MECCA, Saudi Arabia — The annual hajj pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia’s city of Mecca is one of five pillars of Islam that all Muslims who are able to are expected to complete at least once.
More than two million believers from across the planet converge for several days of rituals beginning on Friday that retrace Prophet Mohammed’s last pilgrimage to Mecca.
Here is a rundown of the steps of the hajj, which is one of the largest gatherings in the world and closed to non-Muslims.
Pilgrims must first enter a state of purity, called ihram, which requires special dress and behavior.
Men wear a seamless shroud-like white garment that emphasizes unity regardless of social status or nationality.
Women must wear loose dresses, also often white, exposing only their faces and hands.
Pilgrims are prohibited from wearing perfume, cutting their nails or trimming their hair or beards, or arguing.
The first ritual requires walking seven times around the Kaaba, a large black cube structure at the center of Mecca’s Grand Mosque.
Made from granite and draped in cloth, the Kaaba stands nearly 15 meters (50 feet) tall.
Believed to have first been built by Adam and then rebuilt by Abraham 4,000 years ago, it is towards the Kaaba that Muslims turn to pray wherever they are in the world.
Pilgrims next walk seven times between two stone spots in the mosque.
They then move on to Mina, around five kilometers (three miles) away, ahead of the main rite of the pilgrimage at Mount Arafat.
The climax of the hajj is the gathering on Mount Arafat, about 10 kilometers from Mina, where it is believed that Prophet Mohammed delivered his final sermon.
Pilgrims assemble on the 70 meter-high hill and its surrounding plain for hours of prayers and Koran recitals, remaining there until evening.
After sunset they head to Muzdalifah, halfway between Arafat and Mina, where they gather several dozen pebbles to perform the symbolic “stoning of the devil”.
‘Stoning of the devil’
The last major ritual of the hajj is back at Mina where pilgrims throw seven stones at each of three huge concrete walls representing Satan.
The ritual is an emulation of Abraham’s stoning of the devil at the three spots where it is said Satan tried to dissuade him from obeying God’s order to sacrifice his son, Ishmael.
After the first stoning rite, the Eid al-Adha feast of sacrifice begins, marking the end of the hajj.
Sheep are slaughtered, in reference to God’s provision of a lamb for sacrifice instead of Ishmael, in a ceremony also held at the same time around the world.
Men then shave their heads or trim their hair while women cut a fingertip-length off their locks.
The pilgrims can change back into normal clothing, returning to circumambulate the Kaaba and complete their stone-throwing rituals before heading home.
Four other pillars
The hajj is the last pillar of Islam and required by every Muslim at least once in their lifetime, if they are healthy enough to do so and have the means.
The four other essential pillars are: profession of the Muslim faith; daily prayers; alms-giving; and fasting from dawn to dusk during the holy month of Ramadan.