worship on the spot where Abraham himself offered up his devotions to God. That site is now marked by an octagonal metal and crystal structure recently built by the Saudi Arabian Government.

The Tawaf after Mina is called the Tawaf of the Return and is the last essential ritual. The pilgrims are now fully deconsecrated and are hajjis—that is they have completed the Hajj.

Making the Say

Although the key rituals of the Hajj have been completed, most pilgrims also include "the running" (Sa'y), a reenactment of the search for water by Hagar, wife of Abraham. Hagar (known from the Bible as Sarah's rival) was led into the desert with her infant son Ishmael and left near the present site of Mecca. Frantic for water for the child, she ran desperately back and forth seven times between two rocky hillocks, one called al-Safa the other al-Marwa, until the Angel Gabriel appeared and, stamping the ground with his heel, brought forth water for her and her child. This is the origin of the Well of Zamzam, now enclosed in a marble chamber beneath the courtyard of the Sacred Mosque. Pilgrims drink from the well before starting the Sa'y.

In performing the Sa'y, the pilgrims enter a spacious enclosed gallery or corridor appended to the Sacred Mosque and called "the Place of Running" (al-Mas'a) (7 on map) and approach al-Safa, one of the original hillocks, now little more than a knoll at the end of the gallery. Facing toward the Ka'bah, the pilgrims declare their intention of performing the Sa'y, descend to the Mas'a and walk briskly between the hills seven times.

Returning to Mina

It is also customary for the pilgrims to return to Mina (8 on map) between the 11th and 13th—for the third time—where they cast their remaining pebbles at each of the three pillars, seven stones at each pillar on each of the days they are there, for a total of either 49 or 70 pebbles. They also visit with other pilgrims, and bid farewell to the friends they have made during the Hajj.


Before leaving Mecca it is also customary to make a final Tawaf around the Ka'bah (9 on map) as a means of bidding the Holy City farewell and most pilgrims, if they have time, also take this opportunity to pay a visit to the Mosque of the Prophet in Medina, 277 miles to the north. This is not a part of the Pilgrimage, but it is considered meritorious to pray in the mosque which the Prophet himself founded.

The Umrah

Upon first entering Mecca, before beginning the Hajj, pilgrims also perform a Tawaf and a Sa'y. But done then, these two rites—coupled with the donning of the Ihram at the border of the Sanctuary—constitute the 'Umrah, or "the Lesser Pilgrimage."

As some texts often present differing descriptions of the relationship and sequence of the 'Umrah and the Hajj, it is important to explain certain distinctions.

The ' Umrah is essentially a mark of respect paid to the city of Mecca upon first entering it—and although it is a requirement for pilgrims arriving from outside Mecca—a necessary prelude to the Pilgrimage—and involves two of the same rites, it is not part of the Hajj. It is also required for Muslims who visit Mecca at other times of the year because that was the practice of the Prophet himself. But there is only one Hajj—the ceremony which on those special days of Dhu al-Hijjah gathers and unites more than a million of the faithful from every corner of the earth.

— I. I. N.

This article appeared on pages 2-7 of the November/December 1974 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for November/December 1974 images.