The Hajj is about to take place this weekend, the largest organized pilgrimage in the world. It is easily the most important Islamic pilgrimage and the only one that is required of all believers who are physically and financially able to perform it at least once in their lives. But other significant Islamic pilgrimages and pilgrimage sites do exist. Here are a few of the most important:
- The Hajj, the annual group pilgrimage to Mecca, is easily the most important pilgrimage not just in Islam, but in any world religion in modern times. It is unique as pilgrimages go in that its completion (at least once during the believer’s lifetime) is actually obligatory for any able-bodied Muslim who has the means to undertake it; this undoubtedly helps to explain its importance and the crowds (in excess of 3 million per year) that it attracts. Want to know more? Would you believe I just wrote something about it?
- The Umrah is also a pilgrimage to Mecca, but involves fewer rituals than the Hajj and can be undertaken at any time of year, not just during the annual Hajj period. It is not obligatory (though it is highly recommended) and does not fulfill the Hajj requirement. Some Muslims undertake an umrah in conjunction with their Hajj pilgrimage, while others with the means to get to Mecca whenever they like may make an umrah anytime.
- A pilgrimage to Medina is often undertaken at the end of the Hajj but it should be considered a separate pilgrimage, as there is no Hajj requirement to visit Medina (though the close proximity of the two cities makes a visit here after the Hajj very sensible). Pilgrims can visit some of the earliest Islamic sites, particularly the Masjid al-Nabawi or Mosque of the Prophet, and burial sites of important figures like Muhammad and many of his companions (though veneration of burial sites is a controversial issue for Muslims).
- The Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock, both on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem (known in Arabic as al-Quds, or “The Hallowed City”) are collectively the third site recognized as holy by all Muslims. Jerusalem was the first direction in which Muhammad’s followers were commanded to pray, before he changed the direction of prayer to Mecca. The legend of Muhammad’s “Night Journey” says that he was carried to the Temple Mount on a winged horse, where he led the other prophets in prayer before ascending to Heaven to speak with God. The Dome of the Rock is built around the Foundation Stone, venerated by Jews as the rock upon which the Ark of the Covenant was placed in the First Temple and by Muslims as the spot from which Muhammad ascended into Heaven on his journey.
- For Shiʿa Muslims, the Masjid ʿAli or Mosque of Ali in Najaf (in south-central Iraq) actually surpasses al-Aqsa as the third holiest site in their faith. It was built (and has been rebuilt twice) over the burial site of Ali, the cousin and son in-law of Muhammad and, according to the Shiʿa, his appointed successor. The mosque has repeatedly been a target for sectarian violence in the years since the Iraq War.
- Another site highly venerated by Shiʿa worshipers is Karbala, in central Iraq. It was in Karbala, in 680, that Ali’s son Husayn was killed in battle with the armies of the caliph Yazid I, in the event that is held to have founded the Shiʿi sect. The Imam Husayn Shrine houses his body as well as the bodies of the men who died with him. It is the site of annual pilgrimages on the day of Ashura (the 10th day of the first month of the Islamic calendar, Muharram) and on Arbaʿeen (40 days after Ashura). Ashura is a Shiʿa observance in which worshipers mourn Husayn’s martyrdom and beg forgiveness (some even performing self-flagellation, although that particular ritual is often frowned upon) for the refusal of many of Husayn’s followers to stand with him against the caliphal armies. Arbaʿeen commemorates the end of the customary 40 day mourning period for the death of a loved one, and it is one of the largest religious gatherings in the world.
- For practitioners of the Imami (Twelver) version of Shiʿism, the predominant branch of Shiʿism today and the official religion of Iran, the northeastern Iranian city of Mashhad is another very important pilgrimage site, as it is home to the shrine of the Eighth Imam, Ali al-Rida, who was briefly named as heir apparent to the caliph al-Maʾmun before dying suddenly in Mashhad in 818. Whether al-Maʾmun, who was engaged in a civil war and had good reason to want to bring the Shiʿa over to his side, ever had any intention of leaving the empire to Ali al-Rida is an open question, and Shiʿi tradition holds that al-Maʾmun had Ali al-Rida poisoned. After the caliphate ceased to exist in 1258 and control of Mecca was usually held by whichever power controlled Egypt, the rulers of Iraq and Iran (who were usually at odds with whoever controlled Egypt and Mecca) began to emphasize the religious significance of a pilgrimage to Mashhad as an alternative to Mecca for their own subjects (Shiʿi or Sunni; the distinctions were not as clear as they are today). Pilgrims to Mashhad are given the honorific al-Mashti, similar to the al-Hajji title that those who complete the Hajj are granted.
- A number of Sufi shrines throughout the Islamic World are venerated as places of pilgrimage. Three of the most important of these are the tomb of the poet Jalal al-Din Rumi in Konya, Turkey, the tomb of Khoja Ahmad Yasavi in Turkestan City, Khazakhstan, the tomb of Muʿinuddin Chishti in Ajmer, India.