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(Courtesy: Cair internet newsletter )

On February 20,  Muslims in America and around the world will begin observing activities associated with the annual Hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca. (Many people will arrive for Hajj prior to this date.)

According to visa records at the Embassy of Saudi Arabia, some 9,000
American Muslims took part in the pilgrimage last year. Embassy officials say that number has been increasing yearly.

Hajj is one of the "five pillars" of the Islamic faith. (The other "pillars" include a declaration of faith, daily prayers, offering regular charity, and fasting during the month of Ramadan.) The main activities of Hajj take place during six days (8th-13th) of the Islamic lunar month of 
Dhul-Hijjah. Pilgrimage is a once-in-a-lifetime obligation for those
Muslims who have the physical and financial ability to undertake the
journey. It is also a form of worship that involves the entire being: body,
mind and soul.

The obligatory and optional activities of Hajj include:
* entrance into a state of self-control called "ihram," during which
pilgrims are forbidden to harm living creatures, even insects or plants, or raise the voice in anger. The state of ihram is signified (for men) by the wearing of two pieces of unsown white cloth. This clothing signifies the equality of all before God. No specific clothing is prescribed for female pilgrims.

* circling of the Ka'aba (Tawaf), the stone building Muslims believe was
originally built by Abraham and his son Ishmael. The Ka'aba is viewed as the first sanctuary on earth dedicated to the worship of the One God. It is  a symbol of unity for Muslims because all prayers, wherever they are performed, are oriented in the direction of the Ka'aba.

* the Sa'i, or "hastening" between two small hills near the Ka'aba, to
commemorate Hagar's search for water to offer her son Ishmael.

* the "Day of Arafah" on the 9th day of Dhul-Hijjah (February 21*). Arafah is a mountain and its surrounding empty plain near Mecca. On this day, the climax of the Hajj season, pilgrims assemble for supplication to God.

* the stoning of three pillars representing Satan's temptation of Abraham. The stoning indicates the pilgrim's rejection of evil deeds.

* cutting the hair to symbolize the completion of Hajj.

* sacrifice of an animal to help the poor, and in remembrance Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son Ishmael at God's command. The meat is distributed to relatives and to the needy.

When the major portion of the pilgrimage is completed, Muslims worldwide gather for communal prayers on the first day (February 22*) of Eid ul-Adha (eed-al-odd-ha), the second of the two major Muslim holidays.

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* NOTE - Because the beginning of Islamic lunar months depends on the actual sighting of the new moon, the start date for Hajj and Eid ul-Adha may vary by one day. (Eid ul-Adha may occur on February 23.)

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