Each year, Muslims travel to Mecca, Saudi Arabia during Dhu al-Hijjah, the last month of the Islamic calendar, to perform a series of rituals that follow in the footsteps of the prophet Muhammad, who completed his first and only hajj in 632 CE.
In its entirety, hajj is meant to be a journey, and in several senses—beyond the thousands of miles many traverse to get there—it is. According to accounts, after instructing his followers on just how to conduct hajj rites, Muhammad said in a sermon, “Time has completed its cycle and is as it was on the day God created the heavens and earth.” He died shortly after.
Time, for all its intents and purposes, has continued, and today, approximately 1,378 years after Muhammad did, more than two million people annually perform the hajj: That’s four times the number of people who traveled to Rio for the 2016 Olympics, more than double the entire population of Fiji, and 20 times the number of people who performed hajj in 1924. (Framed for millennials, it’s about as many people who came to see Beyoncé on her 49-show, six-month “The Formation World Tour.”) With these crowds has come an entire industry. When I tell Kiran Ali, a D.C.-based lawyer who went on hajj in 2014, that the Saudi government estimates the number of people circling the Kaaba—Islam’s holiest site—is 107,000 people an hour, she pauses, only before saying, “That seems low.”
For the world’s 1.8 billion Muslims, roughly 24 percent of the population, hajj is one of the five pillars of Islam, along with shahadah (profession of faith), salat (prayer), zakat (giving alms), and sawm (fasting and abstinence during the month of Ramadan). All adherents of the faith are expected to complete the hajj once in their lives, provided they are physically and financially capable. (Hajj dates change every year, as the Islamic calendar is based on the moon’s cycle.) Within that, there are stipulations: Women under the age of 45 must be accompanied by a mahram, or male such as a husband, son, father, or brother, while women older than 45 may travel without a mahram, so long as they submit a notarized letter of no objection. Children can go on hajj, but need to be able to comprehend and perform its required duties. But if everything lines up, you are expected—by Allah, by your community—to go. Non-Muslims are not permitted to enter or travel through Mecca.
You will only go when Allah says it is time for you to go.
“I am in my late sixties, and my husband just turned 70,” says Hajra Khan, a Michigan-based physician who went on hajj last year with her husband, Mahmood, also a physician. “People usually do it earlier, but every time we wanted to go, something came about. But, as people say, you will only go when Allah says it is time for you to go.”
Once in Mecca, men and women mix while performing hajj rites—a difference from the designated, separate prayer spaces in mosques. And, though women performing hajj must cover their hair with a veil, the burqa is not allowed, largely due to the prophet Muhammad’s teachings on ritual purity for hajj, in which women “should not cover her face, or wear gloves.” Both men and women don ihram clothing: Women can wear whatever color they want, so long as the clothes aren’t tight, short, see-through, or decorated. Men, to remove any indications of wealth or stature, all wear two pieces of white, unstitched cloth and sandals.
Over the course of five days, men and women alike walk counterclockwise seven times around the cube-shaped, 43-foot high black granite Kaaba, both at the beginning and end of their pilgrimages. They perform the devotional act of sa’i, which consists of hiking back and forth between the small Safa and Marwah hills seven times; drink holy water from the Zamzam well; and spend dawn to dusk contemplating in the plains of Mount Arafat. In the plain of Muzdalifah, pilgrims spend a night in prayer, and gather the 49 pebbles they will later throw at three 85-foot walls, a symbolic stoning of Abraham being tempted by the devil. Eid al-Adha, or the Festival of Sacrifice, falls toward the end of hajj, and pilgrims sacrifice an animal, and shave their heads (men) or cut their hair (women).
And while the rituals required know no gender, the difficulties with each step vary greatly by person.
For Hajra, the physician from Michigan, it was emotional—walking between Safa and Marwah as Hagar, her namesake who bore the prophet Abraham’s son, did so long ago: “I thought of her as a mother, and as a woman, in a desert, all alone with a baby, and nothing to eat and nothing to drink. I, as a woman and a mother, felt her pain.” For London-based Mohammed Khan, who went in 2008 with his mother, it was a series of unfortunate events: a sunset-to-dawn ordeal in which he broke his glasses, got sick, and had trouble getting back to his tent in Mina. For Murtaza Sutarwalla, a Houston-based attorney who went on hajj with his wife in 2012, it was spending the night under the stars on the plains of Muzdalifah—no tents, no roof over your head, no bed beyond a straw mat or cardboard, wearing only ihram.
It took Sutarwalla some eight hours to reach Muzdalifah, but in a journey lies a reward.
“That night, as I fell asleep after the longest and most tiring day of my life, the thought hit that for all of the material things we chase, as long as one has that inherent connection to God, there is nothing more that one really needs. I had the most wonderful sleep that night in my entire life,” he says.
It is a difficult journey on so many levels—physically, mentally, and spiritually.
For many who have completed hajj, though, the thought of doing it all again is met with a mix of apprehension and excitement.
“Thinking about those experiences, reflecting on them, I come to the realization that God has commanded us to perform hajj once in our lifetime for precisely this reason,” says Safura Hussain, who went on hajj in 2006 with her husband, son, and daughter. “It is a difficult journey on so many levels—physically, mentally, and spiritually.”
Says Mohammed Khan, who also writes about religion and travel for the online publication Sacred Footsteps: “The experience I had after I finished it was that I never wanted to do it again. It’s so tiring. It’s so crowded. It’s busy. It’s hot. It’s not a very comfortable situation to be in. But at the same time, you think back, and despite all of those things you went through, it’s a really uplifting experience. It’s a completely different world. It’s something that you don’t know what it is, but you have that feeling [of wanting] to go back.”
The biggest hurdle to getting to that very journey, for many, is financial. All pilgrims have to go on hajj with a Saudi-approved tour operator, who offer packages of varying price points and privilege, and who receive a licensed number of permits each year. (Permits are largely based on the number of Muslims; Indonesia, with the world’s largest Muslim population, sent 221,000 people on hajj last year.) The so-called “low-cost” hajj, as dictated by the Saudi ministry, begins at $800, and includes three meals a day, water, soft drinks, hot drinks, a medical doctor, security guards, and a bed in the Mina and Arafat camps. It does not include air or train transportation to and from Saudi Arabia, which only drives up the cost by the hundreds. On average, for the more basic packages, Al Jazeera reports, it costs someone from Malaysia half a year’s salary to go on hajj, and someone from Bangladesh more than three years of work. Still, not all tales of saving up, shelling out, and going on hajj have a happy ending: Many pilgrims begin their journey to Mecca only to find out their five-star hotel is a two-star hotel, or that they they are facing an excruciatingly long layover in an airport nowhere near their destination.
“Some agencies sell hajj before they have a contract with the hotels or anything with the airport. They figure, ‘We’ll sell it, and we’ll search for a good deal after,’” says Rasha Ramadan, who has been on hajj 13 times as a tour coordinator with Adam Travel and 14 times in total. “Picking the right tour operator is extremely important.”
With 45 offices around the world and more than 32 years in business, Adam is one of the behemoths in the hajj travel industry, a consolidator offering packages that begin at $7,490 and top out at $22,500; other major players on the higher end of the spectrum include Dawn Travels and Dar El Salam. What you’ll get, if you spring for a premium package? Everything from air-conditioned smoothie bars in Mina to transportation to and from five-star hotels in Mecca during each day of hajj. Hajj is expensive, but then again, it seemingly always has been: In the mid-18th century, a round-trip journey from Damascus to Mecca cost as much as an average-sized Damascene house.
Tour operators aside, the hajj is big business. Every year, airlines add additional flights to Jeddah and Medina; in 2017, Emirates alone added 57 extra flights from August to September. Malaysia Airlines in January 2018 even announced its plans to establish a new division of the carrier solely for hajj purposes, where it will give new life to its surplus A380s. The majority of flights land and depart at the specially-designed hajj terminal at Jeddah’s King Abdulaziz International Airport, which covers five million square feet and is equipped to handle 80,000 passengers at a time; it is the fourth-largest airport terminal in the world, following those at Beijing Capital International Airport, Dubai International Airport, and Hong Kong International Airport. Still, immigration lines for hajj can still take up to 12 hours.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, more growth is on the way. Though Saudi Arabia cut back on the number of pilgrims allowed after a stampede in 2015 killed more than 2,000 people, that number has again risen. Muhsin Al-Sharif, a member of Saudi Arabia’s Committee of Real Estate and Investment has said he hopes hajj and umrah—a similar ritual, but taken any time of year by Muslims—would generate some $150 billion annually by 2022, and that Saudi Arabia would draw up to 30 million pilgrims by 2030, according to Newsweek.
People come to pilgrimage for thousands of reasons. Many come out of desperation, and they will do anything.
To help with that very goal of bringing in more of the faithful to Muhammad’s birthplace, Saudi Arabia is set to launch its $16 billion, 198-mph Haramain Express train later this year, which will shorten the travel time between Mecca and Medina from six hours to two. Expansion plans are in the works—to raise the capacity of the mosques, to add more shaded areas and ventilated bridges, to develop the holy sites—and they’ll have to be, if only for safety: G. Keith Still, a professor of crowd science at Manchester Metropolitan University who has previously worked with the Saudi government to ease congestion in and around Mecca, says international safety standards are about four people per square meter, while he has evidence of six to eight people per square meter around the Kaaba.
To some pilgrims, that high volume of people all trying to accomplish the same things can feel dangerous at times.
“It gets kind of violent, unintentionally,” says Ali. “People come to pilgrimage for thousands of reasons. Many come out of desperation—they’re looking for hope—and they will do anything. They’ll push each other, they’ll shove each other, they’ll step on each other. It’s so ironic, because they’re there for a religious purpose, to cleanse their soul, and out of their own desperation, they forget humanity. And that is one of the most interesting facets [of the experience] to observe.”
For Mahmood, Hajra’s husband, this me-first mentality is at odds with the true intent of the hajj.
“In the context of how the prophet wanted hajj to be performed, there’s a clear contradiction in how people behave today,” he says. “Though we complete the hajj—all the requirements, all the rituals—there is a very clear understanding that that itself does not indicate that you have accomplished the goal of hajj. You may complete the rituals, but you have not completed hajj, because you have transgressed the duties in a way that you have ignored the most important things, which is humanity. Kindness. Showing respect to others, and taking their needs into account. And at the end of the day, God is the only entity that can say, ‘Yes, you were successful in your hajj.’” #KhabarLive