[Yesterday Moslems from throughout the world converged upon Mecca, to fulfill the fifth pillar of the Islamic faith, a pilgrimage to the holy city. The following article describes their journey.]
The roads to Mecca were jammed with lengthy processions of vehicles: flashy American cars, Japanese tricycle vans, barefoot pedestrians. As travelers reached the checking post marking the border of the city, they stopped and waited for a guard to inspect their passports for religious identification before he opened the road to them. Only Moslems were allowed to enter Mecca, since they alone came for the religious reasons which justify entering a city that has been closed to non-Moslems for almost 1300 years. En route to the city, the rhythmic prayer of the pilgrims fills the air:
Labbayk Allahuma Labbayk
I answer thy summons O Lord, I answer
I answer thy summons, Thou hast no partner to Thee, I answer.
Verily Thine is the praise
The blessing and the sovereignty of the Universe.
Thou hast no partner to Thee.
Some come across the Red Sea from North Africa and Egypt to the Port of Suez, where they crowd on boats going to the Port of Jedda and then take buses to Mecca. Many come from Turkey, Iran and Syria in packed buses across desert roads. Thousands fly from East Asia: India, Pakistan, Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand. And Moslems from America come over on chartered flights scheduled specially for the pilgrimage.
In preparation for the pilgrimage, the male pilgrim must wash his body, shed his everyday dress and wear two pieces of unsewn sheets: one around the waist and the other over the shoulders. The female pilgrim is required to wear a long dress and cover her hair. The pilgrimage is considered the most fortunate moment of one's life, the time when one can travel to the Blessed City asking for God's forgiveness, hoping for complete forgiveness of one's sins and transgressions. Thus men's sheets and women's dresses are usually white, signifying a purer rebirth of the soul.
With this dress the pilgrim enters the state of 'ihram' consecration. He must abstain from all modes of gratification of personal vanity, beautification of the body, and indulgence of its desires. More emphatically the pilgrim should refrain from hurting or destroying anything that is alive; peace must reign, especially then.
In this state, every pilgrim enters Mecca as an equal; all are humble before God. The King of Saudi Arabia, the President of Egypt, the Sultan of Omman, the Shah of Iran, all are indistinguishable from their subjects, dressed in the same two-sheet simple dress. Worldly conventions are discarded, distinctions eliminated, racial disparities unrecognized. One is freed from one's bondage to both oneself and others, affirming a direct commitment to the One and Only Being, admitting Him as the sole dispenser of one's fate. Coming to pay tribute to the Creator, the pilgrim is no longer a subject of any state, system or regime, rather he transcends these restrictive impositions to a higher and more universal rank. On this level all are equal in their subjugation and God rules supreme.
Driven by persecution from Mecca after he had started preaching the new religion, the Prophet Mohammed wept as he left his home and fled to Medina. He had been born and raised there among his tribe and often had shepherded his uncle's flock on its mountains. And in one of those lonely mountains was the cave where he had received the very first revelation announcing the deliverance of a new and final message.
The Mecca of today bears little resemblance to that of the seventh century. It is a rather small town embedded in a range of harsh volcanic mountains. Modern tall buildings dwarf older houses, and the markets wind along narrow streets and alleys. In the heart of the city lies the huge star-shaped Haram Mosque, and in the middle of its courtyard stands the Ka'ba, the holiest shrine of Islam. Given the honorific title of "House of God" by God Himself in the Koran, the Ka'ba has thus been venerated by Moslems. It is a simple four-walled structure of black, cemented stone, empty from the inside. Believed by Muslims to have been built first by Adam and later raised by the prophet Abraham and his son Ishmael in compliance with God's command, the Ka'ba remained a sacred place of worship throughout the history of pagan Arabia.
With the conquest of Mecca eight years after the Hegira, Mohammed destroyed the idols and cleansed the sacred house of its pagan deities. He re-established it as a place of worship to God alone. Reverting it to its original use he could then perform the pilgrimage "hajj," setting an example for millions of his followers throughout the ages. All rituals of the pilgrimage are rich in traditions reflecting the religious actions of Abraham (Mohammed).