The annual season of Hajj is now under way. Every Muslim who is financially capable is required by the Koran - the Muslim holy scripture - to make the pilgrimage to Mecca at the annual season of Hajj at least once is his lifetime. The culmination of the Hajj is the Id-Al Adha, the festival of sacrifice, which this year falls on November 28.
The muezzin repeatedly calls to prayer, "God is most great… I bear witness to greatness of God." At his riveting call, Muslims around the world turn toward Mecca and prostrate themselves before God to say their daily prayers.
How it began
It was in Mecca, around the year 570 A.D., that Muhammad, the prophet of Islam, was born. Forty years after his birth, Muhammad began to guide his people and to teach them the oneness of God. According to the Islamic faith, by doing so Muhammad completed a tradition begun by Adam and followed by a succession of prophets, including Abraham the patriarch, Moses and Jesus, so that humanity may live in peace and in covenant with God.
Soon after Muhammad started his teachings, he asked his clansmen from the elite tribe of Quraysh to abandon their worship of idols and return to a tradition promulgated by Abraham, the patriarch of the Jews, Christians and now Muslims.
Bruce Feiler, the New York Times best-selling author of Walking the Bible, writing in his new book Abraham, says: "All three religions, i.e., Judaism, Christianity and Islam, view Abraham in a powerfully similar way. Abraham, across all religion and time, is devout, dedicated, capable of deductive reasoning, willing to struggle for his faith and deft at
using wit and logic to spread the divine message. He is prophetic, heroic, charismatic. He is worthy of God."
Faced with defiance and persecution, Muhammad fled Mecca with a handful of his followers and journeyed to Medina, then an oasis 320 kilometers north of Mecca. The flight, or Hegira, of the prophet of Islam in the year 622 marks the beginning of the Muslim calendar.
Muhammad thrived in Median and, eight years after his flight, he returned to Mecca in triumph to witness the removal of idols from Ka'ba, the House of God.
Muslim tradition has it that Abraham, the patriarch, built Ka'ba and the House of God. Located in one corner of Ka'ba is the "black Stone," or "Hajar-al-Aswad," which Muslims believe was given by God to Abraham as a reward for his faithfulness. The stone represents the covenant between God and humans.
The great patriarch, in a test of his faith, was ordered by God to sacrifice his son, Ismael. However, God, satisfied that Abraham had passed the test of faith, offered a ram to be sacrificed in place of his son, at the last minute. The "Eid-al Adha," or the festival of sacrifice, commemorates these events.
For more than 14 centuries, Muslims around the world have cast their eyes toward Ka'ba and looked forward to the day when they would be able to set foot in Mecca, a barren valley, surrounded by harsh hills in today's Saudi Arabia.
This year's pilgrimage to Mecca starts at a especially tense time, when relations between the largely Muslim world of the East and mostly Christian world of the West has deteriorated to a point of mutual suspicion and hostility. Following the terror attacks of 9/11 on America and the slaughter of 3,000 innocent men, women and children in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania, the old hostilities have been inflamed by the appearance of extremist Islamist groups and their incessant preaching of hatred for the followers of the other two monotheistic religions, despite their common heritage with Islam. Leaders on both sides of the chasm have tried their best to depict the terrorist groups as fundamentalists and extremists whose ideology has no place in the sacred texts or in their religious traditions.
President Barack Obama has taken steps to actively seek the friendship and cooperation of the Islamic world. In his University of Cairo address, President Obama spoke of "a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world; one based upon mutual interest and mutual respect."
Back to basics
Pilgrims to Mecca, easily the most political of Islamic religious rituals, start their arduous journey stripped of the trappings of class, power, privilege and status. Men don the "Ihram," a two-piece cloth cover. Women pilgrims wear a head-to-toe white garment that reveals only their faces and hands. The pilgrims then head toward Ka'ba, chanting the "Talbiyya," a prayer to Allah.
"Here we come O' Allah
No partner have thee
And the Blessings are yours."
After reaching Ka'ba, the pilgrims start their "tawaf," or the act of circumambulation, a ritual in which they walk seven times counterclockwise, around Ka'ba. They then make the "Sa'ay," the trip between the hills of Safa and Marwa seven times. A trip to Mina takes place on the eighth day of the Hajj.
The following morning, the pilgrims make a trip to the plains of Arafat, near the site of Muhammad's "Farewell Address," where they pray from noon until sunset. At night, the pilgrims retreat to a place called the "Muzdalifah."
Then they return to Mina for three days, where they cast stones at the three pillars representing the Satan. A final walk around the Ka'ba and the sacrifice of animals bring the Hajj to a close.