Fatima Hassan, Abuja

The Muslim Pilgrimage or Hajj, an annual journey to Mecca in Saudi Arabia, is the fifth and final pillar of Islam. It’s a mandatory religious duty to be carried out at least once in a person’s lifetime by every adult Muslim who is physically and financially capable of undertaking the journey and can provide for their family during their absence.

The word Dhul-Hajj means “to intend a Pilgrimage”, which connotes both the outward act of the pilgrimage and the inward act of the intention. The act is a demonstration of total submission to the will of Allah or God and a symbol of solidarity of Muslims. In observance of the Hajj, pilgrims join processions of millions of people from all over the world to simultaneously converge on Mecca for the week of Hajj and together, perform series of rituals as commanded by God.

From their respective points of arrival, the pilgrims converge first in Mina, where they enter into a state of holiness or Ihram, which entails the wearing of two white seamless cloths for the males, with one wrapped around the waist reaching below the knee and the other draped over the left shoulder and tied at the right side. Muslim women are allowed to wear what they like except cloths that are attractive, imitate the men or expose any part of their bodies except their faces and hands.

Hajj is associated with the life of the Prophet of Islam-Muhammad, and has held annually since the 7th century. The rituals observed during the Hajj is however, believed by Muslims to date back thousand of years to the time of Prophet Ibrahim or Abraham.

Qur’an Verses 121 to 127 state clearly that Allah ordained his servant Prophet Ibrahim to build a Shrine in Mecca for the worship of One God-Allah. Consequently, Prophet Ibrahim built the Ka’aba, as a landmark House of God, for the sole purpose of worshipping God alone. The Ka’aba is a cube-shaped building and the centre of the tawaf or circumambulations performed during the Hajj and the direction towards which Muslims face during their salats or prayers, throughout the world.

Each person walks counter-clockwise seven times around the Ka’aba, runs back and forth between the hills of Al-Safa and Al-Marwah and drinks from the Zamzam, as part of the basic components of tawaf and sa’ayi.

On the 9th day of the month of Dhul-Hijjah, the last month of the lunar calendar, pilgrims coverage on Mount Arafah from Mina, for the most important part of the Hajj activity.

Mount Arafah is a granite hill to the east of Mecca. The level area surrounding the hill is called the Plains of Arafah. Arafah, which is also called the Mount of Mercy according to Islamic tradition, is the place where Prophet Muhammad stood and delivered the farewell sermon to Muslims, who had accompanied him for his last Hajj, towards the end of his life.

On the plains of Arafah, Pilgrims-rich and poor; able and disable; high and low; stand as equals before their Lord, to offer special prayers for peace and development of their respective nations and the world in general, as well as listen to the main sermon or Khutbah of Hajj, performed after the Zuhr and Asr prayers in succession. The concurrent recitations from the Qur’an is a primary feature of the performance of Hajj, while it is recommended for Muslims around the world who are not performing the pilgrimage to fast on Arafah day.

At sunset, pilgrims move to Muzdalifah, an area in the outskirts of Mecca, designated by Prophet Muhammad for performing the day’s Maghrib Prayer and Isha prayers, before proceeding to perform the symbolic stoning of the devil, where pebbles picked up on the way are thrown at the pillar called Jam-rah. The Hajj pilgrimage, considered the largest annual gathering of people in the world, culminates with pilgrims slaughtering sacrificial animals and sharing of the meat therefrom to the poor and the less privileged.

It is noteworthy that for the 2016 Hajj, pilgrims from Nigeria have been issued with electronic wristbands by the country’s National Hajj Commission, as a proactive measure to facilitate easy identification in case of an emergency. The measure was introduced following the 2015 hajj stamped, which left thousands of Muslims dead. Chairman of the National Hajj Commission of Nigeria, Abdullahi Muktar, says the device will enable the officials to track and manage data of each pilgrim. The Commission is also collaborating with the Federal Ministry of Health to create a bank of blood samples of the pilgrims, for easier DNA profiling or blood donation.

Undoubtedly, expectations are high for the more than 76,000 Nigerian Muslims performing the 2016 Hajj to pray for peace and progress of Nigeria and to be good ambassadors of the nation during this journey of a life time.

It is equally expected that the hosting authorities in Saudi Arabia will work tirelessly to ensure that the 2016 Hajj is peaceful, safe and smooth, for all the pilgrims from around the world.