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 performed in ritual stages in and around the holy city of Mecca (Makka), is required of Muslims at least once during their lifetimes. It is the largest annual gathering of human beings on earth, with over two million people gathering each year for three to five days 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. 

Fast Facts: Hajj

  • Description: A three to five day pilgrimage involving several rituals in honor of the Islamic prophet Muhammad, and events pertaining to Muhammad and his ancestor Abraham (Ibrahim). 
  • Key Participants: Nearly three million Muslims from all over the world. 
  • Start Date: the 8th day of the lunar month of Dhul-Hijjah (the Gregorian date changes every year).
  • End Date: the 12th day of Dhul-Hijjah. 
  • Location: Mecca and several nearby locations.

Significance of the Hajj

The great pilgrimage called the Hajj (Arabic for "pilgrimage") is significant for a number of reasons. First and probably most importantly, it is a time when nearly three million or more Muslims come together, mixing across lines of ethnicity, nationality, sect, and gender. Secondly, the pilgrimage was initiated by the Prophet Muhammad himself, who is said to have been sent with 1,400 of his followers on the pilgrimage to celebrate one of the founding myths of the Abrahamic religions. Thirdly, one of the stops—the plains of Arafat—is where Muhammad gave his farewell sermon.

Preparation for the Hajj

In the modern pilgrimage, the Hajj pilgrims begin arriving by air, sea, and land during the days and 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—many if not most travelers come with an official package group. 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 (Ihram) for the pilgrimage. Men must wear two lengths of white cloth without seams (one wrapped around their shoulders and a second one around their waists). Women can wear regular clothing as long as it is clean and modest, with veils covering their heads but not their faces.

For the next three days, participants must not smoke, swear, shave, cut their nails or have sex. Fighting and arguments are banned, participants are prohibited from hunting or killing anything. All must avoid scented cologne, perfume, makeup, and soaps.

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 perform the first rituals associated with the Hajj in the Masjid al-Haram (Sacred Mosque) complex, rituals that will be repeated throughout the journey. First is a "tawaf," in which pilgrims walk around the Ka'aba ("the Cube"), a stone shrine said to have been built by Abraham (Ibrahim in Arabic) and his son Ishmael (Ismail) some 4,000 years ago. The Ka'aba has four walls and a roof and in one corner on the outside wall is the Black Stone of Mecca, where Ibrahim laid out Ismail to be sacrificed. The Ka'aba is covered with a black silk cloth decorated with verses from the Quran in gold-embroidered Arabic calligraphy: The cloth is replaced every year on Day 2 of the Hajj. For the tawaf, pilgrims walk counterclockwise seven times around the shrine. If a pilgrim is near enough to the Ka'aba, he or she can touch the Black Stone, and if not, they raise their hands in a salute palm first facing the stone. Official sources estimate that over 10,000 people walked around the Ka'aba every hour during the Hajj in 2018.

Next, the pilgrims perform the Say'a, running seven times between the two hills Safa and Marwah, commemorating Hagar's (Hajira's) search for water for her son Ismail. Today the hills are contained within the Masjid al-Haram complex, and the ritual takes place along a long beautiful air-conditioned gallery with marble floors; a moving walkway is provided for those who cannot walk.

Pilgrims then travel by foot or take a shuttle bus from Mecca to Mina, a small village east of the city. There they spend the day and night in one of the 160,000 tents supplied by the Saudi government to accommodate fifty pilgrims each. The tents are Teflon-coated fiberglass and air-conditioned, and they house men and women separately. People pray, read the Qur’an, hear lectures, and rest up 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 perform the Wuquf, a rite in which they spend the entire day standing (or sitting) near Mount Arafat (the "Mount of Mercy"), asking Allah for forgiveness and making supplications. A cooling mist sprays the pilgrims from specially-built towers, providing a bit of respite from the heat. The Plain of Arafat is where Muhammad gave his farewell sermon in 632, and the Wuquf honors that occurrence. 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 sleeping on the ground under the stars, 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 perform the Ramy ceremony, during which they throw the stone pebbles they collected on the previous day at three pillars that represent the temptations of Satan. The three pillars are Jamrat al-‘Aqaba (at the narrow pass of al-‘Aqaba, and the largest), Jamrat al-Wusta (the middle one) and Jamrat al-Sughra (the small one). The pillars are set separately in large depressions and participants walk down a corridor to throw the pebbles.

When throwing the stones, the pilgrims recall the story of Satan’s attempt to dissuade Ibrahim from following God’s command to sacrifice his son. The stones represent Ibrahim's rejection of Satan and the firmness of his faith. This is by far the most dangerous of the rituals during Hajj, tense and emotional, with thousands of peoples throwing pebbles and not uncommon stampedes, so sick or elderly people do not typically attend, but rather wait until evening or send another to throw pebbles for them.

After casting the pebbles, most pilgrims slaughter an animal (often a sheep or a goat) and give away the meat to the poor. Alternatively, pilgrims can purchase a sacrifice voucher from a qualified person who will sacrifice a lamb for each pilgrim or a camel for every seventh. This is a symbolic act known as the Eid al-Adha (Festival of Sacrifice) that shows their willingness to part with something precious to them, as a remembrance of Ibrahim who was prepared to sacrifice his son at God’s command.​ After the sacrifice, people are released from their prohibitions and most cut their hair or shave for the next day's events.

Throughout the world, Muslims celebrate Eid al-Adha 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

Over the next two to three days, the pilgrims return to Mecca and perform the tawaf and the sSay'e, and drink from the ancient spring known as Zamzam, said to have been created by the child Ismail, which continues to flow today. Today the water is brought from the well of ZamZam, purified, cooled and pumped into the Mosque via a tap. There are no other requirements for performance, people are free to shop in the malls, or take tours, except that a final act before leaving Saudi Arabia is to perform a final tawaf.

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 of Hajji.

Foundation Myth of the Hajj

According to legend, Allah sent Muhammad to perform the Hajj in remembrance of the Quranic version of the biblical story of Abraham, Hagar, and Ishmael.

Abraham is the patriarch of the three great Abrahamic religions of the western world: Islam, Judaism, and Christianity. As told in the book of Genesis in the Torah, Abraham's first wife, Sarah, could not conceive, and she arranged for Abraham to sleep with their Egyptian slave girl and Pharaoh's daughter Hagar, in order for him to have sons. Hagar had a boy, named Ishmael; and after that, God made it possible for Sarah to conceive and she had a boy named Isaac. Ishmael, called Ismail in Quranic records, is the ancestor of the Prophet Muhammad. 

The version in Genesis says that Sarah had Hagar and Ishmael thrown out of Abraham's house, and they wandered the desert. The versions provided by the Quran and Muslim scholars are similar, except that Abraham (Ibrahim) takes his wife Hagar (Hajira or Hajar) and Ishmael (Ismail) into the desert, where he leaves them, returning to Canaan. Left in the desert, Hajira desperately seeks water for her son, running between the two hills called Safa and Marwa. She collapses and prays to Allah for deliverance. Ismail strikes his foot in the ground and finds the spring (later called Zam Zam), and they are saved and found the city of Mecca. 

Ibrahim returned to Hajira and Ismail and, rejoicing that they survived the ordeal, Ishmael and Ibrahim build a shrine (the Ka'aba) at that place. The Quran says that Abraham must sacrifice his son; Islamic scholars say that son is Ismail (Genesis says that son was Sarah's son Isaac). The devil tempts Ibrahim three times, telling him that he should not sacrifice his son, but Ibrahim persists. Before he can kill his son, Allah intervenes and an unspecified "great sacrifice" is made instead.

Annual Dates of the PIlgrimage

The Hajj always takes place between the 8th and 12th day of Dhul-HIjjah ("The Month of the Pilgrimage" in Arabic), which is the last month in the Muslim lunar calendar. Matching Gregorian dates are not precisely predictable from year to year.

The Muslim calendar (or Hijiri Calendar) is used to determine the dates of religious events and observances, and the timing of the months is based on astronomical observation—Islamic astronomers and mathematicians are famous for their early brilliance. Any new month can only begin when a waxing crescent moon is seen shortly after sunset. Lunar calendars are 11 days shorter than solar ones, so each festival starts 11 days earlier in the year than the previous year. The date of the Hajj, which falls in the last lunar month, is not determined until an authoritative body—in this case, Saudi Arabia's High Judicial Court—can see the waxing crescent moon in the sky shortly after sunset on the 29th day of the previous month. If the sky is obscured by clouds or other astronomical forces the new month must begin a day later. 

For financial and business uses and rather than relying on visual sightings, Saudi Arabia bases their calendar on a calculated astronomical moon. The Tabular Islamic calendar is 354 days long broken into 12 months with predetermined lengths and adjustments for leap years. But, the precise starting day of the Hajj is still not determined until eight days before the Hajj is set to begin.

Estimated Gregorian dates for the next few years have been calculated by several sources but they don't coincide and the dates are tentative.

Modern Changes in the Pilgrimage

In 1950, only 100,000 people attended the Hajj; people were discouraged from taking photographs and cameras were even confiscated. Then, as now, the Hajj is a requirement, it is the fifth pillar of Islam, and it is required that each individual Muslim do so, if he or she is healthy and wealthy enough to make the pilgrimage during their adulthood. However, with the advance of modern freeways and charted air flights, more and more people make the journey more than once.

In addition to a complicated logistical structure that involves visas and crowd control, security details, GPS units, and security cameras, the Saudi government has created Mecca as a global marketplace, and the Sacred Mosque has expanded to create a place where tens of thousands of people can perform tawaf at once.

Participants in the 2018 Hajj were nearly equal men and women; people commonly bring their children, and their cell phones, and many blog or live stream the events as they experience them. Pilgrims still need to walk if they can, they still sleep outside at Mina, and they still stand or sit in the Plain of Arafat: but modern distractions have replaced some of the hardships of the early Hajj.