What Is Hajj? Here Are the Rituals Muslims Perform During the Pilgrimage

Millions of Muslims from around the world have converged on Mecca, Saudi Arabia this week, with the annual hajj pilgrimage starting on Sunday and continuing through Friday.

In total, approximately two million believers make the pilgrimage annually, performing ancient rituals that Muslims trace back to the Prophet Abraham – whom Jews and Christians also revere.

Dr. Ebrahim Moosa, a professor of Islamic Studies at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana told Newsweek that believers carry out these actions to show "solidarity with Abraham who is seen as the father of monotheism."

Pilgrims, Moosa explained, "spend time in tents in a space called Mina, then spend a day in repentance at Arafat." After that, they perform the ritual "stoning of three symbols representing satanic impulses, the sacrifice of an animal and circumambulating around the Kaaba," a black cube structure inside the Great Mosque of Mecca.

Muslim worshippers circle around the Kaaba, Islam's holiest shrine, at the Grand Mosque in Saudi Arabia's holy city of Mecca on August 15 prior to the start of the annual Hajj pilgrimage in the holy city AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images

As the fifth pillar of Islam, which has an estimated 1.8 billion adherents worldwide, hajj is considered a mandatory religious duty for Muslims, according to Saudi-owned news channel Al Arabiya. Every adult Muslim should perform the pilgrimage at least once in their life, as long as they have the physical capability and financial resources to do so. Those who are not physically able, but have adequate finances, should pay for another Muslim to complete hajj on their behalf, preferably someone who would otherwise be unable to afford the trip

The Prophet Muhammed, Islam teaches, first performed the hajj rituals back in 632 C.E. His companions observed his movements closely, later writing them down and instructing others on how to emulate them, according to Emirati newspaper The National. From the way pilgrims dress, to their thoughts and attitude, hajj is intended to be a fully immersive religious experience for believers. Believers wear simple garments, representing the equality of all Muslims and aiming to remove signs of wealth or social status.

As the believers prepare their minds and bodies, they enter the Great Mosque and walk in counterclockwise circles around the Kabaa seven times, in a ritual called Tawaf. The movement, with so many Muslims performing the ritual in unison, is meant to demonstrate their unity in worshipping Allah, or God. This ritual is repeated throughout the days of hajj.

Indonesian pilgrims walk outside the Grand Mosque in Saudi Arabia's holy city of Mecca on August 16 prior to the start of the annual hajj pilgrimage in the holy city AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images

Following Tawaf, pilgrims then march between the hills of Safa and Marwah, which are now located within the massive Mecca mosque. This represents the journey Muslims believe Abraham's wife Hagar and their son Ismail took through the desert to find water after they were left there at God's command.

The next step is to journey to Mina, located about 5 miles from Mecca. There, pilgrims camp together and pray, remaining there until sunrise on the second day of hajj. Then they depart for Mount Arafat. This second day is referred to as "the most important day" of the pilgrimage. During the day, believers spend their time praying and repenting at the mountain, leaving at sunset for Muzdalifah. Arriving in that location, pilgrims camp, pray and collect small stones for the next day's ritual.

Ramy al-Jamarat, or the "stoning of the devil," involves throwing stones at three walls located in the city of Mina on the third day of hajj. Muslims believe these actions replicate those taken by Abraham, when he stoned three pillars that symbolized temptations to disobey God.

Muslim pilgrims throw pebbles at pillars during "the stoning of the devil" ritual, in Mina near the holy city of Mecca, on September 12, 2016 AHMAD GHARABLI/AFP/Getty Images

Along with the stoning ceremony, it is time for the Eid al-Adha feast. Whether or not Muslims make the pilgrimage, they celebrate this feast together with family and friends around the world.

"Eid al-Adha is the celebration at the culmination of the pilgrimage," Moosa told Newsweek. He explained that Muslims who do not travel to Mecca for hajj celebrate by hosting "a feast with the family, and those who can afford it will sacrifice an animal." Extra meat is shared with friends, neighbors and those less fortunate.

Although political tensions and tragedies have cast a shadow over the religious pilgrimage in recent years, it is intended to be a time of kindness, generosity and spiritual revival for believers.

"It's beautiful when you see pilgrims from all over the world, who don't even speak the same language, communicate through kindness," Hussam bin Ahmed, an organizer for one of the Hajj campaigns, told Saudi newspaper Arab News. "All during hajj we see the true face of Islam, the higher purpose of us in life in its humanitarian aspect," he said.