The Hajj: A guide to Islam's biggest pilgrimage

Updated: 

Today marks the final day of 2016´s Hajj pilgrimage to the Islamic holy city of Mecca. Millions of Muslims make their way to the city each year to form the largest annual gathering of people in the world - but what does the Hajj entail?

For Muslims the Hajj forms one of the mandatory Five Pillars of Islam, alongside faith, prayer, charity and fasting, and must be carried out by all able-bodied adults at least once.

Hajj 2010 (Fadi El Binni/Flikr)
Hajj 2010 (Fadi El Binni/Flickr)

The Hajj rituals themselves mirror the actions of the prophet Muhammad, but aspects of the journey stretch back to the time of Ibrahim, the biblical prophet Abraham.

Over the course of five days, pilgrims perform several key acts that form the basis of the pilgrimage.

Ihram

Muslim Pilgrims wearing their ihram (Fadi El Binni/Flikr)
Muslim Pilgrims wearing their ihram (Fadi El Binni/Flickr)

Upon arrival at a predesignated Miqat (a station where a pilgrim may begin the Hajj ritual), subjects adorn themselves in white, seamless cloth that emphasises equality between all Muslims.

Ihram is a state of holiness that highlights purity and demonstrates God's equal opinion of all believers, regardless of their individual wealth.

Tawaf and Sa'ey

(Fadi El Binni/Flikr)
Pilgrims perform the Sa'ey via air-conditioned tunnels (Fadi El Binni/Flickr)

The practise of Tawaf involves walking counter-clockwise seven times around the Ka'aba: the oldest site of Islamic worship and the focal point of Islamic prayer. This act expresses the unity of all Muslims in their worship of God.

Following the completion of Tawaf, the practice of Sa'ey requires gatherers to walk the distance between the hills of Al-Safa and Al-Marwah seven times, both of which are now located within the Grand Mosque complex.

The Sa'ey commemorates the wife of Ibrahim's quest to find water in the desert for her prophet son, Ismail.

Mina

(Nasya Bahfen/Flikr)
Over 100,000 tents accommodate pilgrims at Mina during the Hajj (Nasya Bahfen/Flickr)

Following morning prayers, travellers depart for the tented city of Mina, located around eight kilometres from Mecca.

Pilgrims gather at Mina for prayer and remain at the site until the following morning, when they set out for Mount Arafat.

Arafat

(Mohamod Fasil/Flikr)
The holy site of Mount Arafat is believed to be where Muhammad made his final sermon (Mohamod Fasil/Flickr)

Hajj followers arrive at Arafat before noon, where they spend the day in the vicinity of Mount Arafat to contemplate past sins and repenting.

This marks one of the cornerstones of the Hajj and the pilgrimage is considered invalid unless this step is completed. Mount Arafat itself is believed to be the site of Muhammad's final sermon.

Muzdalifah

(Nariman El-Mofty/AP)
Muslim pilgrims watch sunrise before they make their way to cast stones at a pillar symbolizing the stoning of Satan (Nariman El-Mofty/AP)

Pilgrims leave the site of Arafat for Muzdalifah before sunset on the second day, where they pray and gather 49 pebbles for the following day's Stoning of the Devil ritual.

Pilgrims then spend the night at Mina, in preparation for Ramy al-Jamarat the next day.

Ramy al-Jamarat

Stoning the Devil (Fadi El Binni/Flikr)
Stoning the Devil (Fadi El Binni/Flickr)

On the third day of the Hajj, pilgrims perform the ritual of the Stoning of the Devil at Mina, where they throw stones at the largest of three walls (formerly pillars) comprising a re-enactment of actions by Ibrahim and his rejection of the temptation to disobey God.

The conclusion of Ramy al-Jamarat marks the beginning of Eid al-Adha.

Eid al-Adha

(Massoud Hassaini/AP)
A man transports sheep during the first hours of Eid al-Adha in Kabul, Afghanistan (Massoud Hassaini/AP)

The festival of Eid al-Adha is observed by Muslims across the globe, during the period of Hajj. Those in attendance at Mecca typically perform or arrange for the ritual sacrifice of an animal, and men shave their heads.

Whilst women do not shave their heads, they are permitted to cut the tips of their hair instead.

Tawaf al-Wadaa

(Fadi El Binni/Flikr)
Pilgrims circle the Ka'aba seven times (Fadi El Binni/Flickr)

In the final Tawaf, pilgrims bid farewll to Mecca, circling the Ka'aba a further seven times. Visitors ask God to protect them in health, and grant them future returns to the Sacred House.