The annual season of Hajj is now under way. Every Muslim who is financially able to do so is obliged under the Koran, the holy Muslim scripture, to make the pilgrimage to Mecca during Hajj at least once in his or her lifetime. The season culminates on the "Id-Al Adha," the festival of sacrifice, which this year falls on Tuesday, January 11 and continues until January 14. The arduous annual Hajj pilgrimage takes place this year against the background of the continuing war in Iraq and the increasing militancy on the part of the Islamic extremist groups against broader interests of the West and of particularly, the United States.
Call to Prayer: "God is most great, god is most great," the muezzin says in calling the faithful to prayer, "I bear witness to the oneness of God, I bear witness to the oneness of God."
At the muezzin's call, Muslims turn toward Mecca and prostrate themselves before God in humility to say their daily prayer.
It was in Mecca around the year 570 that Muhammad, the prophet of Islam, was born. When he was 40, he began to guide his people and teach them the oneness of God. By doing so, the Islamic faith teaches, Muhammad completed a tradition begun by Adam and followed by a succession of prophets, including Abraham, Moses, Jesus, in order that humanity may live in peace and in covenant with God.
Soon after Muhammad started his teachings, he asked his fellow clansmen from the elite tribe of Quraysh to abandon their practices of worshiping idols and ponder the intricacies of creation that, he reasoned, could come from one God only. But faced with defiance and persecution, Muhammad fled Mecca, his birthplace, 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 Muslim calendar and an era profoundly transforming the course of human history.
Muhammad thrived in Medina. Eight years after he fled Mecca, he returned in triumph to witness the removal of the idols from Ka'ba, the House of God. Muslim tradition has it that Abraham, the Patriarch, built Ka'ba as 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 and rectitude, 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 festival of sacrifice commemorates these events.
Abraham, writes Bruce Feiler, a New York Times best-selling author, "remains a defining figure for half the world's believers. Muslims invoke him in their daily prayers, as do Jews. He appears repeatedly in the Christian liturgy. The most mesmerizing story of Abraham's life - his offering a son to God - plays a pivotal role in the holiest week of the Christian year, at Easter. The story is also recited at the start of the holiest fortnight in Judaism, on Rosh Hashanah."
For over 13 centuries Muslims the world over have 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.
Pilgrims to Mecca start their spiritual journey stripped of the trappings of class, power and status. Men wear the "Ihram," a two-piece seamless 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 "Talbiyah," a prayer to Allah.
The pilgrims chant, "here we come o Allah, no partner have you. Blessings are yours, the kingdom, too."
After reaching Ka'ba, the pilgrims begin their Tawaf, a ritual in which they walk seven times counterclockwise around Ka'ba, as the American writer Herman Melville put it, "to circumambulate the city of a dreamy Sabbath afternoon."
Then they make the "Sa'ay," the trip between the hills of Safa and Marwa, seven times. A trip to Minah takes place on the eighth day of the Hajj. The following morning the pilgrims make a trip to the plain of Arafat. Here Muslims perform the "standing" rituals, praying from noon until sunset near the site of Muhammad's farewell address. At night, the pilgrims retreat to a place called "Muzdalifah." Then they return to Minah for three days, where they cast stones at the three pillars representing the Satan, signifying his rejection and what he stands for.