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Return to the holy land at year's end

December 26, 2006|by SANA SIDDIQUI

This year is coming to its end and Christians and Jews - followers of two of the world's three largest monotheistic faiths - have celebrated Christmas and Hanukkah.

This year, the end-of-the-year holiday season for Muslims - followers of the third monotheistic religion - includes hajj and Eid-ul-Adha.

Islam has five pillars that are requirements for every Muslim. These pillars are the testifying to one God, the prayer, the charity, the fast and, finally, the hajj.

Hajj is a pilgrimage to the lands where the prophet Muhammad founded Islam. Hajj displays unity of all Muslims and revives the practices of Abraham and his family. The pilgrimage is required of each adult Muslim at least once in his or her life if one is healthy and financially able to do so.

Every year, about 10,000 American Muslims go for hajj and join more than 2.5 million other Muslims from around the world in the holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia. This is the location of the Kaaba, the first house of worship built by the prophets Abraham and Ishmael.

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Conveniently, this year, the hajj falls on Dec. 31, and the number of pilgrims is expected to increase significantly because of holiday vacations from school.

Hajj does not always occur in December. In the lunar calendar followed by Muslims, hajj falls on the eighth, ninth and 10th days of the month of Dhul-Hajjah, the 12th lunar month. Because the 12-month lunar calendar is about 11 days shorter than the 12-month solar calendar - based on Earth revolving around the sun - the hajj takes place at different dates each solar year.

On the way to Mecca, Muslims put themselves in the state of ihram. Ihram is a state in which one has physical restrictions and a full intention to comply by them. Men wear white seamless garments. Women cover their whole body except their hands, feet and face. The clothing and pilgrimage itself is to symbolize that everyone is equal in the eyes of God. It also reinforces the unity of all Muslims.

There are other restrictions: Pilgrims must avoid wearing any type of fragrance, avoid cutting hair and nails, stay away from foul language or actions, and avoid sexual relations.

After pilgrims reach Mecca, a series of rituals begin the hajj. First, a believer visits the Kaaba, offers prayer and does tawaf, walking around the Kaaba seven times. This circumambulation is done in imitation of the ways that prophets Abraham and Ishmael worshipped.

This practice, in which Muslims re-enact traditions and events from the lives of past prophets and their families, is followed throughout the entire hajj process. When Abraham's wife, Hagar, was desperately searching for water for her son Ishmael, she ran between two mountains called Safah and Marwa seven times. It is now a required part of hajj, called sa'y, for pilgrims to repeat the run between the two mountains.

Pilgrims visit the city of Mina, where Abraham is believed to have taken Ishmael for his sacrifice. After spending time in Mina, all Muslims performing hajj gather in the plain of Arafat to seek forgiveness and say their prayers. This is the most important part of hajj. From Arafat, they travel to Muzdalifah to stay overnight and collect stones. The stones are later used to throw at three pillars in Jamarat. The stoning symbolizes prophet Abraham throwing stones at the devil when the devil distracted him from obeying God's will.

Muslims complete hajj by sacrificing an animal - usually a goat, cow or camel - the same way Abraham did, and by coming out of their state of ihram. The animal is sacrificed in the name of God, and it is shared with friends, family and the poor. This day is a celebration day called Eid-ul-Adha. In the morning, there is a customary prayer in the mosque where families gather and pray together.

Not only is this sacrifice performed by pilgrims, but by all Muslims in the world. In Hagerstown, the Islamic Society of Western Maryland will join the worldwide celebration by having prayers and social gatherings. My family brings our animal to a local slaughterhouse for the sacrifice.

The purpose of hajj is not only to be an obligation, but to be a spiritual journey that helps each Muslim understand how one should worship and recognize God.

This summer, I went to Mecca to make a pilgrimage called ummrah. Ummrah is like a mini-hajj, and I did some of the things that one would do during hajj. The experience of being in the house of God and being able to seclude myself into the worship of God was exhilarating and satisfying. I felt as if I and the Muslims around me were together making a purpose for our lives by worshiping God so closely.

Hajj helps us submit ourselves to God and let go of everything else. It brings us hope that our sins will be forgiven.

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