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Performing the hajj is the Muslim faithful’s ultimate dream

    MINA, Saudi Arabia — The 60-year-old Egyptian farmer spent years scraping together $11,000 to bring his wife and son here to perform Islam’s hajj pilgrimage.
    They have slept for days in tiny one-person tents near the hajj’s sacred sites and walked for miles from ritual to ritual — despite his wife’s bad knees.
    But Mohammed Abdel-Salam Ali said they were not going to let the hardship ruin their journey to answer God’s calling.
    ‘‘It’s hard, but it’s also beautiful,’’ Ali said Thursday, sitting in his small plastic tent on the roadside at Mina, the ancient spot in the desert outside Mecca where for the second day more than 3 million pilgrims stoned symbols of the devil.
    For many Muslims, performing the hajj is a lifelong dream, a chance to fulfill a requirement of their faith and win forgiveness for their sins.
    The rituals at Mina commemorate Abraham’s stoning of Satan, who is said to have appeared three times to the prophet to tempt him. It is symbolized by three ‘‘pillars’’ — long stone walls called the Jamarat — which pilgrims pelt with pebbles.
    On Wednesday, the ritual’s first day, pilgrims threw seven stones at the largest one. On Thursday and again on Friday, they pelt all three with seven stones each.
    Millions filed past the walls Thursday along a huge platform built so that pilgrims on the ground floor and above can perform the ritual at once. They vigorously hurled pebbles at the pillars, chanting ‘‘God is Great’’ with each throw — and sometimes hitting the pilgrims in front of them.
    Afterward, most walked away quietly — a far cry from their aggressive approach to the pillars. They had the look of conquest, having crushed the devil and his temptations with pebbles the size of chickpeas.
    Nizar Mohammed, an Afghan bent with age and wearing a turban and shelwar kamiz — loose pants and a tunic — rested on the side of the ramp after hurling his stones.
    ‘‘I feel very good. I am in good hands,’’ he said.
    Over the years, the stoning ritual has been one of the most dangerous of the hajj, with stampedes that have killed scores. A crush of pilgrims in 2004 killed 244 people, and the following year more than 360 were killed when several pilgrims tripped over baggage while others behind them kept pushing ahead.
    After that accident, Saudi authorities tore down the platform around the Jamarat and built a new one with more entrances and exits, and they plan to expand it to a total of five levels in coming years.
    Saudi King Abdullah held his traditional banquet reception Thursday for Muslim leaders performing the hajj, including Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki.
    ‘‘If we strive in this direction, our differences will diminish, the distances between us will shrink and together we will make a world full of understanding and peace, where progress will be a fruit for all of us to enjoy,’’ he said.
    Friday is the last day of the three-day Muslim Eid al-Adha, ending five days of hajj rituals.
    Pilgrims return to Mecca to perform the ‘‘farewell’’ circling of the Kaaba — a cube-shaped stone structure draped in black cloth that Muslims around the world face during the five daily prayers. Tradition says the Kaaba, known as God’s House, was built by Adam and rebuilt by Abraham and the descendants of Noah.
    The pilgrims also walk back and forth seven times between the hills of Safa and Marwa, re-enacting the search by Abraham’s wife Hagar for water for her infant son Ishmael in the desert. After her seventh run, the spring known as Zamzam sprang miraculously under Ishmael’sfeet.
    The majority of pilgrims come to the hajj on organized tours, staying in large, relatively well-kept tent compounds organized by the Saudi government.
    But hundreds of thousands of poorer pilgrims, like Ali, come on their own, sleeping in the open or in makeshift tents.
    Having saved every penny to make the journey, they are intent to fight all odds to complete the rituals. Ali, a farmer from Egypt’s impoverished Fayoum province, said he saved for four years to make the trip.
    His wife, Nada, 50, has bad knees, so she gave her son, 30-year-old Ashraf, her pebbles to throw at the Jamarat in her place.
    But despite her knees, she didn’t want to pass up the seven-time circling of the Kaaba and running to and from Safa and Marwa. She also walked the three miles between Mina and Mecca.
    ‘‘Look how we are sitting here in the heat of the sun. But we are happy,’’ she said, rubbing her knees.
    ‘‘The hardship is worth it because we are carrying out a duty toward God,’’ Ashraf said.
    His father said that, once back in Egypt, he will have to start from scratch because he has no money left. But it’s worth it, he said.
    ‘‘Hajj’s reward is heaven,’’ he said. ‘‘God is generous.’’
    Then he added with a smile: ‘‘God gave us kids to take care of us.’’

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