Three things you should know about Muslims and hajj
This week is the beginning of the Islamic month of Dhulhijjah, which is the final month of the Islamic calendar, and also the month when the pilgrimage of the hajj takes place. This means Muslim pilgrims from around the globe have set off on the journey of a lifetime to Makkah to take place in the rituals which begin on the 9th day of the month and include the festival of Eid ul Adha on the 10th. But what do you need to know about the experience, how to decode the rituals, and what it means to Muslims? Here we address three aspects of the pilgrimage and its meaning.
Equality and purity
All pilgrims wear white clothing, and this clothing, and the state of mind that accompany it, are called ehraam. This is white, in order to create a sense of equality that erases wealth, class and status. It also reminds the pilgrim of the cloth they will be wrapped in when they die, which is also white. And as the pilgrim progresses through the hajj it symbolises their purification and their emergence as pure returning to the world. The ehraam embodies the Muslim world view that all are equal and that all aspire to return to a pure state.
A journey like no other
Although the rituals of the hajj begin in Makkah, pilgrims in fact travel outside of the city on a number of stops before returning to the holy city to complete their pilgrimage. First is Arafat, a wide open plain where pilgrims spend the day in the heat as a reminder of the Day of Judgement asking for forgiveness for all the wrongs they have committed. Then they journey through the valley of Muzdalifah through the night collecting pebbles which will be used in the final part of their ritual at Mina. Although it is just a few miles, the sheer number of pilgrims that walk slowly along means it takes all night sometimes. At Mina, the pilgrims remain for three days, and use the pebbles to throw against the stone Satans as a physical expression of their own inner demons that they are erasing, based on the story of Abraham who refused to be tricked by the devil into doing wrong. The journey of the hajj, from home to Makkah, and then from Makkah through Arafat, Muzdalifah and Mina and back to Makkah are a sense of the journey that Muslims feel they undertake through their lives.
Completing the hajj gives pilgrims a fresh start returning back home
After pilgrims arrive in Mina, one of their rituals that they undertake – or have someone undertake on their behalf – is to sacrifice an animal. For pilgrims it represents sacrificing something that they hold dear to themselves as a signal of returning towards God. But the meat from the sacrifice is divided into three parts. The first is kept by the pilgrim and family, the second is shared with the wider family and friends, often in the form of a large meal. And most importantly the third part is given to the poor. The pilgrimage is thus a communal affair. In particular, the food sharing with friends and community is part of the celebration of the achievement of pilgrimage, and a welcome to the returning pilgrim to begin a new life which breaks with the old, and where people understand there is an aspiration to put bad habits and actions in the past and start afresh.