LAST week in the desert plain of Mount Arafat near Makkah (Mecca) more than 2 million Muslims gathered to re-enact an ancient ritual that has been part of Islamic faith for 1,500 years. Every year in the Islamic lunar month of Dhul-Hijjah, the faithful gather in Makkah in Saudi Arabia to fulfill one of the five tenets of their faith. Many pilgrims save all their lives to make the journey. It is the largest gathering of its kind in the world.
The Muslim pilgrimage is deeply rooted in the pre-Islamic history when once a year the tribes in the Arabian peninsula and surrounding countries would come to Makkah to worship at the altar of their individual gods located in the sanctuary in the center of the city. Today, Kaaba, the same cube shaped, room-size structure in the courtyard of the grand mosque is, as the symbol of monotheism, the spiritual epicenter of the Muslim world. When Muslims face east to pray they, in fact, face in the direction of Kaaba.
The Muslim pilgrimage, or the hajj, is a series of rituals spread over five days during which the pilgrims shed their clothes and worldly possessions in favor of a simple two-piece unstitched garment for men and a simple stitched robe for women. The pilgrims start the rituals by circling the Kaaba and walking between two low hills of Safa and Marwa, now enclosed within the mosque, in re-enactment of the plight of Hajjar when she left her infant son and ran between the two hills in search of water.
The pilgrims stay the night in the desert on their way to the valley of Mount Arafat where they spend the day praying and contemplating.
It was here from atop a low hill that the Prophet Muhammad delivered his last sermon to the pilgrims in 732. In his sermon he advised the faithful to be truthful, respect the rights of women, do not spill each other's blood, be honest in dealings with others, and follow the religion in his tradition.
After performing a series of rituals including symbolic stoning of the devil and offering of an animal in commemoration of Prophet Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son, the pilgrims return to the grand mosque for another circling of the Kaaba and walks between Safa and Marwa.
The conclusion of the hajj marks the beginning of the four-day celebration of Eid-ul-Adha or the Feast of Sacrifice in the Muslim world. When the pilgrims return home, their arrival is celebrated with great fanfare and some of them take on the honorific Hajj or Haji.
The Saudi kings, as custodians of Islam's holy places, have spent billions of dollars to make the hajj a safe and fulfilling experience, notwithstanding last week's stampede, which killed 350 people. They have built highways connecting Makkah with other cities and have built walkways and tunnels to facilitate safe passage between various venues during the hajj.
The marble floor of the courtyard of the mosque is cooled by an underground refrigeration system so the bare-feet pilgrims could walk in comfort.
Every faith has its symbols and rituals to help the faithful realize spiritual fulfillment and Islam is no different. The great gathering of Hindus on the banks of Ganges, the congregation of Jews at the Wailing Wall, a lone faithful carrying a cross on Via Dolorosa to retrace the path Christ took to his Crucifixion, and the solitary Buddhist monk crawling on his stomach to make 32-mile circle around Mount Kailash in Tibet are but outward manifestation of the same spiritual experience that changes their life in ways that are difficult to explain and hard to comprehend. But then such are the mysteries of faith.