- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 23, 2005

Last week, an estimated 10,000 American Muslims joined about 2.5 million co-religionists worldwide in the observance of one of the pillars of their faith, the hajj — the annual pilgrimage to Islam’s holiest sites in Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia.

The hajj — the dates of which are determined by a lunar calendar — traditionally ends with the “stoning of the devil.”

Muslims have been performing this pilgrimage, a once-in-a-lifetime obligation, for more than 14 centuries. War, terrorism and security concerns have not prevented the annual ritual.

Saudi authorities made no restrictions on issuing visas to American applicants, provided they had the proper documents, officials in the Saudi Embassy said.

Most of the American pilgrims are from areas with a large Muslim population, including New York, Michigan, New Jersey and the Washington metro area.

Mohammed Dakwala, the Islamic Center of Northern Virginia’s treasurer, who has performed the hajj twice, says Saudis are welcoming to American pilgrims.

“I have noticed that we are given special treatment. People are very helpful there, especially when we have to move from a place to another,” he said.

The destination of the hajj is the Kaaba, the stone building at the center of the great mosque at Mecca. Muslims believe the Kaaba was built by Abraham and his son Ishmael.

As part of the hajj, pilgrims sacrifice livestock, the meat of which is donated to the poor. Traditionally, the pilgrims also travel to Medina, 275 miles from Mecca, to visit prophet Muhammad’s tomb.

In earlier times, the hajj was an arduous journey, often taking months on horseback or on foot, through mountains and deserts. Robbers often attacked the routes to Mecca to extort money from the pilgrims.

Today, pilgrim groups travel in air-conditioned buses, with experienced guides, and stay in hotels. The Saudi government also has undertaken major projects to improve public facilities for pilgrims, including air-conditioned walkways and escalators.

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