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Portfolio: Following the Hajj

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From the Winter Issue "Africa's Moment"

By Hasan Hatrash

Mecca: The Abraj al-Bait Towers, the world’s second tallest building and tallest clocktower, overlooks the Masjid al-Haram, the world’s largest mosque with the Kaaba, Islam’s most sacred shrine, at its heart.

MECCA, Saudi Arabia—Hajj, or pilgrimage, is the fifth pillar of Islam—a once-in-a-lifetime compulsory duty for every Muslim who is financially and physically capable. Each year, some four million people perform the hajj to Mecca, following a religious tradition started by the prophet Abraham as early as 2000 BCE and carried on by the prophet Mohammed when he cleansed the Kaaba, destroyed the idols, and re-ordained the building as the house of God in 630 CE. It was from this point that the hajj became one of Islam’s Five Pillars. It is at once a profound religious ceremony and a social phenomenon that brings together Muslims from every continent and every social and economic class in a shared experience unlike any other on earth.

Ghazi al-Sousi, a 27-year-old Palestinian whose family has lived in Saudi Arabia for two generations, is a direct descendant of the prophet Mohammed’s family. Like each pilgrim, he starts his first hajj by proclaiming his intention (niyyat) and donning the ihram, a two-piece white cloth. After declaring his intention, a pilgrim is permitted to wear nothing but the ihram.

Ghazi al-Sousi, a 27-year-old Palestinian, starts his hajj by proclaiming his intention (niyyat) and donning the ihram, a two-piece white cloth.

Al-Sousi and his fellow pilgrims start arriving in buses and begin with a more than three mile walk to Mecca.

The hajj has ballooned in size from 50,000 people in 1950 to 300,000 in 1965 to 400,000 in 1975. It did not cross the million mark until the mid-1990s, but in the past decade, about 2.5 million pilgrims from 160 nations have taken part each year. Not surprisingly, the Saudi Government only permits pilgrims to enter Mecca as a way to deal with the crowds. Every pilgrim must register with an official hajj group, which provides transport and licensed camps at the holy sites.

Pilgrims arrive in Mecca in the 12th month of the hijiri calendar, then plunge right into the ceremonies—performing tawaf of arrival, circling seven times around the sacred Kaaba, an immense marble cube set in the center of the Masjid al-Haram mosque in the center of Mecca. It is the most sacred site in Islam. Toward the Kaaba is where all Muslims must turn to pray five times each day.

Al-Sousi and millions of other pilgrims take a long, exhausting walk through the two-mile long al-Muaisim tunnel that links the far eastern side of Mecca to the walls known as jamarat.

CALL TO PRAYERS

As the call for dawn prayers is announced by the muezzin’s cry, pilgrims flock to Arafat, the beginning stage of hajj. Quickly, the four-square-mile area is filled with millions of pilgrims—each supplicating Allah for forgiveness and praying for personal prosperity. Ghazi decides to stay in his camp to avoid the congested lanes of Arafat, where hordes of international pilgrims flock toward the Mosque of Namirah to perform noon prayers. Ghazi quickly completes most of his hajj rituals. All that remains are three sessions of stoning the devil—casting seven pebbles each time at three walls in the city of Mina, just east of Mecca—over the next two days, though this may be stretched to three depending on the pilgrim’s stamina. Being young, Ghazi decides he wants to finish his duties early. On the 11th and 12th day of Dhul Hijja (the month in the Islamic calendar when the hajj takes place), Ghazi walks the long walk to the Jamarat, the three walls representing the devil. On the night of the 12th, after performing the third and final stoning, Ghazi goes to the Grand Mosque for the farewell tawaf—the Tawaf Alwada.

The meaning of hajj, Ghazi concludes, can be understood only by performing it. “I feel new, strong, and fresh,” he says, adding that the gathering of international visitors, who are all wearing the same dress both rich and poor, is what gives this event its power and meaning. It should not be seen as a threat to non-Muslims, rather a means of giving support to millions who seek something spiritual to hold onto. “I’ve never been put in such a test of physical and mental abilities,” Ghazi says.

Al-Sousi’s camp, a tent city called Mina, covers an area of more than four square miles and contains more than 100,000 air conditioned tents, providing temporary accommodation for pilgrims and relief from the blazing desert heat.

In Mina, al-Sousi collects pebbles for the first of three stoning rituals based on legend that Abraham cast stones at the devil that came between him and the command that Allah had sent him.

Pilgrims shave after they have participated in a stoning the first of three times. At night, after a frantic search, he finds a pilgrim near his camp who offers a free shave in return for a prayer.

After a long and exhausting walk, al-Sousi and other pilgrims reach the Jamarat and cast their stones at the first wall known as Jamrat al-Aqaba.

Al-Sousi seeks solitude on one of the mountains overlooking Mina. After navigating the huge crowds of the stoning ceremonies, a few pilgrims climb above the busy tent city to pray in peace and isolation before returning to their homes.

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Hasan Hatrash is a Saudi Arabia-based photojournalist.

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