"Be Peaceful, Orderly, and Kind. No Crushing."
– Web site of The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia's Ministry of Hajj
Islam has its good points and its bad points; these days in America, much of the focus seems to be upon the bad points. But there’s one important part of Islam that I’ve looked into and found to be quite fascinating: The Hajj, the pilgrimage to Makkah (which we usually spell "Mecca") that all Muslims are required to make at least once in their lifetimes. The Hajj is a look into true Arabic culture, one that has changed little since the foundation of Islam 1,400 years ago.
Taken at face value, the Hajj doesn't seem too difficult for a devout Muslim. You are simply required to perform five tasks:
- 1) Travel to Makkah. For about two-thirds of the world's population, this isn't as easy as it sounds. (Any pilgrim will know that the incredible effort it takes to actually get to your destination is enough to dissuade all but the most dedicated and hardened travelers from even starting!). One important thing to take into consideration is that Makkah is sacred ground in Islam: there is a standing law that the penalty for non-Muslims entering the city of Makkah is death. There are signs posted on all roads leading into the city, noting the exact point at which the ground becomes sacred and only Muslims are allowed to enter.(Presumably, in these "enlightened" times, this penalty might be forgiven if someone were to stumble over the city border by accident.)
- 2) Perform a tawaf around the Kaaba. A tawaf is simply the act of walking in a circle around the Kaaba seven times, in a counterclockwise direction, kissing the Black Stone (or at least pointing to it) each time you pass it. The Kaaba is one of the coolest and most awesome religious artifacts ever created! It's a cube-shaped building at the center of Makkah, only 11 meters by 13 meters wide (it was built before exact measuring tools were available), and Islam states that the original building was constructed by Abraham himself. (This is contested by earlier, pre-Muhammad legends.) On the eastern corner of the Kaaba, the Black Stone is embedded in the corner wall and surrounded by a silver barrier; this stone is believed to be a meteorite that fell from the sky. Arabic conspiracy theorists – of which there are many – are in constant debate and heated arguments over the significance of the Black Stone, which is believed by many (though not all) Muslims to have the power to absorb sins into itself. Worship of the Black Stone is a secret sub-cult of Islam that some mainstream sects take akin to pagan devil worship, in the manner of the Christian cults of Mary Magdelene and John the Baptist.
- * Inside Mecca, view of Kaaba
- * Inside the Kaaba
- 3) Perform sa'i: run seven times back and forth (or at least walk) to and from the Zamzam Well near the Kaaba, between the hills of Al-Safa and Al-Marwah. This re-enacts an event in legend, the "frantic search for water" by Abraham's wife, Hagar, for her son Ismael. (This wasn't the same son whom Abraham almost sacrificed to God; that was Isaac. He certainly led a busy life, being tested by God again and again.)
- 4) Leave the city and travel to the hill of Mount Arafat (not Ararat from Noah; this is a different hill), and spend an afternoon there doing…whatever. You don't have to pray or chant there, though many pilgrims do; you just have to stay on or around the hill for an entire afternoon.
- 5) Stone the Devil. This is the most dangerous part of the Hajj today, and this is where most of those crushing stampedes occur each year, where people are trampled to death. That's because after spending their time at Arafat, all of the millions of Hajj pilgrims gather pebbles on the nearby plain of Muzdalifah and take them to the city of Mina, just east of Makkah. Here are the three devils: stone walls set up for people to throw their pebbles at. This symbolizes the three times Abraham was tempted by the Devil; thus, the travelers throw their stones at the devils and stone the Devil himself. These devils used to be tall pillars, but Saudi authorities finally realized that the enormous crowds were crushing themselves to death as everyone tried to scramble close enough to the pillars to throw their stones at them; and a lot of people ended up being pelted by stones, as many of the cast pebbles missed and sailed into the crowds on the other side. So in 2004, the pillars were replaced with long walls to give the stoners an easier target to hit, and more room to spread out.
After the Stoning of the Devil is the feast of Eid al-Adha, which is the closest thing to a single holiday in Islam that most outsiders can understand. During Eid, animals are sacrificed by the Hajj pilgrims, and the meat is donated to charity; all around the world, Muslims sacrifice animals on Eid and have a feast of their own. In their attempts to introduce Islam to more mainstream audiences (and not be seen as fanatical terrorists), Muslim spokespersons, apologists, and publicists have been pushing Eid as a legitimate holiday, to the point where the United States Post Office has included Eid on its printing of holiday stamps; while some schools in the US (though not many) have introduced Eid as an official holiday, alongside Christmas and Hanukkah.
Centuries of tradition have added a lot of extra baggage and detail to the Hajj, but those are the five basic steps needed for a Muslim to complete his or her journey. Of course, this has to happen during the month of Dhu al-Hijjah, which is not the same as Ramadan; while pilgrims come to Makkah at all times of the year, this isn't considered a true Hajj unless it takes place during the correct holy days.
The officially-approved form of Islam in Saudi Arabia, Wahhabism, is hostile to any reverence given to historical or religious places of significance for fear that it may give rise to idolatry. As a consequence, under Saudi rule, the city has suffered from considerable destruction of its physical heritage and it has been estimated that since 1985 about 95% of Mecca's historic buildings, most over a thousand years old, have been demolished. 
Because Islam has its share of pseudo-scientific kooks, some legends have grown up around Makkah and the Hajj that are taken for granted, even though they are patently ridiculous. Of course, Allah is all-powerful, so naturally that makes it true! For instance, here's a quote from a news story published in August of 2010 regarding the grand opening of the new Royal Mecca Clock Tower – a giant clock that towers nearly 2,000 feet over the city, which can be seen up to 18 miles away from Makkah:
- According to Yusuf al-Qaradawi, an Egyptian cleric known around the Muslim world for his popular television show "Sharia and Life", Mecca has a greater claim to being the prime meridian because it is "in perfect alignment with the magnetic north."
- This claim that the holy city is a "zero magnetism zone" has won support from some Arab scientists like Abdel-Baset al-Sayyed of the Egyptian National Research Centre who says that there is no magnetic force in Mecca.
- "That's why if someone travels to Mecca or lives there, he lives longer, is healthier and is less affected by the earth's gravity," he said. "You get charged with energy." – "Giant Mecca clock seeks to call time on Greenwich," telegraph.co.uk, August 11, 2010
But like everywhere else, the Internet has come to Makkah. (That's where the picture at the top of this page comes from – it's a screenshot of the wi-fi splash page there.) And apparently, in between their tawafs around the Kaaba, the pilgrims there still like to browse online. Here's an example: The hit counter here at Cast Iron Chaos includes a tracker that tells where people are coming from, as well as which pages they're reading. And I've found entries on it that say this (the following entry is copied directly from the hit counter, unedited):
Makkah, Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, 0 returning visits
Date Time WebPage
24th May 2005 03:14:29
24th May 2005 03:14:34
24th May 2005 03:14:55
24th May 2005 03:14:55
And here I thought one of the requirements of the Hajj was abstinence?