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More than 2 million Muslims begin Hajj

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Labbaik Allah humma labbaik - Here I am O Lord!

Makkah, Aug 19: More than two million Muslims began the annual Hajj pilgrimage at first light on Sunday in Saudi Arabia, circling the cube-shaped Kaaba in Makkah that Islam's faithful face five times each day during their prayers.

The five-day Hajj pilgrimage represents one of the world's biggest gatherings every year, and is required of all able-bodied Muslims once in their life.

The Hajj offers pilgrims an opportunity to feel closer to God amid the Muslim world's many challenges.

Muslims believe the Hajj retraces the footsteps of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), as well as those of the prophets Ibrahim (pbuh) and Ismail (pbuh)— Abraham and Ishmael in the Bible. Muslims believe God stayed the hand of Ibrahim (pbuh) after commanding him to sacrifice his son, Ismail.

The Kaaba represents the metaphorical house of God and the oneness of God.

Muslims circle the Kaaba counter-clockwise seven times while reciting supplications to God, then walk between the two hills travelled by Hagar, Ibrahim's (pbuh) wife. Makkah's Grand Mosque, the world's largest, encompasses the Kaaba and the two hills.

Before heading to Makkah, many pilgrims visit the city of Medina, where the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) is buried and where he built his first mosque.

After prayers in Makkah, pilgrims will head to an area called Mount Arafat on Monday, where the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) delivered his final sermon. From there, pilgrims will head to an area called Muzdalifa, picking up pebbles along the way for a symbolic stoning of the devil and a casting away of sins that takes place in the Mina valley for three days.

At the Hajj's end, male pilgrims will shave their hair and women will cut a lock of hair in a sign of renewal for completing the pilgrimage.

Around the world, Muslims will mark the end of Hajj with a celebration called Eid al-Adha. The holiday, remembering Ibrahim's (pbuh) willingness to sacrifice his son, sees Muslims slaughter sheep and cattle, distributing the meat to the poor.

The Saudi government, which is undergoing dramatic social and economic reforms, has mobilised vast resources for the six-day pilgrimage.

“It's the dream of every Muslim to come here to Makkah,” Frenchman Soliman Ben Mohri said.

“It's the ultimate journey. What worries me is the return to my normal life. For the moment, I am in a dream,” the 53-year old said.

Tens of thousands of security personnel have been deployed for the pilgrimage, which was struck by its worst-ever disaster three years ago when hundreds of worshippers were crushed to death in a stampede.

This year, the Saudis have launched a “smart Hajj” initiative, with apps to help pilgrims with everything from travel plans to medical care.

Asefny, for example, is an app launched by Saudi Arabia’s Red Crescent to help pilgrims request emergency medical attention.

Authorities are able to locate those in need through the app.

The Saudi Hajj ministry also runs the Manasikana app, which provides translation for pilgrims who do not speak Arabic or English.

The Saudi Interior Ministry said on Saturday that the number of pilgrims arriving in Makkah had already surpassed the 2 million mark, mostly from abroad including large contingents from Egypt, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.

Most of the pilgrims began moving on Sunday from Makkah to the nearby Mina valley where they will spend the night in fire-resistant tents.

Thousands of buses and vehicles carrying the pilgrims lined the 8 kilometre road from Makkah to Mina. Many pilgrims made the journey walking under the scorching heat of the sun.

On Monday, pilgrims will climb nearby Mount Arafat for the climax of Hajj, praying and reading the Holy Quran.

After sunset, pilgrims will head to Muzdalifah, half-way between Arafat and Mina, where they will stay at least until midnight. They will then gather pebbles to perform the symbolic stoning of the devil on the eve of the Eidul Azha, which marks the end of Hajj.

One of the five pillars of the world’s fastest-growing religion, every Muslim is required to perform Hajj at least once in his/her lifetime if he or she has the means to do so.

The Pew Research Centre says the number of Muslims in the world is expected to rise from 1.8 billion in 2015 to three billion in 2060.

This year's pilgrimage comes with the oil-flush kingdom witnessing unprecedented change, including an end to a ban on women driving. While rights campaigners have welcomed the reforms, they have also expressed alarm about a crackdown on dissent.

Although the kingdom's young de facto leader, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, has spearheaded the changes, religion remains a key force in Saudi Arabia. (PTI/AP)

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