The annual season of Hajj is now under way. Every Muslim who is financially capable is required by the Koran, the holy Muslim scripture, to make the pilgrimage to Mecca at the annual season of Hajj at least once in the lifetime. The culmination of the Hajj is the "Id-Al Adha," the festival of sacrifice, which this year falls on Saturday, December 30 in Saudi Arabia and Sunday, December 31 elsewhere. VOA's Amin Fekrat reports.

The muezzin repeatedly calls to prayer, "God is most great...I bear witness to the greatness of God." At the muezzin's call, Muslims around the world turn toward Mecca and prostrate themselves in humility to say their daily prayer.

It was in Mecca around the year 570, that Muhammad, the prophet of Islam, was born. Forty years after his birth, Muhammad 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 worship of idols.

But 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 Muslim calendar.

Muhammad thrived in Medina, and eight years after his flight he returned to Mecca 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 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.

For over 13 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.

Pilgrims to Mecca start their spiritual journey stripped of the trappings of class, power and status. Men don 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.

"Here we come o Allah," the pilgrims chant, "No partner have you... and blessings are yours."

After reaching Ka'ba, the pilgrims begin their Tawaf, a ritual in which they walk seven times counterclockwise around Ka'ba. 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 near the site of Muhammad's farewell address, where they pray from noon to sunset. 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. A final walk around the Ka'ba and sacrifice of animals bring the Hajj to a close.