The traditional annual Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca, the Hajj is a mandatory religious duty for Muslims and is the largest annual gathering of people in the world. It occurs between the 8th and 12th of the last month of the Islamic calendar, Dhu al-Hijjah. Hajj is that symbolic pilgrimage when millions of Muslims from around the world belonging to different ethnic groups, socioeconomic strata and cultures travel to Mecca together and praise to Allah and ask for forgiveness of their sins.
The five day spiritual Hajj, which dates back to the 7th century of the Christian calendar, is designed to promote the bonds and affection between Muslim communities and shows that everyone is equal in the eyes of Allah by wearing simple white garment Ihram. Pilgrims spend days worshiping in and around the holy city of Mecca and perform rituals that make up the Hajj.
The Hajj is one of the five pillars of Islam; every adult Muslim is supposed to do it at some time in his or her life if health and finances permit. In poorer areas it is not uncommon for whole families or even whole villages to chip in to send one person.
It is an exceedingly cosmopolitan affair. Predominantly Muslim areas include most of North Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia, plus South and Southeast Asian countries such as Pakistan, Bangladesh, Malaysia and Indonesia and several countries in West Africa. Several other areas have large Muslim minorities and there are some Muslims nearly everywhere. The pilgrimage brings Muslims from all these places together.
It is also one of the largest human migrations. Every year over two million people visit Saudi Arabia for this pilgrimage. Since they all arrive at roughly the same time and visit the same places in the same order, and since a large number of Saudis go as well, this is a major logistical problem. The Saudi government has a ministry to manage it.
The Hajj can only be completed during the Islamic month of Dhu al-Hijjah. A pilgrimage to Mecca at any other time is known as Umrah (عمرة), and while not compulsory is strongly recommended.
|Dhu al-Hijjah dates between 2019 and 2021|
|AH||First day (CE)||Last day (CE)|
|1440||2 August 2019||30 August 2019|
|1441||22 July 2020||19 August 2020|
|1442||11 July 2021||8 August 2021|
The early history of Hajj can be traced back to the time of Abraham, around 2000 BCE. According to Islamic tradition, Abraham was ordered by Allah to leave his wife Hagar and his son Ishmael alone in the uninhabited desert with little food and water, where Mecca stands today. When the food and water were gone, Hagar, in search of water for her baby Ishmael, desperately ran seven times between the two hills of Safa and Marwah but found nothing. Returning in despair to Ishmael, she saw him scratching the ground with his leg and a water fountain underneath. Later, the uninhabited desert area started to attract inhabitants due to availability of water and tribes started to settle in Mecca. When Ishmael grew up, he was married into a tribe in Mecca. At some point, Abraham was commanded by Allah to construct a building believed to be the Kaaba, which he did with the help of Ishmael. Abraham was commanded by Allah to invite people to perform pilgrimage in Mecca around the Kaaba.
In pre-Islamic Arabia, Meccans were idol worshippers and the Kaaba was surrounded by pagan idols. During the annual pilgrimage season, people would visit the Kaaba to perform rituals some of which were introduced by Arabs of that time. It is believed some pilgrims would perform tawaf around Kaaba in a naked state. During the initial years of Muhammad's prophethood, the pilgrimage season offered Muhammad the occasion to preach Islam to the foreign people who came to Mecca for pilgrimage. In 630 CE, after Mecca was conquered by Muhammad, he led his followers from Medina to Mecca, cleansed the Kaaba by destroying all the pagan idols, and then reconsecrated the building to Allah. In 631 CE, at the direction of Muhammad, Abu Bakr led some 300 Muslims to the pilgrimage in Mecca where Ali delivered a sermon stipulating the new rites of Hajj and abrogating the pagan rites. He especially declared that no unbeliever, pagan, or naked man would be allowed to circumambulate the Kaaba from the next year. In 632 CE, Muhammad performed his only pilgrimage with a large number of followers, and instructed them on the rites of Hajj and the manners of performing them. From then, Hajj became one of the five pillars of Islam.
In medieval times, pilgrims would gather in the big cities of Syria, Egypt, and Iraq to go to Mecca in groups and caravans comprising tens of thousands of pilgrims, often under state patronage. Some Hajj caravans were guarded by soldiers because there were risks of robbery or attack or natural hazards. Muslim travelers like Ibn Jubayr and Ibn Battuta have recorded detailed accounts of Hajj travels in medieval times. The University of California Berkeley has a good online account of Ibn Battuta's travels including several visits to Mecca, the first in 1326 CE. Despite it being illegal for non-Muslims, a few Western explorers have managed the journey — most notably, Sir Richard Burton made the Hajj in 1853 and wrote an account of the trip.
- See also: Saudi Arabia#Get in
Unless you are a citizen of Saudi Arabia you will need a visa, obtained in advance from a Saudi embassy. Visas are allocated on a quota system, based on the number of Muslims in a country. You may need to provide evidence that you are Muslim, such as a letter from your local mosque.
Women under 45 are required to travel with a mahram, a related adult male who is the head of her family (usually a husband or father), and proof of the relationship is required. Women over 45 may travel without a mahram if they're in an organized group and each has a letter of permission from the man who would be her mahram.
Proof of vaccination for meningitis (specifically the ACYW135 vaccine) between three years before and ten days before your entry into Saudi Arabia is required. Yellow fever vaccination is required if you arrive from any country with known yellow fever infections, and polio vaccinations are required for children up to 15. As millions of people from all over the world gather for Hajj and therefore you will be exposed to many diseases, you may want to discuss other vaccinations and preventative measures with your doctor.
Throughout Hajj you are expected to remove signs of wealth or class distinctions by replacing your clothing with simple white garments. These pieces are called ‘ihram clothing’, and for women comprise of a white abaya, scarf or shawl and socks. The ihram clothing of Hajj is a signifier of equality: all pilgrims are presented as equals in the eyes of God. The white clothing also symbolises purity, and the state of absolute devotion that the pilgrims are in.
In medieval times, people made the pilgrimage to Mecca by camel caravan or by ship; the journey often took months, sometimes even years.
Today, most pilgrims arrive via the airport at Jeddah. Airlines in most Muslim countries offer special flights specifically for Hajj and Jeddah has many regular commercial flights as well, in particular flights to most major European or Middle Eastern hubs. See Jeddah#Get_in for more information.
There are two special Hajj terminals, the largest buildings (by roof area) in the world. They are enormous tents of fiberglass fabric on reinforced concrete poles and steel cables. At Hajj time, there are dozens of large aircraft parked alongside these terminals. These are used only for the Hajj; the airport has another terminal for normal travel. Driving to the regular terminal, you pass between the two Hajj terminals.
From Jeddah — for most pilgrims, directly from the airport — there are chartered buses and taxis to Mecca. Many are painted in the yellow and black pattern used on school buses in North America; seeing dozens of those on the highway is a strange sight if you know them as school buses.
Medina is another entry point, with its airport handling many Hajj flights as well.
The high speed rail line connecting Jeddah and Medina is probably the quickest way to get to Mecca, but it is unclear how or if the trains will handle pilgrims.
Before entering Mecca, pilgrims must enter into a state of holiness; males should wear the plain white pilgrim's garment — Ihram. Most wear Ihram before leaving home while many change at stations designated called Miqat, literally meaning "a stated place". The purpose of wearing Ihram is to show equality of all pilgrims and that there is no difference between the rich and the poor.
Upon arriving in Mecca and checking into a hotel, pilgrims head to Masjid al-Haram and do Tawaf which involves walking around the Kaaba four times at a fast pace and three times at a slow pace. Tawaf is followed by sa'ay which is done by walking seven times back and forth between the hills of Safa and Marwah (both rituals done within the Masjid al-Haram).
These first two steps, which can be done at any time of the year, are known as the "lesser Hajj" or Umrah, while the full course is known as the "greater Hajj" or al-Hajj al-Akbar.
The traditional Hajj route is as follows:
- First day of Hajj — The 8th day of the Islamic month of Dhu al-Hijjah is the first day of the Hajj pilgrimage. Pilgrims enter into a state of holiness by wearing the Ihram while inside Mecca and proceed to Mina, a neighborhood of Mecca and is some 10 km away from central Mecca. Pilgrims go by walking in large groups and camp overnight in Mina. Mina, the city of tents, has more than 100,000 air-conditioned tents which provide temporary accommodation to Hajj pilgrims. Pilgrims spend the day praying during their stay in Mina.
- Second day of Hajj — On the 9th, pilgrims started to move towards the desert plains of Arafat, some 15 km away from Mina. It is said that a pilgrim's Hajj is considered invalid if they do not spend the afternoon in Arafat. Arafat remains uninhabited most of the year except during Hajj season when it is jam-packed. Pilgrims spend time praying in Arafat until sunset. And as soon as the sun sets, the pilgrims begin to leave Arafat for Muzdalifah. Muzdalifah is some 10 km from Arafat on the route between Mina and Arafat. Pilgrims collect pebbles for the next day's ritual of the stoning of the devil in Arafat and camp overnight at open area of Muzdalifah, and often end-up sleeping in the open air.
- Third day of Hajj — Eid al-Adha begins. On the 10th of Dhu al-Hijjah, pilgrims proceed back to Mina and from Mina continue proceeding towards Jamarat Bridge, some 5 km from Mina. At Jamarat Bridge, a symbolic stoning of the devil is performed which involves throwing seven pebbles at the large wall representing the Devil. After performing the stoning of the devil, pilgrims do the sacrifice of an animal (often performed by proxy by buying a sacrifice voucher in Mecca). After which pilgrims move back to Mecca and do Tawaf and Sa'ii of Hajj. Now Ihram are removed and normal clothing can be worn. By night, pilgrims move back to Mina and spend the night there.
- Fourth day of Hajj — On the 11th, pilgrims again proceed to Jamarat Bridge and perform the stoning of the devil. Pilgrims spend the night in Mina.
- Fifth day of Hajj — On the 12th, pilgrims again proceed to Jamarat Bridge and perform yet another stoning of the devil. By sunset, they move back to Mecca.
- Sixth day of Hajj — On the 13th, pilgrims perform Tawaf Widaa, a final circumambulation of the Kaaba and start to leave Mecca for their homes.
The Hajj brings together vast multitudes of pilgrims from all around the world. As of 2013, the Ministry of Hajj states that vaccinations for meningococcal meningitis are required for all pilgrims, and those from yellow fever zones must have a vaccination for that as well.
During major epidemics, Saudi health officials sometimes restrict travel to Mecca and Medina – for instance, during the MERS, Ebola, and COVID-19 epidemics in 2013, 2014, and 2020, respectively.
Hajj attracts dangerously huge crowds with multiple associated risks. From 1990 to 2015, 2777 pilgrims were killed in crushes or stampedes. A crowded tent city in Mina burned in 1997, killing 340. Another 402 died in 1987, when security forces broke up an Iranian demonstration against the United States of America. A construction crane killed 107 when it collapsed in 2015. All of the usual dangers with large crowds, including pickpockets, are very much present.
Stampedes are particularly likely during the stoning of the jamraat. Immediately after the noon prayer is the most crowded and thus the most dangerous time. Tight access controls and a new multi-level bridge spreading out pilgrims prevented a recurrence until 2015, when a stampede during the stoning of the jamraat again led to hundreds of deaths.
Special visas for Hajj are strictly limited to Mecca, Medina, Mina, Arafah and Muzdalifah. Traveling anywhere else in Saudi Arabia will require an additional travel permit, which is difficult and time-consuming to obtain, and is rarely granted without good reason (eg. medical emergencies).
Most pilgrims head to Medina after performing Hajj and stay there for few days before going back home. Medina is where Muhammad lived and taught from when he was driven out of Mecca until his triumphant return.
As during the Hajj season flights out of Mecca are rather cheap and pick up in prices a lot after the season ends, a flight to another (Muslim) country may be had cheaply during this time.