MOUNT ARAFAT, Saudi Arabia — Hundreds of thousands of Muslim pilgrims from around the world on Friday raised their hands to heaven and prayed on the sacred hill of Mount Arafat in Saudi Arabia, in an intense day of worship that is considered the culmination of the annual Hajj.
Multitudes stood shoulder to shoulder, toe to toe, for the emotional day of supplication in the desert valley where Muslims believe Prophet Muhammad delivered his final sermon calling for equality and unity among Muslims.
The experience moved many pilgrims to tears. Muslims believe that praying on this day on Mount Arafat, about 20 kilometers (12 miles) east of the holy city of Mecca, is their best chance for salvation and spiritual renewal. The pilgrims made their way to Arafat before dawn, singing chants as they went. They remain there until nightfall in deep contemplation and worship.
“I feel I am so close to God,” said Zakaria Mohammad, an Egyptian pilgrim who prayed as the sky brightened over the hilltop. “He brought me so much joy. That’s my feeling now – joy, great joy.”
Men wore unstitched white cloth shawls resembling a shroud, while women wore conservative dress and headscarves with their faces exposed.
The Hajj is a once-in-a-lifetime obligation for all Muslims who are physically and financially able to undertake the journey that takes believers on a path trodden by Prophet Muhammad some 1,400 years ago.
“God brought me here,” said Khadije Isaac, who traveled to Mount Arafat from Nigeria, her voice cracking with emotion. “I cannot describe the happiness I have.”
Strict pandemic borders had turned the event upside down for the past two years, effectively canceling one of the largest and most diverse gatherings in the world and devastating many devout Muslims who had waited a lifetime to make the trip. This year’s pilgrimage is the largest since the virus hit, though attendance of 1 million worshipers remains less than half the pre-pandemic influx.
All pilgrims selected for Hajj this year are under the age of 65 and have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19.
Pilgrims spend five days performing before him a series of rituals associated with Prophet Muhammad and Prophets Ibrahim and Ismail, or Abraham and Ishmael, in the Bible. The rituals began Thursday with the circumambulation of the Kaaba, the black cube at the center of Mecca’s Grand Mosque that Muslims around the world face in their daily prayers around the world.
Around sunset on Friday, pilgrims march or take a bus 9 kilometers (5.5 miles) west to the stone desert of Muzdalifa, where they comb the area for pebbles to perform the symbolic stoning of the devil. This rite will take place on Saturday in the small village of Mina, where Muslims believe the devil tried to talk Ibrahim out of submitting to God’s will.
Pilgrims stone the devil to indicate they have overcome temptation. The ritual is a notorious bottleneck for crowds. In 2016, thousands of pilgrims were crushed to death in a ferocious stampede. The Saudi authorities have never given a definitive death toll.
In their most notable attempt to improve access, the Saudis have built a high-speed rail link to ferry crowds between holy sites. Pilgrims enter through special electronic gates. Tens of thousands of police officers are deployed to protect the areas and control crowds.
With so many people from so many places crammed together, public health is a major concern. Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Health has urged pilgrims to consider wearing masks to curb the spread of the coronavirus, despite the government lifting a mask mandate and other virus precautions last month.
The ministry also advised pilgrims to drink water and be aware of signs of heatstroke in the desert, where temperatures can exceed 40 degrees Celsius (105 degrees Fahrenheit).
Once the hajj is over, men are expected to shave their heads and women to snip off a strand of hair as a sign of renewal.
Muslims around the world will mark the end of the pilgrimage with Eid al-Adha, the Festival of Sacrifice. The holiday commemorates the Prophet Ibrahim’s willingness to sacrifice his son Ismail at God’s request. Muslims traditionally slaughter sheep and cattle and share the meat among those in need, friends and relatives.