Pilgrims prepare for haj

Muslim pilgrims are this week preparing to go to haj, an experience some call the most special, life-altering journey of faith they can ever make.

Pilgrims pray inside the Grand Mosque as thousands of Muslims circle the Kaaba in Mecca, Saudi Arabia on December 19, 2007. Pilgrims from all over the world gather in the holy city of Mecca each year for the five-day haj, which is a duty every able-bodied Muslim has to perform at least once in a lifetime. Ali Jarekji / Reuters
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ABU DHABI // Muslim pilgrims are this week preparing to go to haj, an experience some call the most special, life-altering journey of faith they can ever make. "It's like refilling my batteries," said Ayesha, 55, a mother of seven from Abu Dhabi, who will go to haj next month for the sixth time. Her son, 18, will accompany her for his first trip. On previous journeys Ayesha prayed hard for him to be recover from multiple sclerosis and she has also gone to haj on behalf of a deceased friend, an act of charity many Muslims believe benefits everyone involved.

"But the main reason I go is because it is the highest form of worship I can reach as a woman; a personal struggle that is like fighting a battle in the court of God. I feel especially close to Him when I do it," she said. Ayesha is a Briton who converted to Islam 30 years ago, before she met her Emirati husband. Haj is one of the five pillars of Islam, and performing it at least once in a lifetime is the duty of all Muslims able to endure the demanding journey.

This year the first day of haj falls on Dec 6, but many travel earlier to settle into their hotels and make final preparations. Before entering into the "state of haj", men must wear a two-piece outfit of unsewn, white cotton cloth draped over one shoulder, while women don their full hijab. Pilgrims groom themselves because once they begin their haj they are prohibited from doing a number of things. They cannot cut or pluck their hair, clip their nails or wear perfume and deodorant.

They are also prohibited from sexual intercourse, hunting or cutting down a tree in the Sacred Precinct of Mecca. For the six days of haj, rituals include rushing back and forth seven times between Safa and Marwa, a re-enactment of what Prophet Ibrahim's wife Hagar had to do when she was looking for water between the two hills as her infant Ismael cried. Pilgrims then gather 70 small pebbles to throw at a pillar that symbolises Satan, and all things evil they want to expel from their life.

After returning from haj, a Muslim is congratulated on performing their most arduous pillar of faith, and is given the title haji for a man or hajah for a woman. But for the Glasgow resident Iffat, 30, being given the revered title upon her return from her first haj sounds overwhelming. "I feel shy about it," said the mother of two. "I wouldn't like to tell everyone that I'm going to haj because I'm going for the sake of God and to perform my duty. I feel if I tell people I will be showing off."

This week's government-issued sermon preached the virtues of haj. "God has put many virtues in haj. It is enough that the Pilgrim returns from haj to his or her country of origin with all sins forgiven, as if he or she were just born. The Prophet said: 'He who has done the haj cannot be considered immoral. He returns to the [sinless] state when his mother birthed him'." More than two million Muslims performed haj in 2006, according to the Ministry of Haj in Saudi Arabia. Every year, hundreds of pilgrims die due to stampeding or an inability to endure haj's physical demands.