More than 2 million Muslims yesterday began the annual hajj pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia, circling the cube-shaped Kaaba from first light in Mecca, which practicing Muslims face five times each day during their prayers.
The five-day pilgrimage represents one of the world’s biggest gatherings every year, a trip required of all able-bodied Muslims once in their life.
The hajj offers pilgrims an opportunity to feel closer to God amid the Muslim world’s many challenges, including the threat of militants in the Middle East after the Islamic State group was beaten back in Iraq and Syria, and the plight of Myanmar’s Muslim Rohingya minority.
“We are very blessed by Allah to be in this place, and we pray to Allah to make the Islamic nations from the West to the East in a better situation,” said Essam-Eddin Afifi, a pilgrim from Egypt. “We pray for the Islamic nations to overcome their enemies.”
The Kaaba represents the metaphorical house of God and the oneness of God. Pilgrims circle the Kaaba counterclockwise seven times while reciting supplications to God, then walk between the two hills traveled by Hagar, Abraham’s second wife and the mother of Ishmael in the Old Testament. Mecca’s Grand Mosque, the world’s largest, encompasses the Kaaba and the two hills.
Before heading to Mecca, many pilgrims visit the city of Medina, where the Prophet Muhammad is buried and where he built his first mosque. Pilgrims believe that the hajj retraces the footsteps of the Prophet Mohammed, as well as those of the prophets Abraham and Ishmael.
After prayers in Mecca, pilgrims today head to an area called Mount Arafat, where Mohammed delivered his final sermon. From there, pilgrims are to head to an area called Muzdalifa, picking up pebbles along the way for a symbolic stoning of the devil and a casting away of sins that takes place in the Mina valley for three days.
At the hajj’s end, male pilgrims shave their hair and women cut a lock of hair in a sign of renewal for completing the pilgrimage. Around the world, Muslims mark the end of hajj during the Eid al-Adha holiday. The holiday, remembering Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son, sees Muslims slaughter sheep and cattle.
Saudi Ministry of the Interior spokesman Major General Mansour al-Turki on Saturday told journalists that more than 2 million Muslims from abroad and inside the kingdom would be taking part in this year’s hajj.
For Saudi Arabia, the pilgrimage is the biggest logistical challenge that the kingdom faces. Its ruling Al Saud family stakes its legitimacy in part on its management of the holiest sites in Islam. Saudi King Salman’s official title is Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques — at Mecca and Medina. Other Saudi kings, and the Ottoman rulers of the Hijaz region before them, have all adopted the honorary title
The kingdom has spent billions of dollars of its vast oil revenues on security and safety measures, particularly in Mina, where some of the hajj’s deadliest incidents have occurred.
The worst in recorded history took place three years ago. On Sept. 24, 2015, a stampede and crush of pilgrims in Mina killed at least 2,426 people, according to an Associated Press count.
The official Saudi toll of 769 people killed and 934 injured has not changed since only two days afterward. The kingdom has never addressed the discrepancy, nor has it released any results of an investigation authorities promised to conduct over the disaster.
Last week, the interior ministry said it had arrested a Saudi wearing an explosive vest in the kingdom’s central al-Qassim region who shot at security forces.
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