Muslim pilgrims leave Arafat to Muzdalifah for the next step in the Hajj, near Mecca, Saudi Arabia, Thursday, 26 Nov. 2009
Muslim pilgrims leave Arafat to Muzdalifah for the next step in the Hajj, near Mecca, Saudi Arabia, Thursday, 26 Nov. 2009

About two and a half million Muslim pilgrims are heading to the Hajj in Saudi Arabia, climbing Mount Arafat in the annual ritual. 

A vast sea of white-cloaked pilgrims gathered inside and outside the Namera mosque on Mount Arafat to hear the afternoon call to prayer on the second day of the annual Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca.

Saudi Arabia's grand mufti Abdul Aziz Al Sheikh told the pilgrims in his sermon that Islam faces many crises, including the grave issue of terrorism.  Pilgrims listened silently with some wiping tears from their eyes as the mufti described why Islam is dear to him.

He says that the Islamic nation is living through a bitter period, which prompts sorrow, when today's reality is compared to that of yesterday. There is a vast chasm of difference between the two, he says. Muslims, he urges, must unite around their religion, because God is proud of it and he will protect it. He adds that he thanks God for the gift of this great religion and for the gift of our generous Prophet, as well as the Shariah law.

The ascent of Mount Arafat began before sunrise, as white cloaked pilgrims converged on the site where Mohammed is said to have delivered his last sermon, nearly 14 centuries ago.

Swirls of white smoke twisted and twirled in the air, propelled by gusts of wind, as the crowd swarmed around the mosque and prayer grounds, to pray in the sun.

Saudi Information Minister Abdul Aziz Khoja said that the eyes of the world are observing the annual Hajj and will be impressed by the spectacle of the vast array of pilgrims of different races and colors, from different parts of the globe, coming together peacefully.

He says that we've come here to show the world this great spectacle of millions of people who are present, side by side, black and white, all together in harmony. This image of unity, he says, is the true picture of Islam, the authentic Islam.

Saudi government TV indicated that two million pilgrims are present in Mecca for this year's Hajj, noting that no serious incidents have been reported.

Saudi security forces, along with civil defense workers, and ambulance crews were deployed to maintain order and to provide pilgrims with food, water, directions and first aid.

Meanwhile, a crowd of Iranian pilgrims gathered outside Mecca to chant slogans against the United States and Israel. The group's leader delivered a sermon by Iran's Supreme Guide Ayatollah Khamenei in which he denounced the so-called crimes of the United States and others of what he dubbed "arrogant nations."

At sunset, pilgrims descend Mount Arafat towards the Valley of Muzdalifa, where they will spend the night, before returning, Saturday, to Mina, where they will sacrifice a lamb, cow or goat to celebrate their pilgrimage.