The Hajj (Arabic: حَجّ‎‎ Ḥaǧǧ “pilgrimage”) is an annual Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca, the most holy city for Muslims, and a mandatory religious duty for Muslims that must be carried out at least once in their lifetime by all adult Muslims who are physically and financially capable of undertaking the journey, and can support their family during their absence. It is one of the five pillars of Islam, alongside Shahadah, Salat, Zakat, and Sawm. The Hajj is the largest annual gathering of people in the world. The state of being physically and financially capable of performing the Hajj is called istita’ah, and a Muslim who fulfills this condition is called a mustati. The Hajj is a demonstration of the solidarity of the Muslim people, and their submission to GOD (ALLAH). The word Hajj means “to intend a journey”, which connotes both the outward act of a journey and the inward act of intentions.

The pilgrimage occurs from the 8th to 12th (or in some cases 13th) of Dhu al-Hijjah, the last month of the Islamic calendar. Because the Islamic calendar is lunar and the Islamic year is about eleven days shorter than the Gregorian year, the Gregorian date of Hajj changes from year to year. Ihram is the name given to the special spiritual state in which pilgrims wear two white sheets of seamless cloth and abstain from certain actions.

The Hajj is associated with the life of Islamic prophet Muhammad from the 7th century, but the ritual of pilgrimage to Mecca is considered by Muslims to stretch back thousands of years to the time of Abraham. During Hajj, pilgrims join processions of hundreds of thousands of people, who simultaneously converge on Mecca for the week of the Hajj, and perform a series of rituals: each person walks counter-clockwise seven times around the Kaaba (the cube-shaped building and the direction of prayer for the Muslims), runs back and forth between the hills of Safa and Marwah, drinks from the Zamzam Well, goes to the plains of Mount Arafat to stand in vigil, spends a night in the plain of Muzdalifa, and performs symbolic stoning of the devil by throwing stones at three pillars. The pilgrims then shave their heads, perform a ritual of animal sacrifice, and celebrate the three-day global festival of Eid al-Adha.

Pilgrims can also go to Mecca to perform the rituals at other times of the year. This is sometimes called the “lesser pilgrimage”, or ‘Umrah (Arabic: عُـمـرَة‎‎). However, even if they choose to perform the Umrah, they are still obligated to perform the Hajj at some other point in their lifetime if they have the means to do so, because Umrah is not a substitute for Hajj.


The present pattern of Hajj was established by Muhammad. However, according to the Quran, elements of Hajj trace back to the time of Abraham. According to Islamic tradition, Abraham was ordered by God to leave his wife Hajara and his son Ishmael alone in the desert of ancient Mecca. In search of water, Hagar desperately ran seven times between the two hills of Safa and Marwah but found none. Returning in despair to Ishmael, she saw the baby scratching the ground with his leg and a water fountain sprang forth underneath his foot. Later, Abraham was commanded to build the Kaaba (which he did with the help of Ishmael) and to invite people to perform pilgrimage there. The Quran refers to these incidents in verses 2:124-127 and 22:27-30. It is said that the archangel Gabriel brought the Black Stone from Heaven to be attached to the Kaaba.

In pre-Islamic Arabia, a time known as jahiliyyah, the Kaaba became surrounded by pagan idols. In 630 CE, Muhammad led his followers from Medina to Mecca, cleansed the Kaaba by destroying all the pagan idols, and then reconsecrated the building to Allah. In 632 CE, Muhammad performed his only and last pilgrimage with a large number of followers, and instructed them on the rites of Hajj. It was from this point that Hajj became one of the five pillars of Islam.

During the medieval times, pilgrims would gather in big cities of Syria, Egypt, and Iraq to go to Mecca in groups and caravans comprising tens of thousands of pilgrims, often under state patronage. Hajj caravans, particularly with the advent of the Mamluk Sultanate and its successor, the Ottoman Empire, were escorted by a military force accompanied by physicians under the command of an amir al-hajj. This was done in order to protect the caravan from Bedouin robbers or natural hazards, and to ensure that the pilgrims were supplied with the necessary provisions. Muslim travelers like Ibn Jubayr and Ibn Battuta have recorded detailed accounts of Hajj-travels of medieval time. The caravans followed well-established routes called in Arabic darb al-hajj, lit. “pilgrimage road”, which usually followed ancient routes such as the King’s Highway.


To the Muslims, Hajj is associated with religious as well as social significance. Nevertheless, it should be noted that the obligation for performing this pilgrimage is only fulfilled if it is done on the eighth to twelfth day of the last month of the Islamic calendar. If in a given year, an adult Muslim is in good health and his life and wealth is safe, they must perform the Hajj in the same year. Delaying it is considered sinful unless the delay is caused by reasons beyond his/her control.

Apart from being an obligatory religious duty, the Hajj is seen to have a spiritual merit that provides the Muslims with an opportunity of self-renewal. Hajj serves as a reminder of the Day of Judgment when Muslims believe people will stand before GOD. Hadith literature (sayings of Muhammad) articulates various merits a pilgrim achieves upon successful completion of their Hajj. After successful pilgrimage, pilgrims can prefix their names with the title ‘Al-Hajji’, and are held with respect in Muslim society. However, Islamic scholars suggest Hajj should signify a Muslim’s religious commitment, and should not be a measurement of their social status. Hajj brings together and unites the Muslims from different parts of the world irrespective of their race, colour, and culture, which acts as a symbol of equality.

A 2008 study on the impact of participating in the Islamic pilgrimage found that Muslim communities become more positive and tolerant after Hajj experience. Titled Estimating the Impact of the Hajj: Religion and Tolerance in Islam’s Global Gathering and conducted in conjunction with Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, the study noted that the Hajj “increases belief in equality and harmony among ethnic groups and Islamic sects and leads to more favorable attitudes toward women, including greater acceptance of female education and employment” and that “Hajjis show increased belief in peace, and in equality and harmony among adherents of different religions.”

Malcolm X, an American activist during the Civil Rights Movement, describes the sociological atmosphere he experienced at his Hajj in the 1960s as follows:

There were tens of thousands of pilgrims, from all over the World. They were of all colors, from blue-eyed blondes to black-skinned Africans. But we were all participating in the same ritual, displaying a spirit of unity and brotherhood that my experiences in America had led me to believe never could exist between the white and the non-white. America needs to understand Islam, because this is the one religion that erases from its society the race problem. You may be shocked by these words coming from me. But on this pilgrimage, what I have seen, and experienced, has forced me to rearrange much of my thought patterns previously held.


Panorama of the Great Mosque during Hajj, 2007.

Economic aspect

In 2014, Saudi Arabia was expected to have earned up to $8.5 billion from Hajj. Saudi Arabia’s highest source of revenue after oil and gas is Hajj and the country is expected to depend more on Hajj as the amounts of available oil and gas for sale decline.

Number of pilgrims per year

There has been a substantial increase in the number of pilgrims during the last 92 years, and the number of foreign pilgrims has increased by approximately 2,824 percent, from 58,584 in 1920 to 1,712,962 in 2012. Because of development and expansion work at Masjid al-Haram, the authority restricted the number of pilgrims in 2013. The following number of pilgrims arrived in Saudi Arabia each year to perform Hajj.

Year Hijri year Local pilgrims Foreign pilgrims Total
1920 1338 58,584
1921 1339 57,255
1922 1340 56,319
1950 1369 100,000 (approx.)
1950s 150,000 (approx.)
1960s 300,000 (approx.)
1970s 700,000 (approx.)
1980s 900,000 (approx.)
1989 1409 774,600
1990 1410 827,200
1991 1411 720,100
1992 1412 1,015,700
1993 1413 992,800
1994 1414 997,400
1995 1415 1,046,307
1996 1416 784,769 1,080,465 1,865,234
1997 1417 774,260 1,168,591 1,942,851
1998 1418 699,770 1,132,344 1,832,114
1999 1419 775,268 1,056,730 1,831,998
2000 1420 466,430 1,267,355 1,733,785
2001 1421 440,808 1,363,992 1,804,800
2002 1422 590,576 1,354,184 1,944,760
2003 1423 493,230 1,431,012 1,924,242
2004 1424 473,004 1,419,706 1,892,710
2005 1425 1,030,000 (approx.) 1,534,769 2,560,000 (approx.)
2006 1426 573,147 1,557,447 2,130,594
2006 1427 724,229 1,654,407 2,378,636
2007 1428 746,511 1,707,814 2,454,325
2008 1429 1,729,841
2009 1430 154,000 1,613,000 2,521,000
2010 1431 989,798 1,799,601 2,854,345
2011 1432 1,099,522 1,828,195 2,927,717
2012 1433 1,408,641 1,752,932 3,161,573
2013 1434 700,000 (approx.) 1,379,531 2,061,573 (approx.)
2014 1435 700,000 (approx.) 1,389,053 2,089,053 (approx.)
2015 1436 615,059 (approx.) 1,384,941 2,000,000 (approx.)
2016 1437 537,537 1,325,372 1,862,909

Depiction of Mecca in 1850


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