for National Geographic News
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One out of every five people on Earth, or some 1.3 billion, practice Islam. Over 80 percent of these Muslims live outside the Middle East.
While followers of Islam are scattered around the globe, they share a single spiritual centerMecca, Saudi Arabia. Muslim faithful throughout the world face Mecca during their five daily prayer sessions, and each year two million Muslims visit the holy city during the hajj, a sacred pilgrimage that represents the religious experience of a lifetime.
All adult Muslims who are physically and financially capable are expected to make a pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in their lifetime. The hajj is an enormous melting pot that gathers believers from over 70 countries and reveals the many faces of modern Islam.
"All races, all nationalities, all people in one place, concentrated, all in one direction worshipping the one God. This has to be very powerful," Daisy Khan told National Geographic Television. Khan, a Muslim, serves as the executive director of the Asma Society, an Islamic cultural and educational non-profit organization based in New York and New Jersey.
During the five-day hajj, believers seek to become closer to God, ask pardon for their sins, and renew their spiritual commitment.
The events of the hajj have long remained veiled from non-Muslims, who are forbidden even to enter the holy city of Mecca. But a team of Muslim filmmakers gained access to Islam's holiest place at the peak of the pilgrimage to document the holy event for National Geographic Television.
Anisa Mehdi, the film's producer and director, said the crew's personal faith became an essential part of their film, noting that only Muslims could make such a film because only they can enter the holy city of Mecca.
"There is something ultimately universal about hajj. Something different types of people can relate to," Mehdi told National Geographic Television. "It is a search for the divine and a search for self. It is a quest for absolution and for meaning in life. It is a chance to get a lot off your chest and to replenish the reservoir."
The hajj is an event of religious devotion, but faith alone doesn't make it happen. For the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the hajj is both a sacred trust and a logistical challenge that keeps its organizers busy year-round.
Iyad Madani, Minister of Hajj for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, explained the enormity of the undertaking to Mehdi's film crew: "If you can, imagine having twenty Super Bowls in one stadium where two million people will come to the same stadium. [A]dd to that [the fact] that these two million people will actually be taking part in playing the game as well. It may give you a glimpse of the preparations needed for hajj."
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