The Meaning of Hajj

Ka’ba with pilgrims prostrating

Peter Sanders

The pilgrimage to Mecca, is the fifth pillar of Islam and a religious duty that Muslims should undertake if they are able, at least once in their lives. It is both a collective undertaking and a deeply personal experience. Hajj occurs in the month of Dhu al-Hijja, the last month of the Islamic calendar. It involves a series of rituals that take place in and around Mecca over a period of five to six days. The first of these is tawaf in which pilgrims walk around the Ka‘ba seven times in an anti-clockwise direction. Muslims believe that the rituals of Hajj have their origin in the time of the prophet Ibrahim (Abraham). Muhammad led the Hajj himself in 632, the year of his death. The Hajj now attracts about three million pilgrims every year from across the world.

It is not only a journey in space to the centre towards which one has always turned one’s face in prayers, but also a journey in time far back beyond the missions of Muhammad, Jesus and Moses.
Martin Lings (1909–2005)
And [mention] when We made the House a place of return for the people and [a place of] security. And take, [O believers], from the standing place of Abraham [Ibrahim] a place of prayer. And We charged Abraham and Ishmael [Isma‘il], [saying], "Purify My House for those who perform Tawaf and those who are staying [there] for worship and those who bow and prostrate [in prayer].
Qur’an 2 - al-Baqara: 125
And [mention, O Muhammad], when We designated for Abraham the site of the House, [saying], "Do not associate anything with Me and purify My House for those who perform Tawaf and those who stand [in prayer] and those who bow and prostrate. And proclaim to the people the Hajj [pilgrimage]; they will come to you on foot and on every lean camel; they will come from every distant pass.
Qur’an 22 - al-Hajj: 25-27

Total number of Pilgrims on Hajj 1932 - 2011

Total number of Pilgrims on Hajj 1932 - 2011

A view of the Ka‘ba by Reem Al Faisal (2000-3)

Reem Al Faisal

Reem Al Faisal

Reem Al Faisal was born in Jedda. Her photographic document of the Hajj, from which this image comes, was published in 2009.

It is difficult to capture the Hajj in text or visually since the Hajj is larger than any possible description. No book or photograph can ever give the Hajj its due. Even those who perform the Hajj can never fully comprehend it. From the first day of the Hajj one is swept away by the sheer motion and size of it and you find yourself moving at another level of your consciousness. As you perform one ritual after the other you slowly discover the rhythm of the universe.
Reem Al Faisal

We were All Nations by Ayman Yossri (2010)

British Museum

British Museum, 2013,6002.2

Ayman Yossri has captured this scene from a film about Malcom X which had Arabic subtitles. It depicts men in Ihram and the subtitle reads "We were all nations of different colours and races believing in one God and one humanity."

The Hajj emphasizes the concept of equality of mankind, Muslims dress in the same way and observe the same rituals for one purpose, which allows no superiority on the basis of race, gender or social status, only humility and devotion.

Pilgrims in Mecca after Evening Prayers (2010)

Qaisra Khan, 2010

Qaisra Khan, 2010

In 2010, Qaisra Khan, the project Curator for ‘Hajj: journey to the heart of Islam’, went on Hajj during which she took a series of photographs and video recordings of her experience. She notes:

The many and varied nationalities of pilgrims was one of the most fascinating facets of Hajj. Especially where people are relaxed, they have time to chat and are all dressed in national costume. The Uzbeks in blue, the Turks in pink and the Africans in their multi-coloured Hajj dresses. Many pilgrims wore their national costumes, Kazakhs with tall furry hats, the Malians in vibrant indigo, Indians in ‘shalwar qamis’ and the orderly South-East Asians with matching flowers in their hijabs (the women of course!). … The faces, stories (one Indian man told us he gave up his job to go on Hajj) and the parts of the earth these people had travelled from – was quite inspirational and captivating.

Supported by

Arts and Humanities Research Council