The Stages of Hajj, the Islamic Pilgrimage to Mecca (Makkah)

Grand Mosque in Makkah
Makkah is the focus of the hajj (pilgrimage), that every Muslim must try to make at least once in his or her lifetime. Nabeel Turner/The Image Bank/Getty Images

Hajj, the religious pilgrimage to Mecca (Makka), is required of Muslims at least once during their lifetimes. It is the largest annual gathering of human beings on earth, with several hundred thousand people gathering each year between the 8th and 12th of Dhul-Hijjah, the last month of the Muslim calendar. The pilgrimage has been occurring annually since 630 CE​ when the prophet Mohammad led his followers from Medina to Mecca. 

In the modern pilgrimage, the Hajj pilgrims begin arriving by air, sea, and land during the weeks prior to the pilgrimage period. They usually arrive into Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, the major port city nearest to Mecca (45 miles distance). From there they travel with their Hajj group to Mecca. As they approach Mecca, they stop at one of the designated areas to shower and change clothing, entering into a state of devotion and purity for the pilgrimage. They then begin reciting an invocation:

Here I am, Oh God, at Your command!
Here I am at Your command!
You are without associate!
Here I am at Your command!
To You are all praise, grace and dominion!
You are without associate!

The sound of this chant (said in Arabic) echoes over the land, as the pilgrims begin arriving in Mecca by the thousands for the sacred rites.

Day 1 of the Pilgrimage (8th of Dhul-Hijjah)

Tent city of Mina during Hajj
During Hajj, Mina turns into an enormous tent city housing millions of pilgrims. S. M. Amin/Saudi Aramco World/PADIA

On the first official day of the pilgrimage, the millions of pilgrims that have now gathered travel from Mecca to Mina, a small village east of the city. There they spend the day and night in enormous tent cities, praying, reading the Qur’an, and resting for the next day.

Day 2 of the Pilgrimage (9th of Dhul-Hijjah)

Pilgrims gather near the Mount of Mercy
Pilgrims gather near the Mount of Mercy on the Day of Arafat, during the annual Hajj. S. M. Amin/Saudi Aramco World/PADIA

On the second day of the pilgrimage, the pilgrims leave Mina just after dawn to travel to the Plain of Arafat for the culminating experience of the Hajj. On what is known as the "Day of Arafat,” the pilgrims spend the entire day standing (or sitting) near the Mount of Mercy, asking Allah for forgiveness and making supplications. Muslims around the world who are not at the pilgrimage join them in spirit by fasting for the day.

After sunset on the Day of Arafat, the pilgrims leave and travel to a nearby open plain called Muzdalifah, roughly halfway between Arafat and Mina. There they spend the night praying and collecting small stone pebbles to be used the following day.

Day 3 of the Pilgrimage (10th of Dhul-Hijjah)

Pilgrims move toward "jamarat"
Pilgrims move toward the site of "jamarat," the symbolic stoning of the devil, during the Hajj. Samia El-Moslimany/Saudi Aramco World/PADIA

On the third day, the pilgrims move before sunrise, this time back to Mina. Here they throw their stone pebbles at pillars that represent the temptations of Satan. When throwing the stones, the pilgrims recall the story of Satan’s attempt to dissuade Prophet Abraham from following God’s command to sacrifice his son. The stones represent Abraham’s rejection of Satan and the firmness of his faith.

After casting the pebbles, most pilgrims slaughter an animal (often a sheep or a goat) and give away the meat to the poor. This is a symbolic act that shows their willingness to part with something precious to them, just as the Prophet Abraham was prepared to sacrifice his son at God’s command.​

Throughout the world, Muslims celebrate Eid al-Adha, the Festival of Sacrifice, on this day. This is the second of the two major holidays in Islam each year.

The Closing Days of the Pilgrimage

Pilgrims swirl around the Ka'aba
Pilgrims swirl around the Ka'aba in a pilgrimage rite known as "tawaf". S. M. Amin/Saudi Aramco World/PADIA

The pilgrims then return to Makkah and perform seven tawaf: seven times they walk around the Ka’aba, the house of worship built by Prophet Abraham and his son. In other rites, the pilgrims pray near a place called “The Station of Abraham,” which is reportedly where Abraham stood while constructing the Ka’aba.

The pilgrims also walk seven times between two small hills near the Ka’aba (and enclosed in the Grand Mosque’s complex). This is done in remembrance of the plight of Abraham’s wife Hajar, who desperately searched in the area for water for herself and her son before a spring welled up in the desert for her. The pilgrims also drink from this ancient spring, known as Zamzam, which continues to flow today.

Pilgrims from outside Saudi Arabia are required to leave the country by the 10th of Muharram, about one month after the completion of the pilgrimage.

After Hajj, pilgrims return home with renewed faith and are given honorific titles.