By AMR Nabil, Associated Press
Mount Arafat, Saudi Arabia (AP) – Thousands of Muslim pilgrims around the world have raised their hands to heaven and prayed for repentance on Friday in the holy mountain of Mount Arafat in Saudi Arabia, considered a day of intense worship. The final episode of the annual Hajj.
Standing shoulder to shoulder, foot to foot for the emotional day of prayer in the desert valley, where Muslims believe that Prophet Muhammad delivered his final sermon, calling for equality and unity among Muslims.
The experience sends tears to many pilgrims. Muslims believe that on this day Mount Arafat, about 20 kilometers (12 miles) east of the holy city of Mecca, is the best opportunity for prayer, their liberation and spiritual renewal. Pilgrims leave for Arafat before Fajr, chanting while trekking. They stay there until nightfall in deep thought and worship.
Men wore seamless sheets of white cloth like shrouds, while women wore conservative dresses and head scarves, their faces exposed.
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Hajj is a once-in-a-lifetime duty for all Muslims to travel physically and financially, leading the faithful along the path of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) about 1,400 years ago.
Strict epidemic limits have overturned the event over the past two years, effectively canceling one of the largest and most diverse gatherings in the world and destroying many devout Muslims who have been waiting a lifetime to travel. This year’s pilgrimage is the largest since the virus hit, although the presence of 1 million worshipers remains less than half of the pre-epidemic arrivals.
All pilgrims selected for the Hajj this year are under 65 years of age and have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19.
Pilgrims spend five days performing a series of rituals associated with Prophet Muhammad and Prophet Ibrahim and Ishmael or Abraham and Ishmael in the Bible. The formality begins on Thursday with the circumambulation of the Black Cube Kaaba in the center of the Grand Mosque in Mecca, which Muslims around the world face no matter where they are in the world during their daily prayers.
Around sunset on Friday, pilgrims will travel 9 kilometers (5.5 miles) west to the rocky desert of Muzdalifah or board a bus, where they will comb the area for pebbles to throw the devil’s iconic stone. The ceremony will be held on Saturday in the small village of Minar, where Muslims believe that Satan tried to persuade Abraham to submit to the will of God.
Pilgrims throw stones at Satan to signal that he has overcome temptation. The event is a notorious choke point for the crowd. In 2016, thousands of pilgrims were crushed to death in a horrific stampede. Saudi authorities have never given a final death toll.
In their most notable effort to improve access, the Saudis have built a high-speed rail connection to ferries between holy sites. Pilgrims enter through special electronic gates. Thousands of police officers are deployed to protect the area and control the crowds.
With so many people crowding together from so many places, public health is a major concern. Saudi Arabia’s health ministry has called on pilgrims to consider wearing masks to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, although the government last month lifted a mask mandate and other virus warnings.
The ministry advised pilgrims to drink water and be aware of the signs of heat stroke in the desert, where temperatures can exceed 40 degrees Celsius (105 degrees Fahrenheit).
When the Hajj is over, men are expected to shave their heads and women are expected to cut their hair locks as a sign of renewal.
Around the world, Muslims will end the pilgrimage on Eid-ul-Azha, or the festival of sacrifice. The holiday commemorates Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son Ishmael at the request of God. Muslims traditionally slaughter sheep and cattle, sharing the meat among the needy, friends and relatives.
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