Islam is well-known for having “five pillars” to their faith.  These five actions were established as Islam became formalized as ways for the Muslim to develop the two most important relationships in life: one’s devotion to God and to fellow Muslim believers.  Those five pillars are as follows:

  1. The Statement of Faith (shahadah) that “there is no god but Allah, and Muhammad is the messenger of God”
  2. The daily cycle of Prayer (salat) and prostration
  3. Almsgiving (zakat) to the poor
  4. Observance of the month Ramadan with an increased level of fasting (sawm) from food, water, and sexuality during the day followed by deeply communal feasting at night
  5. All able-bodied Muslims are expected to make a Pilgrimage (hajj) to Mecca at least once in their lifetime to engage in the associated rituals

The name of today’s new surah — Al-Hajj, “The Pilgrimage” — makes it clear that we have come to our first significant discussion of the fifth pillar.   

Juan Campo, in the Encyclopedia of Islam, says the pilgrimage is seen both as an action of penitent devotion to God but also as a way to demonstrate solidarity with the worldwide population of Muslims.  Abraham is considered to be the first pilgrim and the example Muslims look to today for the Hajj (22:26).  The pilgrimage, forbidden to non-Muslims, takes a total of six days during the twelfth month of Dhu al-Hijja in the Islamic lunar calendar (some time from October to December, right now).

Pilgrims encircle the Ka'ba (The Sacred Mosque, 22:25) in Mecca in prayer

Pilgrims perform a series of ritual activities (hajjis) as they trace a twenty-mile loop into the desert outside Mecca and back.  The essential rituals are as follows, in order:

  1. Statement of intention and cleansing of the body (22:29)
  2. Circumambulation of the Ka’ba in Mecca seven times counter-clockwise (22:26, 29)
  3. Running between the hills of Safa and Marwa seven times, a run tradition says Ishmael made
  4. Encampment at Mina, three miles southeast of Mecca
  5. Standing at the plain of Arafat, ten miles southeast of Mecca.  Campo reports that this is deemed by many to be the most important action of all as the sea of pilgrims in white robes is seen as “a rehearsal for the resurrection of the dead and Judgment Day.”
  6. Spending the night at Muzdalifa
  7. “Stoning” the three “satanic” pillars at Mina with pebbles, each of which represents a time Satan tempted Abraham as he went to sacrifice Isaac. 
  8. An animal sacrifice, usually an unblemished cow, camel (22:36), sheep or goat on Id Al-Adha, a remembrance of Abraham’s obedience in the near-sacrifice of Isaac and now one of the most sacred of festivals on the Islamic calendar (22:28).  The feast that follows the sacrifice (in which a portion of the sacrificed animal is eaten) provides a fitting communal end to the pilgrimage. 
  9. Farewell circumambulation of the Ka’ba in Mecca again
Map of the Hajj

During the pilgrimage, men are required to dress only in a simple, unhemmed white robe and sandals, as a symbolic way to show that all men are really equal regardless of social class.  Women maintain their typical modest dress and head covering. 

A close-up of the Ka’ba:


Pilgrims praying at Arafat: 

The stoning of the three pillars of Satan:

The Hajj has become such a special act that now over 2.5 million pilgrims flock to Mecca each year, the largest annual religious pilgrimage in the world.  The Saudi government has spent hundreds of billions of dollars developing improved infrastructure, housing, dining, and security for the pilgrims.  Many pilgrims will enlist expert guides to help make sure their pilgrimage is ritually successful. 

Construction outside the Sacred Mosque in Mecca in 2010

Regardless of your own faith, the Muslim pilgrimage has to be held in awe and wonder.  What an amazing, tangible sign of devotion!   This verse is a good reminder of what matters most in the pilgrimage and sacrifice:

It is neither their meat nor their blood that reaches God but your piety. (22:37)

On a personal note, my blogging will likely be sporadic over the next few weeks.  It looks like after three and a half months, we are finally going to be able to move back into our home after the storm damage from April.