The Hajj is an annual Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca, and a mandatory religious duty for Muslims that must be carried out at least once in their lifetime by all adult Muslims who are physically and financially capable of undertaking the journey, and can support their family during their absence. It is one of the five pillars of Islam.
The pilgrimage takes place from the 8th to 12th of Dhu al-Hijjah, the last month of the Islamic calendar. Because the Islamic calendar is lunar and the Islamic year is about eleven days shorter than the Gregorian year, the Gregorian date of Hajj changes from year to year. Ihram is the name given to the special spiritual state in which pilgrims wear two white sheets of seamless cloth and abstain from certain things.
During Hajj, 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 around the Ka’aba (the cube-shaped building and the direction of prayer for the Muslims), runs back and forth between the hills of Safa and Marwah, drinks from the Zamzam Well, goes to the plains of Mount Arafat to stand in vigil, spends a night in the plain of Muzdalifa, and performs symbolic stoning of the devil by throwing stones at three pillars. The pilgrims then shave their heads, perform a ritual of animal sacrifice, and celebrate the three day global festival of Eid al-Adha.
Pilgrims can also go to Mecca to perform the rituals at other times of the year. This is sometimes called the “lesser pilgrimage”, or Umrah. However, even if they choose to perform the Umrah, they are still obligated to perform the Hajj at some other point in their lifetime if they have the means to do so.
To the Muslims, Hajj is associated with religious as well as social significance. Apart from being an obligatory religious duty, Hajj is seen to have a spiritual merit that provides the Muslims with an opportunity of self-renewal. Hajj serves as a reminder of the Day of Judgment when Muslims believe people will stand before God. Hadith literature (sayings of prophet Muhammad) articulates various merits a pilgrim achieves upon successful completion of their Hajj.
Hajj brings together and unites the Muslims from different parts of the world irrespective of their race, color, and culture, which acts as a symbol of equality.
Studies show that Muslim communities become more positive and tolerant after the Hajj experience. Hajj increases belief in equality and harmony among ethnic groups, Islamic sects and adherents of different religions and leads to more favorable attitudes toward women.
American civil rights activist Malcolm X describes the sociological atmosphere he experienced at his Hajj in the 1960s as follows:
There were tens of thousands of pilgrims, from all over the world. They were of all colors, from blue-eyed blondes to black-skinned Africans. But we were all participating in the same ritual, displaying a spirit of unity and brotherhood that my experiences in America had led me to believe never could exist between the white and the non-white. America needs to understand Islam, because this is the one religion that erases from its society the race problem. You may be shocked by these words coming from me. But on this pilgrimage, what I have seen, and experienced, has forced me to rearrange much of my thought patterns previously held.