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The Hajj is the obligatory pilgrimage to Mecca that is one of the five pillars of Islam. It is done during the last month of the lunar calendar, Zul-Hijjah.

The Hajj is an obligation that must be undertaken by every able-bodied Muslim who can afford to do so, at least once in their lifetime. It demonstrates the solidarity of the Muslim  people, and their submission to God. The Hajj occurs from the 8th to the 12th day of Dhul Hijjah, the 12th month of the Islamic lunar calendar. At present, this is approximately in November to January. This date cannot be aligned directly with Western calendars, but in the current early 21st century In 2007, Dhul Hijjah begins on December 11, and the week of the Hajj begins on December 18, 2007.

The Hajj ritual was considered ancient even in the time of Muhammad in the 7th century and it was part of ancient pre-Muslim paganism. Pilgrims would join processions of tens of thousands of people, who would simultaneously converge on Mecca for the week of the Hajj, and perform a series of rituals, centered around the Kaaba.  Each person would walk counter-clockwise seven times about the Kaaba, kiss the Black Stone, run back and forth from the Zamzam Well near the Kabah back and forth between the hills of Al-Safa and Al-Marwah, then go to the plains of Mount Arafat to stand in vigil, then proceed to Muzdalifah to gather pebbles, which they would throw at a rock in Mina to perform the ritual of the Stoning of the Devil. The pilgrims would then shave their heads, perform an animal sacrifice, and celebrate the three day global festival of Eid ul-Adha.

About two million pilgrims participate in this annual pilgrimage. Crowd-control techniques have become critical. Owing to the need to manage the large numbers of people, many of the rituals have become more stylized. It is not necessary to kiss the Black Stone, but merely to point at it on each circuit around the Kaaba. Throwing pebbles was done at large pillars, which for safety reasons were in 2004 changed to long walls with catchbasins below to catch the stones. The slaughter of an animal can be done either personally, or by appointing someone else to do it, and so forth. But even with the crowd control techniques, there are still many accidents during the Hajj, as pilgrims are trampled in the crush, or ramps collapse under the weight of the many visitors, causing hundreds of deaths. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia's Ministry of Hajj has a website, with the message, "Be peaceful, orderly and kind. No crushing."

Pilgrims can also go to Mecca to perform the rituals at other times of the year. This is called the "lesser pilgrimage", or Umrah. However, even if they perform the Umrah, they are still obligated to perform the Hajj at some other point in their lifetime.

Synonyms and alternate spellings: Haj

Further Information:   

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Encyclopedia of the Middle East

Note - This encyclopedia is a work in progress. It is far from complete and is being constructed and improved all the time. If you would like to contribute articles or expansions of existing articles, please contact news (at) mideastweb.org.  Suggestions and corrections are welcome. The concise version of this dictionary is at our Middle East Glossary.

Spelling - Spelling of words in Middle-Eastern languages is often arbitrary. There may be many variants of the same name or word such as Hezbollah, Hizbolla, Hisbolla or Husayn and Hussein. There are some conventions for converting words from Semitic languages such as Arabic and Hebrew There are numerous variant renderings of the same Arabic or Hebrew words, such as "Hizbollah," "Hisbulla" etc. It is not possible to find exact equivalents for several letters. 

Pronunciation - Arabic and Hebrew vowels are pronounced differently than in English. "o" is very short. The "a" is usually pronounced like the "a" in market, sometimes as the "a" in "Arafat."  The " 'A " is guttural.  " 'H "- the 'het ('Hirbeh, 'Hebron, 'Hisbollah') designates a sound somewhat similar to the ch in "loch" in Scots pronunciation, but made by touching the back of your tongue to the roof of your mouth. The CH should be pronounced like Loch, a more assertive consonant than 'het.

The "Gh" combination, and sometimes the "G," designate a deep guttural sound that Westerners may hear approximately as "r." The "r" sound is always formed with the back of the tongue, and is not like the English "r."

More information: Hebrew, Arabic

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