The annual season of Hajj is under way. Every Muslim who is financially capable is commanded by the Koran, the holy Muslim scripture, to make the pilgrimage to Mecca at the annual season of Hajj at least once in his or her lifetime. The culmination of the Hajj season is the "Eid al-Adha," the festival of sacrifice, which this year falls on Friday, February 22.




I BEAR WITNESS TO THE ONENESS OF GOD," pilgrims to Mecca chant.

At the muezzin's call, Muslims around the world turn toward Mecca and bow before God to say their daily prayer. It was in Mecca, around 570 A.D., that Muhammad, the prophet of Islam, was born. Forty years after his birth, Muhammad began to teach his followers 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 and 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 stop worshipping several gods and ponder the intricacies of creation. But faced with defiance and persecution, Muhammad left Mecca, his birthplace, with a handful of followers and journeyed to Median, then an oasis 320 kilometers north of Mecca. The flight, or Hegira, of the prophet of Islam in the year 622 A.D. marks the beginning of the Muslim calendar.

Muhammad thrived in Medina. Eight years after he left Mecca, he returned 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, as Muslims call Abraham, was ordered by God to sacrifice his son, Ismael. However at the last minute, God, satisfied that Abraham had passed the test of faith, ordered a ram to be sacrificed in place of his son. The festival of sacrifice commemorates these events.

For over 13 centuries Muslims the world over have cast their eyes toward Ka'ba and looked forward to the day when they would be able to set foot in Mecca, a barred valley surrounded by harsh hills in today's Saudi Arabia.

Pilgrims to Mecca start their spiritual journey stripped of the trappings, 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, Here we come! Here we come, No partner have you. Praise indeed, And blessings are yours, The kingdom too, No partner have you."

After reaching Ka'ba, the pilgrims then 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. 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 stone the three pillars representing the Satan. A final circumambulation around the Ka'ba and sacrifice of animals bring the Hajj to and end.