Hajj: The Fifth Pillar of Islam

ByABC News
February 10, 2003, 4:19 PM

Feb. 11 -- The annual hajj, or pilgrimage to Islam's holiest sites in Mecca, is one of the central obligations of Islam, the fifth and final pillar of the religion that rose out of the Arabian Peninsula in the 7th century A.D.

The pilgrimage to the birthplace of Islam is a once-in-a-lifetime obligation that every Muslim must make if he or she is physically able and can afford it.

But even those minimal qualifiers have been thrown to the winds every year for the past 14 centuries as elderly Muslims link up with thousands of impoverished believers spending their hard-earned lifesavings for the pilgrimage.

Joining this vast, frail, underprivileged mass of humanity, is a mix of wealthy, empowered, but highly divergent pilgrims from Arab princes, to South Asian heads-of-state, to Southeast Asian businessmen and Indian film-stars.

Muslims trace the origins of the hajj to the Prophet Abraham, or Ibrahim as he is known in Arabic. According to the Koran, Abraham was instructed to bring his wife, Hagar, and their child Ishmael to Arabia from Palestine to protect them from the jealousy of Abraham's first wife, Sarah.

According to Allah's command, Abraham left Hagar and Ishmael on their own with food and water supplies. But in the harsh Arabian Desert, their food and water supplies ran out and both mother and son were close to dying due to dehydration and starvation.

Lifesaving Water

In her desperation, Hagar is believed to have prayed to Allah after which, Ishmael struck his foot on the ground causing a spring of water to erupt, which saved mother and her son from certain death.

Muslims across the world call the lifesaving fluid Zamzam water from the holy Zamzam well, which they believe, saved Hagar and Ishmael. Every year, millions of hajjis return home with plastic jerry cans containing the permitted amount of Zamzam.

Years later, when Abraham returned to the Arabian Desert from Palestine, according to the Koran, he was instructed to build a shrine to Allah. Muslims believe the Prophet Abraham constructed a small stone structure called the Kaaba, or cube, the earliest structure designed to be a symbolic gathering site of all believers.