Saudi Arabia, Asharq Al-Awsat and Agencies – Muslim pilgrims from all over the world converged on Saturday in a valley just outside the holy city of Mecca at the beginning of the 5-day Hajj pilgrimage, a lifelong dream for many Muslims.
The pilgrims from about 100 countries left Mecca after completing the first ritual of the Hajj by circling the sacred Kaaba stone structure seven times inside the Holy Mosque, which Muslims all over the world face during their five daily prayers.
Previous to this, the pilgrims had performed Friday prayers in the Holy Mosque in Mecca, and corridors, open squares, streets and even roofs were full to the brim with pilgrims lining up to perform Friday prayers.
The General Presidency for the Holy Mosque and the Prophet’s Holy Mosque Affairs provided pilgrims with Zamzam water for drinking, and eased access into and out of the two Holy Mosques. It also monitored the first day of the Hajj, namely the circumbulation of the Kaaba, and the running between Safa and Marwa.
Dressed in white robes, pilgrims then made their way to a ritual of prayer and reflection in Mina, three miles east of Mecca.
According to a field study conducted by Asharq Al-Awsat, all governmental agencies were fully prepared for the influx of pilgrims. Bus convoys transported the pilgrims to the “white city” of Mina as part of a coordinated plan that included the deployment of Hajj Security Forces throughout the streets and open squares of Mecca to help control the flow of traffic and so that the Hajj convoy would reach Mina quickly and efficiently.
The Mecca Municipality intensified its efforts of adopting cleanliness and environmental regeneration especially in the central areas around the Holy Mosque. The city’s traffic department monitored the situation around the city, where it eased the flow of traffic, and turned the central areas into a pedestrian island by banning vehicle access. Police and members of the Hajj Security Force patrolled the area in and around Mina in an aim to improve security, as well as ensuring the flow of pedestrian movement. Saudi Arabia has deployed roughly 100,000 security personnel to keep order during the Hajj. Thousands of them patrolled the route to Mina on foot and in vehicles.
The Ministry of Health additionally provided a number of ambulances equipped with modern respiratory systems and defibrillators to patrol the road that pilgrims take towards Mina in order to offer medical emergency services. The Ministry for Islamic Affairs, Endowments, Dawa, and Guidance, designated several centers to help advise the pilgrims and answer any inquiries they might have, in addition to distributing tens of thousands of booklets and leaflets written in several languages. It also prepared a number of seminars and lectures to be given by religious scholars that pilgrims would be able to hear through loud speakers.
After spending the night in Mina, the pilgrims headed to Mount Arafat where they spent the day in prayer and meditation in imitation of the Prophet Mohammed (peace be upon him). This is the high point of the pilgrimage. Mount Arafat, a gentle hill about 12 miles east of Mecca is where Prophet Mohammed is believed to have given his last sermon 14 centuries ago. Muslims believe that the last passage of their holy book, the Quran, was revealed to Mohammed during this sermon.
The Department of Environmental Health monitored commercial shops within Mina, to ensure the safety and non-expiry of all meals, in addition to inspecting small shops and restaurants. Meanwhile the three major Saudi Arabian cellular phone companies announced an increase in the capacity of their phone lines in Mina to meet with the demand of the pilgrims.
The Hajj, packed with symbolism and ritual, is one of the five pillars of Islam. Every able-bodied Muslim who can financially afford to must perform it at least once in his or her lifetime.
For Ahmed Malek, a pilgrim from the Maldives, the Hajj teaches that all people are equal before God.
“Here, all the people are wearing identical white dress, no matter who they are,” said Malek. “I get the lesson that all human beings will be judged on the basis of their deeds, not colour, race or social position.”
Mohammad Hossein Salem, an Iranian pilgrim performing the Hajj for the first time with his wife, said he waited 10 years to make the journey. “Now, my dream has come true,” said Salem. “Here is the best place to be on earth.”
At Arafat, pilgrims offer prayers from noon to shortly after nightfall in a ritual that’s interpreted as a foretaste of the Day of Judgment, when Islam says every person will stand before God and answer for his deeds.
Following the prayers, the pilgrims travel to nearby Muzdalifah to pray and collect pebbles to throw at three pillars that symbolize the devil in Mina. This year however, the stoning ritual will be different to those of previous years. The new four-tiered Jamarat Bridge will be ready for complete use for the first time since its construction, a move that authorities hope will prevent any recurrences of accidents in the past.
This year’s Hajj also witnessed the inception of a new scheme with regards to the preparation and collection of stones at Muzdalifah undertaken by the Mecca Committee for Watering and Assistance and the Al Amoudi Charity. The aim of this new scheme is to collect and prepare enough stones to be thrown by the pilgrims; these stones will be collected in 500,000 velvet bags, with each bag being sufficient for three pilgrims to perform the rite of the stoning of the devil.
Dr. Mohamed Al Amoudi, a member of the Committee for Watering and Assistance said that the idea for collecting and preparing stones to be thrown by pilgrims during the ceremony came in response to directives from the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques in order to offer all facilities possible to help pilgrims perform the Hajj comfortably and safely. He went on to say that this project aims at helping the older pilgrims to perform the stoning of the devil ceremony, as they often arrive at Muzdalifah exhausted after standing on Mount Arafat all day. A velvet bag of stones is then distributed to these pilgrims in order to save them the effort of searching for the stones themselves.
Dr. Al Amoudi stressed that the service of distributing stones occurred for the first time this year, and is aimed at serving the pilgrims in accordance with directives by Prince Khaled al Faisal, Governor of Mecca.
After the symbolic stoning, the pilgrims slaughter a camel, sheep or cow to mark the beginning of the Eid ul Adha.
The feast commemorates God’s gift of a ram to substitute for Abraham’s impending sacrifice of his son and is considered the most important holiday in the Islamic calendar.
The pilgrims remain in Mina for two more days to perform a second and third symbolic stoning of the devil and then perform a farewell circling of the Kaaba before leaving Mecca.
Prince Naif Bin Abdul Aziz the Saudi Interior Minister and Chairman of the Hajj Supreme Committee in a statement carried by the Saudi Press Agency on Saturday said that the number of pilgrims coming from abroad reached 1,729,000, which is an increase of 18,020 pilgrims or 1.1% from the previous year.