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  • Get ready for the hajj – what you need to know about the world’s most diverse gathering

    This week at Ogilvy Noor I’m looking at the upcoming event of the hajj, which will begin in just under six week’s time.

    The Islamic calendar is marked by two main celebrations. The first is Eid ul Fitr which immediately follows the end of Ramadan. It is a particularly powerful day as Muslims will have been fasting for the previous month and so the celebrations have a particular poignancy.

    The second celebration is Eid ul Adha, the Festival of Sacrifice. This comes during the season of the hajj - the pilgrimage which is known familiarly to everyone as the ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ journey that all Muslims strive to undertake to Mecca.

    All Muslims will mark Eid ul Adha (pronounced ‘Ad-haa’) although of course not all Muslims will be present in Mecca for its celebration. As we’ve written about before, the importance of celebrations of Eid are similar but not the same as other festivals like Christmas. The comparisons are useful but not identical.

    There are certain obligations that fall on Muslims such as prayer and fasting. These obligations include the Hajj, but only if he or she is of good health, and can afford to make the journey. In days past this would have been done on foot, horse, camel, boat, train - in fact by any means at all.  Train stations were even built specifically with the purpose of transporting travellers to Mecca, such as the Hejaz railway station in Damascus, as Hejaz is the Arabic name for the region of today’s Saudi Arabia where the two holy cities of Mecca and Medina are located.

    Today of course the aeroplane is supreme. But the tradition of a specific terminus for pilgrims continues with the construction of a hajj terminal at Jeddah airport, which is the nearest international airport to Mecca.

    The rites of hajj themselves span 5 days, beginning in Mecca, then moving to nearby locations called Arafat, Muzdalifah and Mina. In each of these four places there are rites to be conducted. In Mecca the pilgrims walk seven times around the Kaaba in a rite called ‘tawaf’. They then proceed to Arafat, which is a wide open plain just outside Mecca. Here Muslims ask for forgiveness. After leaving Arafat it is said that the pilgrims (known once they complete the hajj as ‘Hajji’ or ‘Hajja’ for men and women respectively) are totally cleansed and innocent. At Muzdalifa the pilgrims collect small pebbles which they will go on to use in Mina where they symbolically will stone three pillars known as the ‘jamaraat’ which represent the devil. They symbolise the temptation placed before Abraham, as well as the temptations facing each pilgrim themselves.  Finally the men will shave all their hair off as the ultimate symbol of cleansing. Women are not required to do so. As soon as this is completed for the first time, the day of Eid is celebrated, and each pilgrim will sacrifice an animal, the meat of which will be shared between family and charity.

    The pilgrim then aquires the title of Hajji or Hajja which is of huge cultural and social significance. In fact, the entire experience of hajj is a deeply collective one. Pilgrims will be waved off by the whole community, who will also come to receive them. Today you might see hordes of family and friends at airport terminals with garlands of flowers waiting to receive the returning hajjis. These traditions are extremely historic as these Egyptian village paintings show.

    The hajj is a deeply aspirational undertaking for Muslims. Those who have not been ardently desire to go. Those who have been will wish to go again if they can. Many will save for years, if not a lifetime. It is a passion which drives the sense of belonging to the wider Muslim community, as well as a desire to travel. Along the way Muslims will see the world, and will create connections with those from far flung places.

    Last year, 2.8 million Muslims participated in the hajj, from 181 countries. Now that is a global event worth taking note of.

    You can read more of Shelina Janmohamed’s Insider’s View here on our blog

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