(Here I am at your service, oh Lord, here I am - here I am. No partner do you have. Here I am. Truly, the praise and the favor are yours, and the dominion. No partner do you have.) These are the words chanted by some two million people from across Saudi Arabia and throughout the world heading, as if pulled by a magnet, to one single spot on Earth. As has happened every year for 14 centuries, Muslim pilgrims gather in Makkah to perform rituals based on those conducted by the Prophet Muhammad during his last visit to the city.
Performing these rituals, known as the Hajj, is the fifth pillar of Islam and the most significant manifestation of Islamic faith and unity. Undertaking the Hajj at least once is a duty for Muslims who are physically and financially able to make the journey to Makkah. The emphasis on financial ability is meant to ensure that a Muslim takes care of his family first. The requirement that a Muslim be healthy and physically capable of undertaking the pilgrimage is intended to exempt those who cannot endure the rigors of extended travel. The pilgrimage is the religious high point of a Muslim's life and an event that every Muslim dreams of undertaking. Umrah, the lesser pilgrimage, can be undertaken at any time of the year; Hajj, however, is performed during a five-day period from the ninth through the thirteenth of Dhu Al-Hijjah, the twelfth month of the Muslim lunar calendar. In the past, and as late as the early decades of last century, few people were able to "make their way" to Makkah for the pilgrimage. This was because of the hardships encountered, the length of time the journey took and the expense associated with it. Pilgrims coming from the far corners of the Islamic world sometimes dedicated a year or more to the journey, and many perished during it due in part to the lack of facilities on the routes to Makkah and also in the city itself The circumstances of the Hajj began to improve during the time of King Abdul Aziz Ibn Abdul Rahman Al-Saud, the founder of the modern Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Major programs were introduced to ensure the security and safety of the pilgrims, as well as their well-being and comfort. Steps were also taken to establish facilities and services aimed at improving housing, health care, sanitation and transportation. Today, though the rituals at the holy sites in and near Makkah have remained unchanged from the time of the Prophet, the setting for the pilgrimage and the facilities available to the pilgrims are a far cry from those that existed at any time in history. Hardship was once expected and endured as part of the pilgrimage, and Muslims who embarked on this undertaking traditionally assigned a relative or trusted member of the community as the executor of their wills in case they did not return from the journey. Muslims today undertake the pilgrimage in ease, receive a warm welcome on their arrival in Saudi Arabia, and are provided with the most modern facilities and efficient services possible. Without the distractions that their forebears had to contend with, today's pilgrims are free to focus solely on the spiritual aspect of the Hajj.