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Masjid al-Haram

The world’s 1.3 billion Muslims, no matter where they are in the world, face toward Mecca during their five daily prayers. That’s because the Qur’an commands it: "Turn then thy face in the direction of the Sacred Mosque: wherever ye are, turn your faces in that direction." [Al- 2:144]

The significance of Hajj (the pilgrimage to Mecca) is such that the word “mecca” has become shorthand for any place that attracts droves of intensely dedicated people. In 2013, more than 3 million pilgrims completed the Hajj (Arabic for "to intend a journey"), with 1.7 million of them flocking in from outside of Saudi Arabia. It’s the largest gathering of Muslims in the world. As one of the five pillars of Islam, all Muslims are expected to make this five-day pilgrimage at some point during their lives, if it doesn’t require too much financial or physical hardship.

Hajj - Exclusive but Crowded

To say that Hajj is a spectacle to behold is a vast understatement. A New Yorker piece by Basharat Peer reported that a Saudi Arabian Minister of Hajj described the event as resembling “20 Super Bowls in one stadium, when 2 million will come, and ... these 2 million people will actually be taking part in playing the game.”

This is true even though only a fraction of the world’s Muslims are able to make the pilgrimage. And it’s true despite the Saudi quota for attendance, which allows each country just one Hajj pilgrim for every 1,000 Muslim citizens. Still, in recent years, the site has had to contend with the intensely challenging task of hosting millions of people at a time. The Saudis have spent billions on crowd control and related infrastructure, including multi-level pathways to ease congestion. But tragedies do happen: During a 1990 stampede during Hajj, more than 1,400 people were crushed underfoot in a corridor.

Hajj’s Beginnings and History

Two thousand years before Christ was born, Abraham’s wife (Hager) and baby son (Ishmael) were stranded in the desert. Ishmael was about to die of thirst, the story goes, when the angel Gabriel created a source of water for the baby to drink: the Well of Zemzem. In gratitude, Abraham built the Kaaba—the the black-cloth-draped cubical building at the center of Hajj—at the exact place where Gabriel had placed the spring for his family. Over the millennia, people of different religions traveled to worship at the site, but in the year 630, Mohammed brought some of his followers there, making for the first-ever Hajj. While the Muslims were there, they removed the idols placed there by non-monotheists and dedicated the site to Allah. Since then, the Kaaba has become the focal point for Muslim prayer all around the world, and a source of unity for worshipers.

Three Sacred Duties

When people make their pilgrimage to Mecca, they have three duties (called farz), the first of which is to get into a state of ihram—wearing seamless white garments that represent a state of ritual purity—and refraining from having sex, shaving, arguing, cutting nails, or wearing cologne or ornaments of any kind. Women are not to cover their faces, even if they normally do. The second farz, tawaaf, is the act of circling the Kaaba seven times, then touching and kissing (or at least pointing at) the ancient Black Stone, placed there by Mohammad himself. Finally, sa'y is the act of walking back and forth between as-Safaa and al-Marwa (as Hager did in her search for water for Ishmael). The effect of hundreds of thousands of devotees performing these rituals simultaneously is staggering. It creates a mesmerizing whirl of humanity that no other event can come close to replicating.

An “Indescribable” Experience

On a website called Hajj Stories, participants describe their experience with awe. An 18-year-old said: “I met so many people of different professions, race, and color all united with the white ihram and the pure intentions with conviction in our hearts, heading towards one destination . . . We all recited, forgetting our differences standing side by side we are united in front of Allah.” Another pilgrim recalled: “Most people I have spoken to say one thing when they return. It is indescribable. Going on Hajj should help you become a better person. You can’t judge people’s intentions but one should try to take as much from the Hajj experience as possible. The sight of the Kaaba was overwhelming. I was awestruck by its magnificence. Its beauty cannot be described in any other way except by pure experience of its presence.”

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