Going to Mecca
One fifth of humankind shares a single aspiration to complete, at least once in a lifetime, a spiritual journey called the Hajj (pilgrimage).
Countless millions of Muslims, men and women from the four corners of the earth, have made the pilgrimage to Mecca, Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam. In carrying out this journey they fulfil the fifth pillar of Islam.
Muhammad said, ‘He who performs the Hajj with no obscenity or evil practices will come out as a newly born baby free from all sins’. For the Muslims, the pilgrimage is therefore much more than something to be done; it is a sacred and revered journey. Without it they believe they have less chance of getting into paradise.
Highlights of the Hajj are going to Mecca and circling the Kab’ah (‘cube’), then on to Mount Arafat and ‘stoning the devil’ (Day of Repentance), and then celebrating Eid ul-Adha (Festival of the Sacrifice).
Before setting out, a pilgrim should redress all wrongs, pay all debts and plan to have enough funds for his own journey and for the maintenance of his family while he is away.
Certain governments even allocate funds to assist pilgrims. Many religious rites are performed, according to the Qur’an and tradition.
Pilgrims at the Kab’ah
Circling the Kab’ah
At their arrival to Mecca, pilgrims go to the Great Mosque to comply with their first duty — to circle the Kab’ah seven times.
This is the most sacred shrine of Islam. According to the teaching of Islam, it is Allah’s house, the place Abraham was commanded to build for Allah. Pilgrims therefore feel that they are in the very presence of Allah.
As they circle the shrine, worshippers recite Qur’anic verses and call out an Arabic prayer of submission to Allah specially commanded for this occasion. This translates as, ‘At your service, Allah, at your service. You have no partner, yours the praise and the grace and the kingdom’.
All the pilgrims want to get close enough to the shrine so that they can touch and kiss it, for these actions earn a person special merit and forgiveness. It is believed that the bodies of those who have kissed the Black Stone will never touch hellfire, not even if angels should try to throw them in!
Some pilgrims take their own shroud and even coffins with them. They pay to have these washed in the water of the holy Zemzem well, which they believe is the source of water God provided for Hagar and Ishmael after Abraham had left them in the desert.
After that, they have shroud and coffin touch the wall of the Kab’ah for a few moments. On returning home, they instruct their families to make sure that, when they die, they are wrapped up in these shrouds and buried in these coffins, which would give them eternal protection from hellfire.
The nearer one gets to the centre, where the Kab’ah is, the worse the pushing and shoving become. Every year some people are trampled to death by the crushing crowds, propelled by the pressure from those behind them.
My parents told us how once some African pilgrims figured out a fail-proof technique for getting close enough to touch the shrine. They formed a circle, with the strongest men on the outside and the women and children inside.
Those on the outside then linked hands and advanced, powerfully swinging their arms up and down to the beat of their prayers. Woe to anyone who tried to push through this moving fence of arms. If they fell down, there was little chance of them ever getting up again!
Part of the pilgrimage is to pay a visit to Medina, the second holiest city of Islam. Pilgrims go to the Mosque of the Prophet (Masjid ash-arif), which holds Muhammad’s tomb. For Muslims it is very exciting to be present in the city of the Hijra (Arabic for ‘immigration’, denoting the day when Muhammad was forced to flee Mecca), at the very tomb of Muhammad.
There is a special ritual, the Ziyarah, prescribed for a first visit to the mosque. It involves reciting special prayers at specific points. People sit beside the tomb reciting the Qur’an. Some sit there for two or three days to recite the whole book over and over again.
Crowds of people shove and push in an attempt to touch the tomb. If only a person can touch the tomb, then all their sins will be forgiven!
Day of Arafat
The ninth day of the month of Dhu’l-Hijja marks a significant day for pilgrims (as well as all Muslims), yet it is not so well known or talked about in the rest of the world.
This is the Day of Arafat. Muslim pilgrims sweep out of Mecca toward Mina, a small uninhabited village east of the city. As the throngs spread through Mina, the pilgrims generally spend their time meditating and praying as their prophet did on his pilgrimage.
Pilgrims then leave Mina for the plain of Arafat. On a rocky hill, they pray to Allah, in fulfilment of their life’s dream. Muslims believe the hill of Arafat is the site where Muhammad gave his last sermon in AD 632, three months before his death.
He is reported to have asked Allah to pardon the sins of pilgrims who stood at Arafat, and was granted his wish. Thus, the hopeful pilgrims prepare to leave this plain joyfully, feeling reborn without sin and intending to turn over a new leaf.
Just after sunset, the mass of pilgrims proceed to Muzdalifah, an open plain half way between Arafat and Mina. There they first pray and then collect pebbles to use on the following days for stoning Satan. This is the symbolic stoning of the devil represented by three pillars in Mina.
The next day begins the Eid holiday or Eid al-Adha, the Festival of Sacrifice, which occurs 70 days after the end of Ramadan. This is to commemorate Abraham’s attempted sacrifice of his son, who Muslims believe was Ishmael, rather than Isaac.
Stoning of Satan
As pilgrims throw seven pebbles at the three pillars, they remember a story about Satan’s attempt to persuade Abraham to disregard God’s command to sacrifice Ishmael.
According to the Qur’an, Satan tempted Abraham and Ishmael three times to stop the sacrifice. Each time they responded by throwing stones at Satan. Throwing the pebbles is symbolic of a human’s attempt to cast away evil and vice, the number seven symbolising infinity.
After doing all that is expected of them, the pilgrims go home to white banners offering congratulations and strings of lights flashing outside their homes. They receive a new, honourable title, Hadj, which means pilgrim.
On their return they are treated as celebrities. Family and friends crowd to see them, hug and touch them, and share the special blessing (baraka) attached to pilgrims.
The Hadj (pilgrim) is supposed to be a new creation, without sin; a clean slate, like a newborn baby. Traditionally, Hadjs are expected to bring back mementos from the pilgrimage for their family — dates from the holy city, holy Zemzem water and some holy sand.
I remember when my parents returned from their first pilgrimage. For four or five days, our house was full of people. During those days, mum and dad just sat at home talking to the visitors who came and went, telling them all about the pilgrimage. How they all wished they could have gone to Mecca too!
But it was Jesus Christ, not Muhammad, who said, ‘Unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God’ (John 3:3).
We long for our Muslim friends to have the same assurance of sins forgiven that we Christians have. Let us pray that they will realise that true forgiveness is found in Jesus Christ, and not through our own works of piety (Titus 3:4-7).
And the true new birth comes not through any earthly pilgrimage, but through the Holy Spirit applying the word of the gospel of Jesus Christ to the sinner’s heart (1 Peter 1:23-25). It is when we believe on the Lord Jesus Christ that we are saved and brought into a new relationship with God (Acts 16:31).
The author’s books include Your questions answered: a reply to Muslim friends (EP Books). He is a pastor and co-founder of Word of Hope Ministries — a non-profit-making literature ministry, producing literature for Muslim evangelism.