WASHINGTON, October 11, 2013 — This week, thousands of American Muslims are departing from the United States to travel to Saudi Arabia, where they will perform the Islamic Hajj. The travelers, traditionally called “Hajjis” (‘pilgrims’) will travel to the cities of Medina, where Islam’s Prophet Muhammad is buried, and the Makkah, where the Kaaba is located. According to Islamic beliefs, Hajj is required at least once for each individual who can afford to attend at some point in their lifetimes.
“More than 3 million pilgrims made hajj last year, including 1.7 million people from outside Saudi Arabia. This year the Saudis are issuing fewer hajj visas, although close to 3 million people are expected, including more than 14,500 American pilgrims,” says Religion News Service.
The State Department notes that “The Hajj is the annual pilgrimage to Makkah (Mecca), Saudi Arabia, and the largest mass gathering in the world.”
The American Muslims will be joined by Muslim pilgrims from around the world, and will participate in traditional Hajj practices. Aspects of Hajj include walking around the Kaaba seven times in “tawaf”; running between the hills of Safa and Marwa; spending a day in the tent city of Arafat; spending a night outdoors and under the stars in the city of Muzdalifa; and travelling to the city of Mina to throw pebbles at Shaitan (“Satan” in English). Upon completion of the pilgrimage, many Muslims utilize the title of “Al-Hajj” (“The Pilgrim”) with their names, appearing as a prefix similar to “Mr.” or “Dr.”
Much of the Hajj must be done while wearing special clothing, an unstitched garb consisting of two cloth pieces for men, and a less stringent requirement for women to wear simple, plain clothing. For the most part, the pilgrims will only wear white.
Prominent American civil rights leader, Malcolm el-Shabazz (“Malcolm X”), cited Hajj as the reason for abandoning his opposition to unity amongst races in the United States. As quoted in his biography, he wrote of Hajj:
“There were tens of thousands of pilgrims, from all over the world. They were of all colors, from blue-eyed blondes to black-skinned Africans. But we were all participating in the same ritual, displaying a spirit of unity and brotherhood that my experiences in America had led me to believe never could exist between the white and non-white…
“…During the past eleven days here in the Muslim world, I have eaten from the same plate, drunk from the same glass, and slept on the same rug - while praying to the same God - with fellow Muslims, whose eyes were the bluest of blue, whose hair was the blondest of blond, and whose skin was the whitest of white. And in the words and in the deeds of the white Muslims, I felt the same sincerity that I felt among the black African Muslims of Nigeria, Sudan and Ghana.” (From The Autobiography of Malcolm X)
After returning from Hajj, el-Shabazz preached a message of racial unity and harmony, and was soon assassinated, in part, academics believe, for abandoning his previous radical beliefs. In the approximately fifty years since, the worldwide Muslim population has grown significantly, accounting for the now millions of Hajj pilgrims.
“There are an estimated 1.6 billion Muslims around the world, making Islam the world’s second-largest religious tradition after Christianity,” says a report from Pew Research’s FactTank.
“Although many people, especially in the United States, may associate Islam with countries in the Middle East or North Africa, nearly two-thirds (62%) of Muslims live in the Asia-Pacific region, according to the Pew Research analysis. In fact, more Muslims live in India and Pakistan (344 million combined) than in the entire Middle East-North Africa region (317 million).”
The same report asserts that approximately 3.5 million Muslims currently live in the United States.
To reduce the amount of people in the city each year, the Saudi government has controversially established quotas limiting the number of visas granted each year to citizens of each country. This year, the quota for each country has been reduced by 20%. England recently was told that their quota would be reduced to a mere 17,000 individuals.
Some countries have complained about the quota system in general, stating the practice violates Islamic law and is unnecessary. The critics believe proper management of the religious sites could allow for significantly more pilgrims to attend each year.
Saudi Arabia claims the reduction is necessary to facilitate safe and timely construction to expand the Hajj facilities, which is expected to take several years.
Saudi Ambassador Ibrahim Mustofa Al Mubarak claims that typically, the Grand Mosque in Makkah receives 48,000 pilgrims per hour, but the renovations will bring the capacity of the Hajj facilities up to more than 100,000 pilgrims per hour. Responding to complaints about the reduced quota requirement, the Saudi government has promised to freeze fees and costs for the next two years at 2013 levels.
Typically, American pilgrims to Hajj will return within two or three weeks of departure.
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