Saudi Arabia prepares for the annual Muslim hajj pilgrimage

Muslim pilgrims circle around the Kaaba, the cubic building at the Grand Mosque, ahead of the annual Hajj pilgrimage, in the Muslim holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia, early Friday. The annual Islamic pilgrimage draws millions of visitors each year, making it the largest yearly gathering of people in the world. (AP photo)

By OMAR AKOUR

Associated Press

MECCA, Saudi Arabia — Saudi Arabia is preparing to host the annual hajj pilgrimage beginning Sunday, as over 2 million Muslim faithful are ready to take part in the ultraconservative kingdom.

The pilgrimage represents one of the five pillars of Islam and is required of all able-bodied Muslims once in their life. In recent weeks, the faithful have arrived in Mecca from across the world, all chanting “Labayk Allahuma Labayk,” or “Here I am, God, answering your call. Here I am.”

The hajj offers pilgrims an opportunity to feel closer to God amid the Muslim world’s many challenges, including the threat of extremists in the Mideast after the Islamic State group was beaten back in Iraq and Syria and the plight of Myanmar’s Muslim Rohingya minority.

“My feeling is indescribable to perform the hajj,” said Imad Abdel-Raheem, an Egyptian pilgrim. “I also want to pray for all Muslim countries, for them to live free in all places, in Palestine and in Burma, in all places, in Afghanistan and in India.”

Maj. Gen. Mansour al-Turki, the spokesman of the Saudi Interior Ministry, told journalists Saturday that over 2 million Muslims from abroad and inside the kingdom would be taking part in this year’s hajj.

Men attending the hajj dress in only terrycloth, seamless white garments meant to represent unity among Muslims and equality before God. Women wear loose clothing, cover their hair and forgo makeup and nail polish to achieve a state of humility and spiritual purity.

Since arriving, many have circled the cube-shaped Kaaba in Mecca — Islam’s holiest site. The Kaaba represents the metaphorical house of God and the oneness of God in Islam. Observant Muslims around the world face toward the Kaaba during their five daily prayers.

Muslims believe the hajj retraces the footsteps of the Prophet Muhammad, as well as those of the prophets Ibrahim and Ismail — Abraham and Ishmael in the Bible.

After prayers in Mecca, pilgrims will head to an area called Mount Arafat on Monday, where the Prophet Muhammad delivered his final sermon. From there, pilgrims will head to an area called Muzdalifa, picking up pebbles along the way for a symbolic stoning of the devil and a casting away of sins that takes place in the Mina valley for three days.

At the hajj’s end, male pilgrims will shave their hair and women will cut a lock of hair in a sign of renewal for completing the pilgrimage. Around the world, Muslims will mark the end of hajj with a celebration called Eid al-Adha. The holiday, remembering Ibrahim’s willingness to sacrifice his son, sees Muslims slaughter sheep and cattle, distributing the meat to the poor.

While a holy, once-in-a-lifetime experience for pilgrims, the hajj is by no means an easy journey. The temperature in Mecca and Mina will be around 107 degrees Fahrenheit. Pilgrims walk between 3 to 9 miles a day. Long lines and even longer waits can strain even the most patient as they weave through the throngs of people.

For Saudi Arabia, the hajj is the biggest logistical challenge the kingdom faces. Its ruling Al Saud family stakes its legitimacy in part on its management of the holiest sites in Islam. King Salman’s official title is the “Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques,” at Mecca and Medina. Other Saudi kings, and the Ottoman rulers of the Hijaz region before them, all have adopted the honorary title.