What is the Hajj? 

Don't Panic ... Your War Questions Answered

The Hajj is the annual pilgrimage of Muslims to Islam's mecca, Mecca.

"What's so special about Mecca?" you (didn't) ask.

Mecca is an ancient city in the Hijaz (now part of Saudi Arabia). It is the birthplace and longtime home of a fella named Muhammad ibn Abdullah.

About 1,396 years ago, Mr. ibn Abdullah (please, call him Muhammad) was minding his own business, meditating in a cave outside the city, when, of all people, the angel Gabriel descended and popped his head into the cave. The conversation went something like this:

"Gabe, angel, buddy, what brings you to my meditation cave?"

"I'm here to reveal the word of God so that you can be his prophet on Earth."

"Sweet! Let's hear it."

Gabriel's revelations to Muhammad continued for more than two decades. Memorized by Muhammad and committed to paper with the help of scribes, these revelations became the Quran. The Quran is Islam's holy book.

Because Mecca is the birthplace of both the prophet Muhammad and of the religion itself, it is Islam's holiest city.

Mecca is so holy -- (all together) "How holy is it?" -- that one of the five pillars of Islam is that believers who are physically and financially able must make a pilgrimage to Mecca at least once. The pilgrimage is known as the Hajj and begins on the eighth day of the final month of the Muslim calendar. Between 2 million and 3 million Muslims from all corners of the world participate in the Hajj annually, including about 10,000 Americans.

Muslims who've made the pilgrimage are called Hajji. Several of my aunts, uncles and cousins in Iran are Hajji. My mom's dad was Hajji. He wasn't a particularly religious man, though. My mom says he became a Hajji because of peer pressure. He lived in Iran and wanted to visit his family in the United States, but among his circle of business acquaintances, it would have been unseemly for him to spend money on an overseas vacation without first spending money to go on the Hajj. Keeping up appearances is not just an American pastime.

There's more to the Hajj than just showing up at the right time. There's an elaborate ritual to follow. Before entering Mecca, men and women must bathe (not together, you pervert!) and trim their nails. Men are required to shave their beards and heads.

While I'm on the subject of cleanliness: Islam considers a woman unclean if she is menstruating (so does the Old Testament, for that matter). Since the unclean are not allowed to participate in some Hajj rituals, some Imams suggest that women modify their cycles during the Hajj with birth-control pills.

Once clean, pilgrims put on austere, stitchless white robes. One of the first rituals is a walk from Mecca to Mount Arafat, where the faithful pray and where Muhammad is believed to have delivered his final sermon.

After Arafattin', the pilgrims head back toward Mecca, stopping at a place called Muzdalifa to sleep. The next day, the pilgrims stop at Jamarat to symbolically throw stones at the devil. Jamarat is where Muslims believe that Satan tempted Abraham. There are three stone pillars in Jamarat, one to symbolize each of Satan's tries at tempting Abraham. Pilgrims "stone the devil" by throwing seven pebbles at each of the pillars.

Unfortunately, Jamarat is a dangerous place for pilgrims. The bridge leading to it cannot safely accommodate the number of pilgrims who use it during the Hajj. Too often, the result is mass tramplings such as the incident that left more than 350 pilgrims dead last week.

After Jamarat, the pilgrims head to Mecca's enormous Grand Mosque. Inside the mosque sits a black granite cubic structure called the Kaaba. The Kaaba was built by Abraham and his son (call him Ishmael). Pilgrims circle the Kaaba seven times and then run back and forth between the hills called Safa and Marwah. The run is a ritual retracing of Hagar's steps (Hagar, the wife of Abraham, not Hagar the unfunny comic strip Viking).

That, in a nutshell, is the Hajj. If you want, you can try it yourself. Thanks to the Internet, it's easier than ever. All you have to do is sign up with one of the many travel agencies that sell Hajj packages. MakeHajj.com, a Philadelphia-based firm, is selling a trip to next year's Hajj for $3,695. The price includes airfare, food, lodging and, for the ladies, a free scarf.

The only catch is that you have to be a Muslim. Non-Muslims aren't allowed in Mecca. The penalty for a non-Muslim caught sneaking into Mecca is death. It is Saudi Arabia, after all.

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