MOUNT ARAFAT, Saudi Arabia – Hundreds of thousands of Muslim pilgrims from around the world raised their hands to heaven and offered prayers of repentance at the holy hill of Mount Arafat in Saudi Arabia on Friday, an intense day of worship seen as the culmination of the annual hajj.
Multitudes stood side by side, feet to feet, for the moving 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 sent many pilgrims to tears. Muslims believe that praying today at Mount Arafat, about 20 kilometers (12 miles) east of the holy city of Mecca, is their best chance for salvation and spiritual renewal. Pilgrims left for Arafat before dawn, chanting as they walked. They stay there until nightfall in deep contemplation and adoration.
“I feel like I’m so close to God,” said Zakaria Mohammad, an Egyptian pilgrim praying as the sky brightened atop the hill. “He gave me such joy. That’s how I feel now – joy, great joy.”
The men wore sheets of unstitched white cloth resembling a shroud, while the women wore conservative garments and scarves with their faces exposed.
The hajj is a unique duty for all Muslims physically and financially able to make the journey, which takes worshipers on a path traveled 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 choking with emotion. “I can’t describe the happiness I have.”
Strict pandemic limits had upended the event for the past two years, effectively canceling one of the largest and most diverse gatherings in the world and devastating many devout Muslims who had waited a lifetime to make the trip. This year’s pilgrimage is the largest since the virus hit, although the attendance of one million worshipers remains less than half of the pre-pandemic influx.
All of the pilgrims selected to perform the hajj this year are under the age of 65 and have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19.
Pilgrims spend five days performing a set 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 on Thursday with the encirclement of the Kaaba, the black cube at the center of Mecca’s Grand Mosque, which Muslims around the world face during their daily prayers wherever they are in the world.
Around sunset Friday, pilgrims will walk or take a bus 9 kilometers (5.5 miles) west to the rocky desert of Muzdalifa, where they comb the area for pebbles to perform the symbolic stoning of the devil. The rite will take place on Saturday in the small village of Mina, where Muslims believe the devil tried to dissuade Ibrahim from submitting to God’s will.
Pilgrims stone the devil to signify overcoming temptation. The ritual is a notorious choke point for surging crowds. In 2016, thousands of pilgrims were crushed to death in a horrific stampede. The Saudi authorities have never offered a final assessment.
In their most notable effort to improve access, the Saudis built a high-speed rail link to transport the masses between holy sites. Pilgrims enter through special electronic gates. Tens of thousands of police are out in force to protect areas and control crowds.
With so many people from so many places crowded together, public health is a major concern. The Saudi health ministry has urged pilgrims to consider wearing masks to curb the spread of the coronavirus, despite the government lifting a mask mandate and other virus precautions last month.
The ministry also advised pilgrims to drink water and be aware of signs of heat stroke in the desert, where temperatures can exceed 40 degrees Celsius (105 degrees Fahrenheit).
After the hajj is over, men must shave their heads and women cut 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 Feast of Sacrifice. The holiday commemorates Prophet Ibrahim’s willingness to sacrifice his son Ismail at the request of God. Muslims traditionally slaughter sheep and cattle, dividing the meat between the needy, friends and relatives.