This year, the Hajj — the annual Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca, the birthplace of the prophet Muhammad, in Saudi Arabia — will begin on Wednesday, August 30, and continue for the next five to six days. As one of the five pillars, or core ritual practices, of Islam, the Hajj is vital to the Muslim experience and must be performed at least once in every Muslim's life.
In the Islamic lunar calendar, Hajj takes place in the final month before the new year, which is known as Dhul Hijjah. According to Faryal M. Khatri of the Islamic Society of North America, Muhammad said, "There is no deed that is better in the sight of Allah or more greatly rewarded than a good deed done in the (first) 10 days of Dhul Hijjah." So, it only makes sense to visit one of the holiest places in Islam during the holiest time of year.
Khatri explains that, although visiting the city of Mecca is religiously significant in and of itself, there are specific religious sites within the city that Muslims are expected to go to during the Hajj.
First, pilgrims will stop at the Grand Mosque, home of the Kaaba, Islam's most important shrine, to pray. Then they'll visit the village of Mina, again to pray and to read from the Quran. Next, they will spend a day at Mount Arafat, where Muhammad gave his final sermon, to ask for forgiveness. As they begin to make their way back to the Grand Mosque, the pilgrims will stop at a plain known as Muzdalifah to pick up stones, which they'll bring to Mina to throw at three pillars that are believed to represent Satan and his temptations. Finally, upon returning to the Kaaba, they'll circle it seven times, bringing the Hajj to a close.
This is, to be clear, the basic route of the Hajj. Khatri says that the exact rituals that individual Muslims carry out at these sites can vary. And, she adds, those who can't attend the Hajj don't have to miss out on this holy time of year completely. They can easily perform nighttime prayers, read the Quran, and seek God's forgiveness at home, she says.
After the Hajj ends, Muslims return home reminded that, wherever they live, they're part of a larger community, united in their faith. "We are one human family, one nation," Khatri says.