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.

This article is an itinerary.

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.

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Note: The Hajj is intended for Muslims only, and under Saudi law the territory around Mecca and Medina is off-limits to non-Muslims year round.
Pilgrims circling the Kaaba, Mecca

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 2018 and 2021
AH First day (CE) Last day (CE)
1439 12 August 2018 10 September 2018
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.

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