The focus of this paper will be the Sunni Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca which is also known as the Hajj. The Hajj is a fundamental aspect of faith for Sunni Muslims throughout the world. It is an annual pilgrimage that is obligatory upon all able-bodied Muslims who have reached the age of puberty. To put the importance of Hajj into perspective, it is one of the five pillars of Islam. The five pillars of Islam serve as the foundation of a Muslim’s life and belief system and they constitute the basic obligatory acts of faith for the vast majority of Muslims regardless of sect. The five pillars of Islam include: belief in the oneness of God; the establishment and performance of the five daily prayers; almsgiving; observing the ritual fast during the month of Ramadan; and the performance of the ritual pilgrimage to Mecca.
The pilgrimage takes place from the 8th to the 12th of Dhul Hijjah. Dhul Hijjah is the twelfth month of the Muslim Calendar. To illustrate the close nexus between calendar time and ritual worship it is worth noting that the word Dhul Hijjah literally means “Possessor of the Pilgrimage” and the month is considered to be one of the sacred months of the Islamic calendar.
Both men and women are required to perform the Hajj at least once in their lifetime so long as they enjoy adequate health and possess the financial means to do so. Even though the Hajj is a requirement for both men and women; some of the rituals vary depending on the sex of the participant. There are a number of rituals and procedures that need to occur in order to fulfil the requirements of the pilgrimage to Mecca. The ritual of Hajj begins on the 8th day of Dhul Hijjah. It is at this time that the pilgrim makes the intention of performing the Hajj ritual and the Muslim male pilgrim dons the ihram. The ihram consists of two white sheets of unhemmed cloth. The purpose of such a modest garment is to demonstrate equality before God. It is to demonstrate that in the sight of God, there is literally no difference between a prince and a pauper. The garment has the effect of making all men appear equal in terms of external appearances. Muslim women do not wear the ihram for purposes of maintaining their modesty. After the pilgrim has changed into the proper attire, he/she is ready to perform the rituals associated with the pilgrimage.
The first ritual act associated with the Hajj is the Umrah. The Umrah is primarily focused around the seven-fold circumambulation of the Ka’bah in a counter-clockwise direction. Muslims consider the Ka’bah to be the most sacred spot on earth. They also believe that the foundations of the Ka’bah were initially laid by Adam and then subsequently rebuilt by Abraham and his son Ishmael. The circumambulation of the Ka’bah is called tawaf in Arabic. After the completion of the tawaaf the pilgrims perform the next ritual known as Sa’i. This involves the pilgrims running between two mountain peaks located near the Ka’bah. The Muslim pilgrims perform this ritual as a memorial to the desperate act of Hagar who was left in the desert with her infant son and who – out of sheer desperation – ran from one mountain peak to the other in search of water for her thirsty son Ishmael. Muslims believe that the rites that they are performing are symbolic of the lives and actions of Abraham and his wife Hagar. The pilgrim performs seven circuits of this re-enactment.
The next major ritual associated with the pilgrimage to Mecca involves the pilgrims travelling to Mount Arafat which is located to the east of Mecca. This ritual is performed on the ninth of Dhul Hijjah which is the second day of the hajj. This day is also known as “the day of Arafat.” It is here where the pilgrims spend the day in humble supplication to God. The pilgrims are encouraged to take a moral inventory of their life and to contemplate their life and their future. The pilgrims also seek God’s mercy and forgiveness. The moment is also highly symbolic as Muslims believe that it was on Mount Arafat the Prophet Muhammad made his well known farewell sermon in the final year of his life.
The third ritual of the pilgrimage is the stoning of the devil. It takes place in the city of Mina which is east of Mecca and occurs over the course of a three day period. The pilgrims must gather pebbles to fling at three different walls all of which represent the devil according to Islamic tradition. Again this holds important historical significance to Muslims as they believe they are symbolically re enacting a ritual performed by Abraham himself. The religious significance of this ritual along with the previous rituals will be expanded upon in the second part of this paper. The stoning of the devil is arguably the most dangerous ritual performed during the pilgrimage. There have been numerous documented instances of pilgrims being injured either by errant pebbles or by a stampede caused by the large number of pilgrims taking part in the ritual.
After the performance of the three major rituals associated with Hajj – circumambulation of the Kabah, travelling to Mount Arafat, and the stoning of the Devil – the pilgrims celebrate Eid-ul-Adha or the festival of sacrifice. The pilgrims either sacrifice an animal themselves or arrange for an animal to be sacrificed by someone else. The slaughtered meat is then divided into three portions. With one portion going to the needy, another portion is distributed to relatives, while the third portion is retained by the pilgrim for personal consumption. This ritual also holds a great deal of significance as it is meant to reflect the sacrifice that Abraham was willing to make out of his devotion to God.
There is a tremendous amount of religious significance associated with the ritual of the Hajj pilgrimage. The fact that it is one of the five pillars of Islam means that it represents one the basic obligatory acts in the life of a Muslim. Many scholars from within the tradition of Islam believe that to purposely neglect the fulfillment of any of the five pillars of Islam is a grave sin. There are numerous verses in the Quran that extol the importance and virtues of the pilgrimage including the various rituals contained within it.
Even though the pilgrimage to Mecca is often dated to the time of the Prophet Muhammad, the ritual actually dates back much further. Muslims trace the religious significance of the pilgrimage to the time of Abraham and his son Ishmaeel. Similar to the beliefs held by Christians and Jews, Muslims believe in Abraham as the patriarch of monotheism. All three religious traditions believe in the covenant made between God and Abraham. God constantly tested Abraham and his family. In return for Abraham’s obedience, devotion, and sacrifices, God promised to reward Abraham through his offspring. God promised Abraham and Ishmael that they would give rise to a great nation. Muslims interpret their pilgrimage to Mecca as part of the fulfillment of that promise.
The sacred shrine known as the Ka’bah also hold tremendous religious significance to Muslims. Muslims face towards the direction of the Ka’bah during their five daily prayers; it essentially serves as the focal point of their religious life. Contained within the Ka’bah is something known as the black stone. Muslims believe that the black stone is sacred and that it was delivered from Paradise to Abraham and his son Ishmael by heavenly angels. Muslims believe that the black stone was initially white, but overtime, it became blackened due to the transgressions of humankind.
Another aspect of the pilgrimage to Mecca is the ritual of travelling to Mina in order to visit Mount Arafat. Mount Arafat holds a great deal of religious significance for Muslims due to the fact that Muslims believe that Arafat represents the origins of humankind on Earth. According to Muslim tradition, it was on Mount Arafat where Adam was reunited with Eve approximately two-hundred years after their descent from Heaven and their expulsion from the Garden of Eden. Previous to the reunion, Adam lived on Earth in a state of regret, despair, and loneliness. The reunion is symbolic of Adam’s repentance being accepted by God and it also represents God giving Adam a second chance. That symbolic significance is why Muslims use their time at Mount Arafat to ask God to forgive their own transgressions in life.
The ritual stoning of the devil also holds a great deal of religious significance. Muslim tradition holds that Abraham was ordered by the arch-angel Gabriel to stone the devil on three separate occasions. Muslims believe that the devil constantly planted seeds of doubt into the mind of Abraham when he was ordered to make his famous sacrifices. The stoning of the devil by Abraham represents Abraham rejecting the temptations of the Devil. When Muslims perform the symbolic re-enactment of the ritual stoning, they believe that they too are symbolically repudiating the temptations of the Devil while simultaneously drawing closer to God.
The Hajj is a central element in the life of Sunni Muslims throughout the world. Many Muslims consider the pilgrimage to be the highlight of their spiritual life. For Muslims, the ritual is interpreted as an act of obedience and devotion to God. Individuals within the tradition believe that when one performs the Hajj properly, they return home as a newly born baby – free of sin.
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