Pilgrimage is the term that denotes traveling to Mecca to worship at God’s house called the Ka’ba. There are two types of pilgrimage:
The Minor Pilgrimage (Umrah) – this can be performed at any time of the year.
The Major Pilgrimage (Hajj) – this is performed in the 12th lunar Islamic month on specific days.
It is possible to combine both pilgrimages in the same trip, as the minor one can be performed before the major one begins. However, both only become obligatory if someone has the physical ability and financial means to perform them. They are obligatory upon all able adult Muslims once in their lifetime.
Pilgrims dress in certain garments throughout the pilgrimage. A person intending to perform the pilgrimage enters into a voluntary restrictive state known as ‘Ihram.’ This state begins at a specific place outside of Mecca and prevents pilgrims from doing certain things which they can usually do, such as removing hair, clipping nails and applying perfume.
For the minor pilgrimage, there are three main components. The first is circumambulation of (going around) the Ka’ba for seven circuits in a counterclockwise direction. Pilgrims start their circumambulation from the corner of the Ka’ba that contains the Black Stone. Each walk around Ka’ba back to the Black Stone is considered one circuit. The second is walking between the two hills of Safa and Marwah, situated a short distance away from the Ka’ba, within the walls of the Grand Mosque. Walking from one hill to the other is one circuit. Seven such circuits are made. The final component of the minor pilgrimage is to trim the head hair; men also have the option to shave their head.
The major pilgrimage lasts from 4-6 days and also entails visiting the Holy Sites close by the city of Mecca. These sites are called Mina, Arafat and Muzdalifah. The major pilgrimage begins on the eighth day of the twelfth lunar month. Pilgrims start off by spending that day in Mina. The following day they spend in Arafat, a place where the Messenger Muhammad gave a sermon and spent the day in supplication to God. On that evening, the pilgrims move to Muzdalifah where they rest for the night.
The third day of the pilgrimage consists of returning to Mina where the pilgrims throw small pebbles at the three pillars, offer an animal sacrifice, trim or shave their head hair and then proceed to Mecca for circumambulation of the Ka’ba and the circuits between the hills of Safa and Marwah. Then, they return back to Mina, and over the next couple of days will continue to stone the pillars and spend their day in general worship of God and different acts of devotion. The major pilgrimage is concluded with a final circumambulation of the Ka’ba as a farewell.
Many pilgrims use the opportunity of the minor and major pilgrimages to also visit the city of Medina, where the Messenger Muhammad lived the last 10 years of his life. Offering prayers in the mosque there is very rewarding. The cities of Mecca and Medina also contain other religious and historical sites which can be visited. It’s truly an experience of a lifetime.