Labayk Allahuma Labayk Labayk. La shareeka laka Labayk. Innal hamda wannimata laka wal mulk. La shareeka Lak (Here I am at your service, oh Lord, here I am - here I am. No partner do you have. Here I am. Truly, the praise and the favor are yours, and the dominion. No partner do you have.)
These are the words chanted by some three million people from across Saudi Arabia and throughout the world heading, as if pulled by a magnet, to one single spot on Earth. As has happened every year for 14 centuries, Muslim pilgrims gather in Makkah to perform rituals based on those conducted by the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) during his last visit to the city.
Performing these rituals, known as the Hajj, is the fifth pillar of Islam and the most significant manifestation of Islamic faith and unity. Undertaking the Hajj at least once is a duty for Muslims who are physically and financially able to make the journey to Makkah. The emphasis on financial ability is meant to ensure that a Muslim takes care of his family first. The requirement that a Muslim be healthy and physically capable of undertaking the pilgrimage is intended to exempt those who cannot endure the rigors of extended travel.
The pilgrimage is the religious high point of a Muslim's life and an event that every Muslim dreams of undertaking. Umrah, the lesser pilgrimage, can be undertaken at any time of the year; Hajj, however, is performed during a five/six-day period from the eighth through to the twelth/thirteenth of Dhu Al-Hijjah, the twelfth month of the Muslim lunar calendar.
Performing the Hajj is the spiritual apex of a Muslim's life, one that provides a clear understanding of his relationship with God and his place on Earth. It imparts in a Muslim not only the assurance that he has performed the fifth pillar of Islam by following in the footsteps of the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him), but also the realization that he is part of an ummah (nation) that is more than 1.7 billion strong and spreads across the globe.
The pilgrim begins to shed his identity as he stands amidst a sea of people in Ihram, the two seamless pieces of white cotton that men wear and the simple, generally white, attire that women wear. Here no one can tell a person's social or economic status, or his national origin based on the clothes he wears. Suddenly the pilgrim is simply, and above all else, a Muslim, and the realization slowly sets in that he is now focusing more than ever on other people's faces rather than their clothes. These faces represent almost every race or nationality on Earth. He notices Arabs, Indians, Bosnians, Chinese, Spaniards, Africans, Laotians, French, Americans and many others.
Contact with people from such diverse races and nationalities over the days and weeks spent in the Kingdom engenders in the pilgrims a sense of understanding of and trust in total strangers simply because they are performing the Hajj together.
Before heading toward Makkah, the pilgrims are already dressed in Ihram or may change at Miqat, where special facilities are set up for this purpose. By donning the Ihram, the pilgrim enters a state of spirituality and purity.
The pilgrims enter Mina on the eight of Dhu Al-Hijjah, some four miles to the northwest of Makkah, where most of the pilgrims are housed in the thousands of air-conditioned tents that stretch to the limits of Mina Valley.The pilgrims spend the night here in Mina.
After sunrise on the ninth of the Islamic month of Dhu Al-Hajjah, this vast crowd of nearly three million begins to walk or get the provided buses some eight miles to the Plain of Arafat, passing Muzdalifah on the way. Many perform the noon and afternoon prayers at the Nimerah Mosque, a tradition set by the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him).
Pilgrims are required to spend the day in the plain, performing what is called the Standing at Arafat. Here they also visit the Mount of Mercy and ask for God's forgiveness for any sins committed and for blessings.
After the sun has set this river of humanity retraces its steps back toward Makkah, but stops at Muzdalifah overnight until the brightness of day appears on the eastern horizon. Here the pilgrims collect seven pebbles and carry them to Mina. As they arrive in the valley, they trek along a two-level pedestrian walkway some 100-yards wide toward the three stone pillars called the Jamarat, which are meant to represent Satan. The pilgrims are required to cast seven pebbles they have collected at the Stone Pillar of Aqabah (largest pillar) while praising God, in a symbolic rejection of Satan on the 10th Dhu Al-Hijjah
The pilgrims then walk some four miles along pedestrian walkways to reach Makkah, where they perform the tawaf, circling the Ka'abah in the Holy Mosque seven times counter clockwise. They then perform sa'ay, the running between Safa and Marwa. Male pilgrims are then required to shave their heads, although cutting a lock of hair is acceptable for both men and women. At this point the pilgrims sacrifice an animal, donating its meat to the needy.
The rites of the pilgrimage are now completed. Pilgrims come out of Ihram and wear their normal clothes, The night of the 10th is spent back at Mina. On the afternoon of the 11th and again the following day the pilgrims must again throw seven pebbles at each of the three jamarat in Mina. Pilgrims must leave Mina for Mecca before sunset on the 12th. If they are unable to leave Mina before sunset, they must perform the stoning ritual again on the 13th before returning to Mecca.
The Tawaf Al-Wida ie The Farewell Circumambulation of the Ka'abah is performed before their departure from Makkah.
At the conclusion of the Hajj, the pilgrim has a profound feeling of having gone through a life-transforming spiritual experience. He comes away with pride in having successfully performed a ritual dedicated to God and in belonging to a huge family of people that shares the same religious beliefs. And he has acquired a sense of humility, inner calm, brotherhood and strength that lasts a lifetime.