MOUNT ARAFAT, Saudi Arabia –
Hundreds of thousands of Muslim pilgrims from around the world raised their hands to heaven and offered prayers of repentance on the holy hill of Mount Arafat in Saudi Arabia on Friday, an intense day of worship seen as the climax of the annual hajj.
Crowds stood shoulder to shoulder, foot to foot, for the emotional day of supplication in the desert valley where Muslims believe the Prophet Muhammad delivered his last sermon, calling for equality and unity among Muslims.
The experience brought many pilgrims to tears. Muslims believe that praying on this day on Mount Arafat, some 20 kilometers east of the holy city of Mecca, is their best chance for salvation and spiritual renewal. The pilgrims left for Arafat before dawn, singing as they went. There they remain until nightfall in deep contemplation and adoration.
“I feel like I am so close to God,” said Zakaria Mohammad, an Egyptian pilgrim praying as the sky lit up over the top of the hill. “It gave me so much joy. This is my feeling now: joy, great joy.”
The men wore unstitched white cloth sheets that resembled a shroud, while the women wore conservative dresses and headscarves, their faces exposed.
Hajj is a once-in-a-lifetime duty for all Muslims physically and financially able to make the journey, taking worshipers down a path trodden by the Prophet Muhammad some 1,400 years ago.
“God brought me here,” said Khadije Isaac, who traveled to Mount Arafat from Nigeria, her voice cracking with emotion. “I can’t describe how happy I am.”
The strict limits of the pandemic had disrupted the event for the past two years, effectively canceling one of the world’s largest and most diverse gatherings and devastating many pious Muslims who had waited their entire lives to make the trip. This year’s pilgrimage marks the largest since the virus hit, though attendance of 1 million worshipers is still less than half the pre-pandemic turnout.
All the pilgrims selected to perform the hajj this year are under 65 years old and have been vaccinated against COVID-19.
Pilgrims spend five days performing a series of rituals associated with the prophet Muhammad and the prophets Ibrahim and Ismail, or Abraham and Ishmael in the Bible, before him. The rituals began Thursday with the turning of the Kaaba, the black cube at the center of the Grand Mosque in Mecca, which Muslims around the world face during their daily prayers anywhere in the world.
Around sunset on Friday, pilgrims will march or take a bus 9 kilometers (5.5 miles) west to the rocky desert of Muzdalifa, where they will comb the area for pebbles to carry out the symbolic stoning of the devil. . That rite will take place on Saturday in the small town of Mina, where Muslims believe the devil tried to talk Ibrahim out of submitting to God’s will. Pilgrims stone the devil to signify overcoming temptation.
The ritual is a notorious bottleneck for growing crowds. In 2016, thousands of pilgrims were crushed to death in a horrific stampede. Saudi authorities never offered a final death toll.
In their most notable effort to improve access, the Saudis have built a high-speed rail link to transport masses between holy sites. Pilgrims enter through special electronic gates. Tens of thousands of police are out in force to protect the areas and control the crowds.
With so many people in so many crowded places, public health is a huge concern. Saudi Arabia’s Health Ministry has urged pilgrims to consider wearing masks to curb the spread of the coronavirus, though the government lifted the mandate to wear masks and other precautions against the virus last month.
Infections have risen steadily in the kingdom in recent months. There were no signs of social distancing in Friday’s mass procession.
Since the hajj is a major source of prestige and tourism for Saudi Arabia, the government wants to remove the pandemic restrictions. Saudi Health Minister Fahad al-Jalajel told state-run Al-Arabiya television that authorities had not recorded an “outbreak” of the virus in the hajj, without giving further details on individual cases. He said that he expected the authorities to expand the quotas for pilgrims next year.
The ministry also advised pilgrims to drink water and watch for signs of heatstroke in the desert, where temperatures can exceed 40 degrees Celsius (105 degrees Fahrenheit).
After the hajj is over, men are expected to shave their heads and women are expected to cut off a lock of hair as a sign of renewal.
Around the world, Muslims will mark the end of the pilgrimage with Eid al-Adha, or the Festival of Sacrifice. The holiday commemorates the will of the prophet Ibrahim to sacrifice his son Ismail at the request of God. Muslims traditionally slaughter sheep and cows, dividing the meat among those in need, friends and relatives.