MECCA (Web Desk): Hundreds of thousands of Muslims began a mass movement Tuesday out of the holy city of Mecca towards nearby Mina in western Saudi Arabia, at the launch of the annual hajj pilgrimage.
Almost four million people are expected to take part in this year s pilgrimage, undeterred by a crane collapse in Makkah earlier this month that killed 111 people and injured nearly 400 at World Holiest Place.
“It is a gift from God that He has chosen us to come here,” said Walaa Ali, a 35-year-old Egyptian pilgrim with tears in her eyes. “I am so happy to be here.”
Nearby, both men and women sat side by side listening to preachers explain the history and rituals of hajj.
This year s hajj begins against a backdrop of increased violence, a surge of the deadly MERS virus and with Saudi Arabia at war in Yemen.
The first day of hajj is known as Tarwiah Day, when pilgrims traditionally watered their animals and stocked water for their trip to Mount Arafat, about 10 kilometres (six miles) southeast of Mina.
Nowadays pilgrims spend their time there in prayer and reciting the Holy Quran. The climax of the hajj season is on Arafat Day, which falls on Wednesday.
With the start of hajj, pilgrims enter the stage of ihram — a state of purity in which they must not wear perfume, cut their nails, or trim their hair or beards.
During ihram, men wear a seamless two-piece shroud-like white garment, symbolising resurrection and emphasising unity regardless of social status or nationality. Women must wear loose dresses exposing only their faces and hands.
They are following the 1,400-year-old tradition of the Prophet Mohammed (Peace Be Upon Him).
The hajj is among the five pillars of Islam and every capable Muslim must perform the pilgrimage at least once in their life.
Previously marred by stampedes and fires that killed hundreds, it had been largely incident-free for the past decade after safety improvements.
But on September 11, during severe winds, a construction crane toppled into a courtyard of Mecca s Grand Mosque. Saudis, Iranians, Nigerians, Malaysians, Indonesians and Indians were among the dead.
Authorities say they are on the alert for possible attacks by the extremist Islamic State group, which has carried out bombings targeting mosques in the kingdom in recent months.
Security forces have taken “measures to prevent terrorist groups from exploiting hajj season to carry out acts of sabotage,” said interior ministry spokesman General Mansur al-Turki.
The ministry says 100,000 police have been deployed to secure hajj.
“We take all possibilities into consideration during hajj. This includes the kingdom being targeted by terrorist organisations,” Turki told AFP.
Saudi Arabia is also at war this year, leading an Arab coalition conducting air strikes and supporting local forces in Yemen against Iran-backed rebels since March.
Most Yemeni pilgrims performing hajj this year are already residing in the kingdom.
Among other challenges facing Saudi authorities this year is potential transmission of the deadly Middle East Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus (MERS-CoV).
The capital Riyadh saw a jump in infections last month. But health officials have insisted that so far no MERS infections have been recorded among pilgrims.
Saudi Arabia is the country worst affected by MERS, with 528 deaths since the virus appeared in 2012.
The health ministry has mobilised thousands of health workers to help secure a virus-free pilgrimage.
The rituals of Hajj are as follows:
– Ihram: Pilgrims wear special outfits, which for men is a two-piece white seamless garment. Women may be clothed in any loose dress, though generally they wear white, and must expose only their faces and hand.
“Lubbaik Allahumma labbaik” (I am answering your call, my God), every pilgrim chants.
– Once in Makkah, pilgrims perform Tawaf, or circumambulation, seven times counter-clockwise around the Kaaba, at the Grand Mosque. As they circle, pilgrims should point their palms and say: “Allahu akbar” (God is greatest).
– Walking back and forth between the two stone spots of Safa and Marwah, a distance of just under 400 metres (yards). This is known as “Sa’i” and is done seven times.
The preceding rituals are considered the Umra, or lesser pilgrimage, made ahead of the Hajj’s main rites.
– The principle rites start on the 8th of the Islamic month of Zilhaj and end on the 13th (this year September 22-27). Pilgrims head to Mina, around five kilometres (three miles) east of the Grand Mosque, on the first day of Hajj known as Tarwiah (watering) Day.
Pilgrims traditionally watered their animals and stocked water for their trip to Mount Arafat, about 10 kilometres southeast of Mina.
– Arafat Day, on the 9th of Zilhaj, (September 23) is the climax of the Hajj season. Pilgrims gather on the hill known as Mount Arafat, and its surrounding plain, where they remain until evening for prayer and Quran recitals. Prophet Mohammed (P.B.U.H) delivered his final Hajj sermon there.
– After sunset on the 9th of Zilhaj, pilgrims leave for Muzdalifah, half-way between Arafat and Mina, where they stay at least until midnight. They gather pebbles to perform ‘Rami’, the symbolic stoning of the devil.
– Eid al-Azha –
– After dawn prayers on the 10th of Zilhaj, or the Eid ul-Azha feast, pilgrims return to Mina. The first of three stoning rites, known as Jamarat al-Aqabah, begins after sunrise. Traditionally, seven pebbles are thrown at a post representing the devil, emulating the actions of Hazrat Ibrahim (A.S).
Since 2004, it has been replaced by walls to accommodate the rising numbers of pilgrims and avoid deadly incidents.
– After the first stoning, sheep are slaughtered and the meat distributed to needy Muslims, symbolising Hazrat Ibrahim’s willingness to sacrifice his son, Hazrat Ismail (A.S) on the order of God, who provided a lamb in the boy’s place at the last moment.
Pilgrims no longer carry out this rite themselves. They instead pay agencies to distribute the meat to the world’s needy.
– Men then shave their heads or trim their hair while women cut a fingertip-length of their hair. After that they can end their Ihram and change back to normal clothing.
Pilgrims return to the Grand Mosque in Makkah, circumambulating seven times around the Kaaba, before again performing Sa’i.