Pathways of Faith, Connected Histories

'Hajj' from Oxford Islamic Studies Online

About This Resource

This article discusses hajj, or Islamic pilgrimage, as background to Venetia Porter's The Art of Hajj, F. E. Peters' The Children of Abraham, and Jonathan Brown's biography of Muhammad. The article is reprinted from What Everyone Needs to Know About Islam in the Oxford Islamic Studies Online.


Unique among the world's great pilgrimages, the hajj is in many ways also the most important. Even compared to the ancient and highly developed international pilgrimage systems of Christianity and Hinduism, the hajj is remarkable in its doctrinal centrality, its geographic focus, and its historical continuity. The size and global coverage of the hajj are unparalleled. It currently attracts about one and a half million overseas pilgrims from virtually every nation—about 50 percent of them from Asia, 35 percent from the Arab world, 10 percent from sub-Saharan Africa, and 5 percent from Europe and the Western Hemisphere. These are joined in Mecca by another million local pilgrims, mostly foreigners working in Saudi Arabia. The combined contingents form the largest and most culturally diverse assembly of humanity to gather in one place at one time.

As the hajj has grown in size, the demographic characteristics of the pilgrims have changed substantially. Today's hajjīs are increasingly Asian, non-Arab, female, young, educated, and urban. In the last four decades, the proportion of women pilgrims has soared from less than one-third of the total to nearly one-half. In certain countries such as Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, and Lebanon, women usually constitute the majority of the national hajj delegations. In many other countries, female pilgrims predominate in the most prosperous regions and ethnic communities such as Turks in western Anatolia, Punjabis in northeastern Pakistan, and Yorubas in southwestern Nigeria.


The hajj is the annual pilgrimage to Mecca during the second week of Dhū al-Hijjah, the final month of the Islamic lunar calendar. All adult Muslims are required to perform the hajj at least once in their lifetimes provided they possess adequate resources and their absence from home will not create unreasonable hardships for their families. No other pious journey may be equated with or substituted for the hajj; this includes visits to the tombs of saints (ziyārahs), to Muhammad's tomb in Medina, or to Mecca itself at other times of the year (ʿumrah). Nor can the hajj be replaced by a spiritual “inner pilgrimage” through meditation or mystical enlightenment.

The hajj includes an intricate series of highly symbolic and emotional rituals performed in unison by all pilgrims. The sequence of rites observed today was determined by Muhammad shortly before his death and is regarded as a ritual reenactment of critical, faith-testing events in the lives of Abraham, the ancient founder of monotheism, his wife Hajar, and their son Ismāʿīl. When Muslim pilgrims replicate Muhammad's movements, they recall not the pagan ceremonies of pre-Islamic Mecca (some of which were also known as hajj), but the much older models of the earlier prophets.

Before the hajj begins, all male pilgrims don a special garb (ihrām) consisting merely of two white sheets or towels covering the upper and lower parts of the body. Female pilgrims have greater freedom of dress so long as they remain modest and tasteful. The primitiveness and uniformity of the ihrām symbolizes the radical equality and humility of all believers before God regardless of worldly differences in race, nationality, class, age, gender, or culture. The ihrām is a metaphor for how people will appear when they emerge from the grave on Judgment Day to confront their creator. Many pilgrims retain their ihrām for years after the hajj and use it as a burial shroud.

The initial rite of the hajj, the tawāf, is performed at least twice—immediately upon arriving in Mecca and just before departing after the completion of all other rites. The tawāf is a sevenfold circumambulation of the Kaʿbah, the cube-shaped “House of God” first built by Abraham and Ismāʿīl and the spiritual center of the world that all Muslims face during prayer. The Kaʿbah is often called an earthly counterpart to God's throne in heaven, and the tawāf is described as a human imitation of the angels’ circling his throne in adoration. During the tawāf many pilgrims approach the corner of the Kaʿbah that holds the Black Stone, a mysterious “heavenly rock” resembling a meteorite whose origins and alleged powers are widely disputed. Most pilgrims merely salute the Black Stone from a short distance as a gesture of their renewed covenant with God. Others struggle to touch or kiss the Black Stone, believing that it physically absorbs sin.

The tawāf is followed immediately by the saʿy, in which the pilgrim runs back and forth seven times between two small hills close to the Kaʿbah. This recalls Hajar's frantic search for water after Abraham was forced to abandon her and Ismāʿīl in the desert. After the exertion of the tawāf and saʿy most pilgrims wash and relax at the nearby well of Zamzam, which appeared miraculously to rescue Hajar and her son from death. Pilgrims drink Zamzam water throughout their stay in Mecca and frequently take home small flasks as souvenirs for friends and relatives who are unable to make the hajj themselves.

The climax of the hajj is the massive procession to the plain of Arafat just outside Mecca on the ninth day of Dhū al-Hijjah. Two million pilgrims from more than one hundred countries gather in tents that cover the valley and surrounding mountains as far as the eye can see. From just after noon until shortly after sunset they are absorbed in continuous prayer and conversation. Many believe that at this spot and time God's spirit descends closest to earth, making it easier for human prayers to attract his attention.

Some of the most devout pilgrims scale the sides of the Mount of Mercy where Muhammad delivered a famous sermon during his “farewell pilgrimage”; however, the vast majority remain in tents sheltered from the dangerous midday sun. The encamped congregation at Arafat is a beehive of activity, constantly exchanging news and ideas about the condition of Islam in every corner of the world. Each camp combines the air of a religious retreat, a country picnic, and a town meeting.

Promptly after sunset, more than two million people and a hundred thousand vehicles break camp and rush out of the valley, creating the world's largest traffic jam (nafrah). They inch their way through the narrow mountain pass of Muzdalifah, where they spend the night in the open under the starry desert sky. The complete lack of accommodations at Muzdalifah makes this one of the most ascetic phases of the hajj, and for many Muzdalifah is the most inspiring and calming part of the pilgrimage. On the tenth day of Dhū al-Hijjah, at sunrise, pilgrims continue on to the adjacent valley of Mina, where another colossal tent city is erected between Arafat and Mecca.

Mina is the site of two ritual dramas poignantly replicating Abraham's crisis in fulfilling God's command to sacrifice his son Ismāʿīl. Pilgrims reenact Abraham's rejection of Satan's temptation to disobey the divine order by hurling seven pebbles at a tall stone pillar (jamrah) representing the devil. The massive crush of humanity and flying stones about the pillar create the most frenzied and cathartic moments of the hajj, as well as some of the most perilous. Because of frequent stampedes and hundreds of deaths during the stoning ritual, Saudi officials have built multitiered pedestrian bridges around the pillars and posted special police to help manage the crowds. After the stonings, each pilgrim offers an animal sacrifice (qurbān) commemorating the sheep that God ultimately accepted from Abraham in place of his son. Muslims all over the world participate vicariously in this phase of the hajj by simultaneously making their own sacrifices at home on ʿĪd al-Adhā, Islam's most important holiday. [See ʿĪd al-Adhā.]

During the next two or three days, until the twelfth or thirteenth day of Dhū al-Hijjah, pilgrims constantly shuttle back and forth between Mina and Mecca via clogged highways and wide pedestrian tunnels cut through the mountains. Following a slightly more flexible schedule, they perform at least six more stonings in Mina and at least one more tawāf and saʿy in Mecca. In the final few days of the ceremonies male pilgrims wear the ihrām garb less frequently. Instead, they wear various combinations of their regular national costumes and local Arabian dress, signifying their gradual return to the profane world and their closer identification with Muhammad and his companions.

Symbols and Meanings.

A properly performed hajj creates spiritually reborn pilgrims absolved from all previous sins. At this point, elderly and infirm pilgrims sometimes express a readiness for death, particularly in Mecca, believing their purified souls will enter paradise immediately. However, a hajj is only valid if God accepts it, and his judgment cannot be known with certainty by the pilgrim or anyone else. The hallmark of a valid pilgrimage is not performing each ritual with precision, but undertaking the entire journey with the sincere intention (nīyah) of coming closer to God. If a pilgrim's intentions are spiritually sound, then all but the most flagrant breaches of ritual formality can be corrected by sacrificing additional animals in Mecca or by special acts of charity and fasting after returning home.

The hajj is unique in its symbolic richness as well as its far-reaching political ramifications. The extraordinary interplay of symbolism, ritual, and power links pilgrims with one another and with Muslims around the world in a feeling of common destiny extending from the time of creation until Judgment Day. The dream of preserving and harnessing the unifying power of the hajj has long fascinated and frightened elites in the Muslim world and beyond. The struggle to control the organization and interpretation of the pilgrimage has persisted throughout Islamic history and became a major religio-political conflict in the twentieth century. Since World War II, newly independent states throughout the Muslim world have adopted elaborate programs to manipulate the hajj for political and economic gain. However, controlling the hajj is far more difficult than the technocrats imagine; its pluralistic symbolism and multifunctional ritual defy the modern state's penchant for standardization and regimentation.

The symbolic structure of the hajj contains numerous layers open to alternative interpretations. At each phase of the rites the pilgrim reenacts dramatic events associated with multiple, often overlapping characters. Any analysis of this symbolism soon becomes an investigation of archetypes derived not only from the Qurʿān and sunnah but also from local legend and oral tradition. In many accounts Muhammad's association with shrines and sites is preceded not only by Abraham and his family (a pre-Islamic layer), but also by Noah and Adam (a prehistoric layer) and by Gabriel and other angels (a preterrestrial layer).

Interpretation of this sacred symbolism has always been pluralistic and controversial. Orientalists such as Gustave E. von Grunebaum have claimed that the rites have no meaning and that pilgrims perform the hajj with no comprehension of their actions beyond blind obedience. In contrast, some esoteric writers see every place and persona as a profusion of signs pointing toward a unique truth for each pilgrim and each pilgrimage. Many pilgrims, literate or not, carry government-approved guide books that reveal the “secrets” or hidden meanings of the hajj as though there were a single, standard message that could be decoded once and for all.

Muslim commentators generally acknowledge that the hajj contains many mysteries that no human intellect grasps fully. However, they then proceed to interpret these latent themes in ways that reflect conventional differences among ʿulamāʿ, Ṣūfīs, Shīʿah, modernists, and fundamentalists. For many of these writers, the symbolism of the hajj serves as a metalanguage inviting critical and creative thought, open to periodic reinterpretation and congenial to wide variations in culture, nationality, and politics. Even the government of Saudi Arabia, which tries to set the limits of respectable discourse and conduct during the hajj, recognizes that such disagreements are inevitable and perhaps desirable.

The ritual functions of the pilgrimage are just as diverse as its symbolic structure. Anthropologists who specialize in the study of ritual commonly distinguish among rites of passage, rites of renewal, rites of reversal, and rites of affliction. Although these concepts generally describe discrete phenomena, each is appropriate in highlighting a different facet of the hajj.

Pilgrimage frequently coincides with major turning points in the life cycle such as adulthood, marriage, career change, retirement, illness, and death. It may also serve as a flexible and repeatable initiation for people of any age, including new converts to Islam or those seeking spiritual rejuvenation after a personal crisis or loss. Viewed as a rite of passage, the hajj appears capable of helping individuals adapt in various cultures and social structures, with generally conservative, system-supporting implications.

On the collective level, the hajj celebrates the reunion and renewal of the ummah, the worldwide community of Muslims. Indeed, the pilgrimage is the symbolic rebirth of the ummah every year. It is the most powerful reminder of Islam's ideals of unity across cultures and its continuity over time. Pilgrims retrace the footsteps of the founders of monotheism and Islam. They discuss and debate the role of the ummah country by country, in the international system and in the course of world history. Afterward, they return home with a stronger sense of the transcendent, charismatic quality of the community—a sentiment shared and reaffirmed by neighbors and countrymen unable to perform the pilgrimage themselves.

By symbolically negating all status and hierarchy, the hajj devalues the status quo in all its forms. It is true that the reversal of roles is only temporary and fictional. In fact, throughout their stay in the holy land pilgrims enjoy vastly different accommodations and comforts depending on their nationality and class. Nevertheless, repeated stress on the ultimate irrelevance of all distinctions among believers challenges the legitimacy of economic and political inequalities both nationally and internationally. As with other rites of status reversal, the hajj has mixed implications for authority. It can produce either catharsis and acquiescence or empowerment and protest. Controversies over control of the hajj reflect recurrent struggles between elites who favor these opposing goals.

Recent Political History.

Since 1979, controversy has centered on Saudi Arabia's attempts to use the pilgrimage as a rite of reconciliation versus Iran's desire to turn it into a platform for revolution. King Fayṣal (r. 1964–1975) frequently told pilgrims that the hajj should serve not only to heal their spiritual ailments but also to mend the political splits in the ummah as a whole so that it could become a more effective force in world affairs. He portrayed the hajj as a period of reflection and self-criticism that should be institutionalized in a permanent international forum. Fayṣal lobbied Muslim heads of state attending the pilgrimage to found the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) as a Muslim counterpart to the United Nations.

During the 1980s, when Iran's revolutionary government disrupted the hajj and demanded its removal from Saudi supervision, the OIC provided decisive support for Fayṣal's successors. More than forty member-states of the OIC not only reaffirmed Saudi protection of the holy cities but also endorsed an unprecedented quota system limiting the number of pilgrims in each nation's delegation. In an effort to centralize hajj management further, many Muslim technocrats have urged the OIC to establish an international agency to coordinate the burgeoning government bureaucracies that currently regulate all aspects of the pilgrimage in their respective countries.

On the global level, the OIC manages the hajj through a unique international regime that tries to reconcile three conflicting demands on the Holy Cities of Mecca and Medina—Saudi Arabian claims to national sovereignty, the universal right of Muslims everywhere to free passage and unfettered worship, and the interest of future generations in preserving endangered historical sites and desert environments that belong to the common heritage of mankind. At the national level, each government regulates hajj participation at its source by allocating the limited spaces designated under the OIC quotas and by providing a wide array of subsidized pilgrimage services that often includes discounted air fares, educational programs, visa services, hotel accommodations, medical care, and life insurance.

Many governments have tried to use the hajj for political and economic gain, particularly by increasing pilgrimage services during election campaigns and by awarding lucrative contracts to selected businesses. These practices simultaneously reflect and aggravate the growing politicization of the hajj, both nationally and internationally. Entrenched elites manipulate the pilgrimage at their own peril. Government sponsorship and control frequently swell into a virtual state monopoly over a lucrative hajj enterprise. Such monopolies commonly breed favoritism, resentment, and heightened conflict among parties, regions, classes, and ethnic groups. This sort of pilgrimage policy not only threatens to undermine the political elites who wield it, but also ultimately contradicts the ideals of the hajj.


  • Ahsan, ʿAbdullāh al-. The Organization of the Islamic Conference: An Introduction to an Islamic Political Institution. Herndon, Va., 1988. Overview of the OIC's origin, structure, and activities.
  • Bianchi, Robert R. Guests of God: Pilgrimage and Politics in the Islamic World. New York, 2004. Comparative study of the hajj's influence on world politics and international law, highlighting Pakistan, Malaysia, Turkey, Indonesia, and Nigeria.
  • Birks, J. S. Across the Savannas to Mecca: The Overland Pilgrimage Route from West Africa. London, 1978. Detailed study of pilgrimage routes before the dominance of air travel.
  • Campo, Juan Eduardo. The Other Sides of Paradise: Explorations into the Religious Meanings of Domestic Space in Islam. Columbia, S.C., 1991. Contains an excellent chapter on pilgrimage art in Egyptian villages.
  • Chélini, Jean, and Henry Branthomme. Histoire des pèlerinages non-chrétiens. Paris, 1987. Comprehensive survey and comparison of non-Christian pilgrimages.
  • Eickelman, Dale F., and James Piscatori, eds. Muslim Travellers: Pilgrimage, Migration, and the Religious Imagination. Berkeley, Calif., 1990. Contains good chapters on the hajj from Malaysia and India.
  • Eliade, Mircea. The Myth of the Eternal Return; or, Cosmos and History. Translated by Willard R. Trask. Princeton, N.J., 1954. Originally published in 1949 as Le mythe de lʿéternel retour: Archétypes et répétition. Classic analysis of universal themes in religious myth.
  • Firestone, Reuven. Journeys in Holy Lands: The Evolution of the Abraham-Ishmael Legends in Islamic Exegesis. Albany, N.Y., 1990. Careful comparison of Islamic and pre-Islamic legend concerning Abraham and Mecca.
  • Fischer, Michael M. J., and Mehdi Abedi. Debating Muslims: Cultural Dialogues in Postmodernity and Tradition. Madison, Wis., 1990. Contains a chapter on radical Iranian views of the pilgrimage.
  • Grunebaum, Gustave E. von. Muhammadan Festivals. New York, 1951. Compares the hajj with other Islamic rituals.
  • Hammoudi, Abdellah. A Season in Mecca: Narrative of a Pilgrimage. Translated by Pascale Ghazaleh. New York, 2006. Originally published in 2005 as Une saison à La Mecque: Récit de pèlerinage. A Moroccan anthropologist's interpretation of his pilgrimage.
  • Kamal, Ahmad. The Sacred Journey. New York, 1961. Useful guide to hajj rituals that provides many widely accepted interpretations.
  • Kramer, Martin. “Khomeini's Messengers: The Disputed Pilgrimage of Islam.” In Religious Radicalism and Politics in the Middle East, edited by Emmanuel Sivan and Menachem Friedman, pp. 177–227. Albany, N.Y., 1990. Good overview of the clashes between Iran and Saudi Arabia during the 1980s.
  • Long, David Edwin. The ḥajj Today: A Survey of the Contemporary Makkah Pilgrimage. Albany, N.Y., 1979. Still useful study of Saudi hajj administration.
  • Matheson, Virginia, and A. C. Milner. Perceptions of the Haj: Five Malay Texts. Singapore, 1984. Various written accounts of Malay pilgrims from different historical eras.
  • McDonnell, Mary Byrne. “The Conduct of the ḥajj from Malaysia and Its Socio-Economic Impact on Malay Society: A Descriptive and Analytical Study, 1860–1981.” Ph.D. diss., Columbia University, 1986. Excellent study of a leading example of modern hajj management.
  • Naqar, ʿUmar ʿAbd al-Razzāq. The Pilgrimage Tradition in West Africa: An Historical Study with Special Reference to the Nineteenth Century. Khartoum, Sudan, 1972. Describes the many functions of the hajj in African society.
  • Nomachi, Ali Kazuyoshi, and Seyyed Hossein Nasr. Mecca the Blessed, Medina the Radiant: The Holiest Cities of Islam. New York, 1997. Historical essay on the Holy Cities with numerous color photographs.
  • Partin, Harry B. “The Muslim Pilgrimage: Journey to the Center.” PhD diss., University of Chicago, 1967. Contrasts pre-Islamic and Islamic versions of the hajj.
  • Sharīʿatī, ʿAlī. Hajj. Bedford, Ohio, 1977. The most influential example of revolutionary Shīʿī interpretations of hajj symbolism.
  • Snouck Hurgronje, Christiaan. “Notes sur le mouvement du pèlerinage de la Mecque aux Indes Neerlandaises.” Revue du Monde Musulman, 15 (1911): 397–413. Classic colonialist view of how pilgrimage should be controlled.
  • Snouck Hurgronje, Christiaan. “La pèlerinage à la Mekke.” In Selected Works of C. Snouck Hurgronje, edited by G. -H. Bousquet and Joseph Schacht. Leiden, Netherlands, 1957. Emphasizes the political context in which Muhammad formulated the hajj.
  • Turner, Victor. The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure. London, 1969. Major theoretical discussion of ritual, emphasizing its relations with authority.
  • Turner, Victor, and Edith Turner. Image and Pilgrimage in Christian Culture: Anthropological Perspectives. New York, 1978. The best general study of pilgrimage within a social science framework.


Bianchi, Robert . "Ḥajj." In The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World. Oxford Islamic Studies Online,

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"Muslim Journeys | Item #164: 'Hajj' from Oxford Islamic Studies Online", May 17, 2024


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