There is a shrine in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, known as the Ka’aba. Muslims believe it was originally built by Adam, destroyed in Noah’s time, and rebuilt by Abraham and his son Ishmael.
They believe that over time the Arabs of the region became idolaters, and this sacred site was co-opted by pagans. Mecca became the destination of many pagan pilgrims. Those pilgrims provided a great deal of income for the city. Muhammad’s grandfather was actually the caretaker of the Ka’aba.
In 610 AD, as Muhammad began preaching against the idolatry in Mecca, opposition to him grew. A power struggle developed between him and the leaders and citizens of Mecca. In 622 AD, he fled to Medina, 200 miles away. Eventually the balance of power shifted, and Muhammad and his followers returned to Mecca in 630 AD. They marched in – with other tribes who joined them on the way – destroyed the idols, and reclaimed the Ka’aba and the whole city for Allah (Quran 22:26-28).
For Muslims, Mecca is the most important city in the world. It is the birthplace of their prophet. They face it five times daily in prayer. To journey there is the dream of a lifetime. The hajj is required of every able-bodied Muslim who can afford to go.
Those who cannot go can send someone in their place – someone who has already been on the journey. The hajj, theoretically, unifies and brings equity to the worldwide community of Muslims, whether prince or pauper. Non-Muslims are never allowed into Mecca.
Not only do they believe a sincere Muslim leaves Mecca with a new status and title (hajji for men and hajja for women), they leave like a newborn baby: sinless and with a fresh start in life
Each year around two million Muslims perform the hajj during the 12th month of the lunar calendar. Some very wealthy people stay in five-star hotels; others sleep on the side of the road. Women must be accompanied by husbands or guardians. Everyone prepares for the journey by washing, cutting their hair and nails, and donning the same simple, special clothing.
The ritual starts by circling the Ka’aba seven times and kissing the Black Stone. Then, while reciting prayers along the way, the pilgrim runs between two small hills, meant to symbolize Hagar’s frantic search for water in the desert. Next, after a sermon and prayers in the Great Mosque at Mecca, Muslims travel to Arafat, about 12 miles away. There they stand and pray: “Here I am, O Allah, here I am, here I am. You have no partner. Here I am.” After their vigil at Arafat, they visit Mina, where they throw stones at a pillar symbolizing Satan.
When this is complete, a sacrifice is offered and the Eid al-Adha begins (Festival of Sacrifice, which all Muslims celebrate, not just the pilgrims). Afterward, people return to Mecca for one more pass around the Ka’aba and perhaps even return to Mina or visit the grave of Muhammad at Medina