Very briefly, few lines on the background, on Hajj and its rites.

Hajj currently is the largest annual pilgrimage in the world. The pilgrimage occurs from the 7th to 13th day of Dhu al Hijja, the 12th month of the Islamic calendar. Because the Islamic calendar is a lunar calendar, eleven days shorter than the Gregorian calendar used in the Western world, the Gregorian date of the Hajj changes from year to year. In  2009 it was from November 25–29.

Hajj is associated with the life of prophet Muhammad (pbuh) from the 7th century, but the ritual of pilgrimage to Mecca is considered by Muslims to stretch back thousands of years to the time of Ibrahim (Abraham). Pilgrims join processions of hundreds of thousands of people, who simultaneously converge on Mecca for the week of the Hajj, and perform a series of rituals:

Each person walks counter-clockwise seven times about the Ka’bah, the cube-shaped building which acts as the Muslim direction of prayer, kisses the Black Stone in the corner of the Kaaba, runs back and forth between the hills of Al-Safa and Al-Marwah, drinks from the Zamzam Well, goes to the plains of Mount Arafat to stand in vigil, and throws stones in a ritual Stoning of the Devil. The pilgrims then shave their heads, perform a ritual of animal sacrifice, and celebrate the four day global festival of Eid al-Adha

In 2009, about three million pilgrims participated in this annual pilgrimage Because of the large numbers of people; many of the rituals have become more stylized and shortened. It is not possible to kiss the Black Stone; one can merely   point at it on each circuit around the Kaaba. Throwing pebbles was done at large pillars, which for safety reasons in 2004 were changed to long walls with catch basins below to catch the stones. The slaughter of an animal can be done either personally, or by appointing someone else to do it, and so forth.

Before embarking on the pilgrimage me and my wife gathered as much information on Hajj rites and rituals as possible. Sadly we found that over the years although the basic rites have not changed, but the rituals and the finer details have been pronounced by different Alims (highly educated) in religious matters differently. We therefore decided to join a licensed tour operator who was escorting a caravan of 70 Hajj pilgrims. He is a Maulana, who makes his living through the earnings from the payments from pilgrims proceeding on Hajj and Ziyarat. He is required to provide both spiritual guidance and material comfort during the pilgrimage. Sadly on both counts his performance left much to be desired and we remained unsatisfied. The Government sponsored Hajj pilgrimage causes more strain and hardship to the pilgrims as being cheaper it does not provide many facilities that the private operators do.

As a prelude to Hajj we commenced our journey from Medina, where we stayed there for good eight days. We spent major portion of our time here praying in the Grand Mosque in which prophet Muhammad’s (pbuh), grave is located also reciting ziyarat and fatiha regularly at Jannat Al Baqui, the grave yard containing  graves of Prophet’s daughter, her son and other progenies.

The Grand Mosque stands on the site where the house of Prophet’s daughter with her husband Imam Ali. Schematic drawings available with some show the entire layout of the house, the mosques and the courtyard. All these were razed and leveled to build the grand Mosque.

On our journey to Mecca in our preparation for Hajj, we stopped at Meqat, some distance from Medina to wear the Ihram (the unstitched clothing), for which there are many instructions to adhere to, both by ladies and gents.

The wearing of Ihram is the start point of the Hajj and henceforth many restrictions apply, especially with respect to anger control. No more fretting or fuming is permissible. Humility and tolerance are the watchwords, failure to abide by these leads to serious consequences including break in Hajj rites.

At Mecca we performed the stage one of Hajj, which sequentially is, perambulating (tawaf) around the Kaaba, seven times, praying behind muqame Ibrahim facing Kaaba, walking and running between Safa and Marwa seven times (Sahi) and trimming some hair from our head., All this took us four hours in one stretch. At each of these places the crowd was extremely large. The hustling and the bustling during Tawaf and Sahi do pose major problems mainly for the aged, but I saw and felt the reverence, faith and willpower in each and everyone to complete these no matter the hardships and physical pain. There are instructions for the prayers that are to be recited during Tawaf and Sahi; these are best ascertained through individual effort or through a spiritual guide.

We left for Arafat day after our prayers at Mecca. At Arafat where we contemplated, prayed and recited the Qur’an in our tents, near a hill from which Prophet Muhammad (pubh) gave his last sermon. This hill is called Jabal Al Rahmah (The Hill of Forgivness, Mount Arafat). This is known as wuquf, considered the highlight of the Hajj. We spent the afternoon within our tents at Arafat until after sunset. No specific rituals or prayers are required during the stay at Arafat, although many pilgrims spend time praying, and thinking about the course of their lives. A pilgrim’s Hajj is considered invalid if they do not spend the afternoon on Arafat.

As soon as the sun set, we left Arafat for Muzdalifah, an area between Arafat and Mina, where we gathered pebbles for the next day’s ritual of the stoning of the Devil (Shaitan).. All the able bodied spent the night sleeping on the ground in the open at Muzdalifah before returning to Mina; the aged and the ladies proceeded on foot to Mina to sleep in their tents.

We spent two nights at Mina. On the first day of our stay we performed Ramy al-Jamarat, stoning the largest pillar known as Jamrat’al’Aqabah, by climbing the ramps to the multi-leveled Jamarat Bridge, from which we threw seven pebbles, to signify our defiance of the Devil. This symbolizes the trials experienced by Ibrahim while he decided whether to sacrifice his son as demanded by Allah. The Devil challenged him three times, and three times Ibrahim refused. Each pillar marks the location of one of these refusals. On the second day the other pillars were also stoned by throwing seven pebbles at each. In 2004, to meet the dangers imposed by the huge crowd, the pillars were replaced by long walls, with catch basins below to collect the pebbles.

After the Stoning of the Devil, we performed the animal sacrifice, to symbolize Allah’s mercy on prophet Ibraim  by replacing his son with a ram, which Ibrahim then sacrificed. We gave the amounts as intimated for the slaughter animal, to our guide, who in turn deposited the same with the authorities. Traditionally, the pilgrims slaughtered the animal themselves, or oversaw the slaughtering. Today many pilgrims buy a sacrifice voucher in Mecca before the greater Hajj begins, which allows an animal to be slaughtered in their name on the 10th, without the pilgrim being physically present. Centralized butcher houses sacrifice a single sheep for each pilgrim, or a cow. The meat is then packaged and given to charity and shipped to poor people around the world. At the same time as the sacrifices occur at Mecca, Muslims worldwide perform similar sacrifices, in a four day global festival called Eid al-Adha.

On confirmation from our guide that the money for animal slaughter on our behalf has been deposited, I shaved my hair completely; thus marking the end of the Hajj rites.

After marking the end of Hajj rites we returned to Mecca to repeat the rites performed in Phase I and in addition performing Tawafful Nisan around Kaaba, praying behind Muqame Ibrahim. One reason given for performing Taawaful Nissan is to promote and to retain harmony and affection between wife and husband.

Hajj has been performed since thousands years, but sadly the plight of pilgrims during the Hajj period has not undergone perceptible change; the poor administrative arrangements leading to chaos and individual discomfort and misery. A few five star zones have been created but for those who can pay for their well being. For the rest it is one long nightmare, especially at Mina where for the two nights the pilgrims occupy barely sufficient space for comfort, rest and sleep in their crowded tents and have to wait prolonged periods for ablution and morning necessities in the unhygienic and poorly maintained over crowded toilets.

Coming from humble back grounds for most not exposed to opulence and worldly niceties, the discomforts during Hajj are tolerable but as these occupy the space and the time necessary for devotion and prayers which are of primary importance, they become all the more harmful and fatiguing, specially for the majority who are aged and feeble.. The reasons for this sad state of affairs may be many and are very often quoted; over four to six million pilgrims, unhygienic conditions created by pilgrims and so on. However, if the authorities can build, palaces and five star conditions for the wealthy and the rich, the infrastructure for basic necessities can also be built for the common pilgrim. Islam, meaning submission, lays down a level playing field for every human being, whether it be for opportunity to further one’s life or submit before Allah. The followers of Islam holding power and authority in their own weird and selfish ways have brought upon disparity and differentiations. The rest of us just wait and watch.

More  in Part three.