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Glossary: Hajj or pilgrimage

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Muslim pilgrims pray in Mecca's Grand Mosque near the holy Kaaba, part of the the Muslim hajj pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia.

Muhannad Fala'ah/Getty Images
Definition: Hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca, is one of the Five Pillars of Islam, the five duties required of every practicing Muslim.

An able-bodied Muslim is expected, at least once, to make the pilgrimage. Pilgrims prepare by entering the state of Ihram (symbolized by a form of clothing and a humbled demeanor) and converging together, by the throngs, indistinguishable one from the other either by race, creed or social standing, on the Kaaba for the required circumambulations.

Symbolically, the hajj is as much a return to God as a evocation of the return of Muhammad to Mecca as a conqueror—of the city’s “infidels” as well as of the “true faith.” It is a reclaiming of roots, a realization of belonging.

The pilgrimage also includes going to the slopes of Mount Arafat, 16 miles outside of Mecca, in recollection of the covenant between God and Adam, and throwing stones at three pillars in Mina, less than three miles east of the city. The ritual represents the stoning of the devil—or, more accurately in Islamic beliefs, the stoning of the shaitan, as the devil is known in Arabic.

Arabs had been making the pilgrimage to Mecca—to the enormous granite Ka’aba, the old shrine at the center of the city—for hundreds, possibly thousands of years before Islam to pay tribute to 360 gods represented inside the Kaaba’s walls. Muhammad destroyed all but two frescoes—that of the Virgin Mary and that of Christ, though eventually even those representations would be banned under Islam’s subsequent prohibition of images. (The prohibition was not endorsed by the Prophet.)

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