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Mecca: Behind Geographic TV's Rare Look Inside

Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic News
Updated October 24, 2003
 
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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 center—Mecca, 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.

Holy City

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."

The pilgrimage has changed over time, even as it has grown in size. Today's experience varies according to the wishes and wealth of the pilgrim—from long personal journeys of spartan comfort to package tours with air-conditioned tents.

Mecca is a modern city that's in the business of catering to pilgrims. The government of Saudi Arabia now provides pilgrims on hajj with water, modern transportation, and healthcare facilities.

The hajj takes place in the last month of the Islamic year. Because the lunar Islamic calendar (the Hijra calendar) has only 354 days the hajj moves about 11 days earlier each year. It takes about 33 years to make a full annual cycle. The next hajj, which falls in the year 1424 of the Hijra calendar, will take place this winter in late January and early February.

Radiant With Faith

Before entering the holy city, pilgrims undergo a ritual cleansing and declaration of intent to enter ihram, a state of spiritual readiness. All pilgrims dress in simple, uniform attire—two white sheets for men, loose dresses, and head scarves for women. Their goal is to become equal in the eyes of God.

"The most important thing to gain is brotherhood and sisterhood," Khalil Mandhlazi, a Muslim from South Africa, told National Geographic Television.

During the hajj, pilgrims spend five days performing rituals and rites that commemorate the trials of the prophet Abraham and his family and symbolize the essential concepts of the Islamic faith.

All pilgrims visit Islam's most sacred shrine at the Grand Mosque, home to the Ka'abah, the place of worship that Muslims believe God commanded Abraham and Ishmael to build over 4,000 years ago. Muslim faithful believe Abraham was told by God to summon all mankind to visit the place.

Today millions heed the call, saying as they arrive "Labbayka Allahumma Labbayk." (Here I am at your service, O God, here I am.) While at the Ka'abah, pilgrims perform tawaf, the rite in which faithful circle the Ka'abah counterclockwise seven times.

During the hajj pilgrims also hurry seven times between two small hills in a ritual known as the sa'y to reenact the story of the search for water and food by Abraham's wife Hagar. They spend an entire day on the Plain of Arafat outside the city of Mecca offering prayers of supplication and thanks in what's often seen as a preview of the Day of Judgment. And they stone three pillars at locations where Abraham pelted a tempting Satan.

The close of the hajj is marked by a festival known as Eid al-Adha. The feast commemorates Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his own son at God's command. (According to belief, however, God allowed Abraham to sacrifice a lamb instead.) The event is celebrated in Muslim communities everywhere, but nowhere more so than in Mecca, where pilgrims have just completed the religious experience of a lifetime.

Few leave the hajj unchanged. "When you really want to go on hajj, you feel you've been invited: God wants me—and it's a really good feeling," said Fidelma O'Leary, a college professor and converted Muslim from Austin, Texas. "Then you get here and you look around and you see there's millions of other people, and you're like an ant. Your significance is suddenly down to zero. It's a paradox. But it's a good paradox."
 

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