Mecca – Sacred Centre of Worship

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Every devout Muslim is duty-bound to visit this sublime centre of worship at least once in their life. In ancient times Mecca, a tribal capital, was a tranquil oasis for the dusty caravans that once linked southern Arabia, east Africa and south Asia with the Mediterranean world.

The traditional words that echo throughout the life of every Muslim are: “If God decrees my death, it shall be on the road with my face towards Mecca.” Revered as the birth place of the prophet Muhammad (born c.AD 570), Mecca is situated in Saudi Arabia, some 45 miles (72km) from Jeddah on the Red Sea. Muslims the world over yearn to visit Mecca before they die and this ancient city plays a fundamental part in their worship. Indeed, to make a pilgrimage, or hajj, to its Great Mosque is the solemn duty of every Muslim.

The city’s religious significance predates the time of Muhammad. Within the Ka’aba, or ‘square house’ – a massive shrine that dominates the huge courtyard of the Great Mosque – lies the huge Black Stone of Mecca. An important historic relic to Muslims today, in past times this stone was regarded by worshippers of more ancient gods as a source of miraculous power. Pilgrims then, as now, journeyed from all parts of Arabia to kiss and stroke the stone in the hope of absorbing some of its power. After purifying it in the name of Allah, Muhammad endorsed the custom of kissing the stone. In so doing he forged a bond of continuity linking the new disciples of Islam with their pre-Islamic past.

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The Black Stone of Ka’aba

The origins of the stone are not known. Geologists say it may be a meteorite, Muslims believe it fell from heaven into the Garden of Eden and was given to Adam to take away his sins after God had expelled him from Paradise. They believe also that it was then passed by the Archangel Gabriel to the Jewish patriarch Abraham to be used as the cornerstone of a temple, and that this temple is the Ka’aba. Islamic doctrine relates that the same Archangel Gabriel appeared to the prophet Muhammad as he was meditating in a cave and revealed to him the first verses of the Koran. Further revelations continued throughout his life.

Only Muslims are permitted inside the holy city and the great Mosque; in the past intruders were liable to be executed (today those wishing to enter must show proof of their faith). Nevertheless, over the past 200 years several adventurers disguised as Muslim pilgrims have violated this Islamic law. The first to record his visit to Mecca was Johan Ludwig Burckhardt, the Swiss explorer, in 1814, but perhaps the most famous was Sir Richard Burton, who entered the mosque in 1853 and later wrote in his book, The pilgrimage to Al-Medinah and Meccah (1855), that “of all the worshippers… who pressed their beating hearts to the stone none felt for the moment a deeper emotion than did the Haji from the far-north”.

The Five Pillars of Islam the sacred duties of every Muslim are laid down in the Koran. The duties are reciting the creed of Islam, prayer, almsgiving, fasting and, lastly, pilgrimage, or hajj, to the Great Mosque at Mecca and to its central shrine, the Ka’aba. The five-day pilgrimage takes place during the 12th month, Dhu al-hijja, of the Muslim year. All Muslims who are physically and financially able to perform the pilgrimage must do so at least once in their lives. But anyone whose family would suffer by his or her absence is not obliged to make the journey.

Pilgrims to Mecca follow the traditional rites of the hajj ceremony. Before doing so, they don a white robe, called the ihram; all worshippers dress alike to symbolize their equality before Allah. Here some carry umbrellas to protect them from the fierce sun on their circuit of the holy places. Those who are able to, walk; others can travel on buses provided by the Saudi government. Muslims must wash their face, head arms and feet before praying, so running water is essential at every mosque. At the Great Mosque, a few feet from the Ka’aba, stands the well of Zemzem, which in ancient times was the only water available in the city. The origin of the stream is said to date from Biblical times when, according to the Book of Genesis, Hagar, mother of Abraham’s first-born son Ishmael, was driven out into the wilderness by Abraham’s barren wife, Sarah. To prevent the mother and child from dying of thirst, God directed them to a place where a freshwater spring bubbled from the sand. Muslims believe that Hagar’s spring and the well of Zemzem are one and the same. Water from the well is still used to was and clean the Ka’aba three times a year.

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A Pulley For Lifting Zamzam Water

The pilgrimage begins on the first day at Mecca, when pilgrims walk seven times around the Ka’aba. They then move seven times between two small hills, al-Safa and al-Marwa, now enclosed and joined by a walkway. It was near these hills that Hagar ran back and forth searching for water for her son Ishmael, until she discovered the well of Zemzem. (The well is so called because Hagar is said to have shouted ‘Zem! Zem!’, or ‘Stop! Stop!’ as its waters started to gush forth).

The next stage is the 15 mile (24km) journey – perhaps stopping at Mina on the way – to the plain of Arafat., where Muhammad preached his last Sermon on the Mount of Mercy. Here the day is spent in meditation then, before sunset, the pilgrims leave for Muzdalifa, where they pick up pebbles for the next stage to Mina on the following day. At Mina, the pilgrims enact the ceremony of ‘stoning the devils’, throwing their pebbles at three pillars that mark the place where the devil was stoned by Ishmael as he tempted him to disobey Abraham.

The last stage takes the pilgrim back to Mecca. The hajj ends with a festival at which an animal such as a sheep or goat is sacrificed in remembrance of Abraham’s faith and obedience when he was told by God to sacrifice his sons. Pilgrims’ heads, are then shaved and they again walk seven times around the Ka’aba to complete the pilgrimage.

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The 5 Stages of Hajj Ceremony

Islam is a religion that governs by persuasion rather than the sword, but disagreements have sometimes been settled by violent action. Over the years Mecca has not escaped such conflict. In 1802, followers of the sons of the puritan Muhammad Abdul Wahhab, entered Mecca after perpetrating terrible slaughter outside the city gates, where their army smashed every shrine and image, and accused its inhabitants of idolatry. In 1979, there was a bloody battle within the precincts of the mosque. But in spite of its sometimes violent history, the city of Mecca remains steeped in mystery and intrigue. It has seen much bloodshed and yet appears to be a place of perfect peace.

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