Recent world events have created unprecedented interest in the religion of Islam. Even in America, it has become common to hear news about what is happening in the Islamic world. Soon we will be hearing about the Hajj, the annual Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca. As Christians, it is important for us to know about things like this—both for our prayers and for our own personal evangelism.

This year the Hajj is scheduled to start on or near February 10, with the precise date to be determined by the local sighting of the new moon. In keeping with the traditions established by Muhammad, Muslims believe that their journey to Mecca retraces the steps of Abraham. “Proclaim the Pilgrimage among people,” says the Qur’an. “Let them complete the rites prescribed for them, perform their vows, and (again) circumambulate the Ancient House. Such (is the Pilgrimage): Whoever honors the sacred Rites of God, for him it is good in the sight of his Lord.”

The Hajj is the fifth and final pillar of Islam—one of the five sacred duties that merit salvation. It is required that every Muslim who is physically and financially able to make the Hajj must do so at least once in his lifetime. It is not surprising, then, that the Hajj is the largest religious festival in the world, with more than two million Muslims expected in Mecca this year.

The Hajj is an amazing spectacle, and those who make the pilgrimage describe it as the journey of a lifetime. Almost overnight, an enormous tent city is erected in the desert near Mecca. Caring for all the pilgrims requires an amazing feat of logistics. Imagine feeding, housing, and cleaning up after 2 million guests! It is such a massive enterprise that Saudi Arabia has a Minister of Hajj, who begins planning for the next pilgrimage the day after the last one ends. None of this would be possible without the backing of the Saudi government, which since the 1950s has contributed nearly 100 billion dollars to renovate the Holy Mosque and improve infrastructure in and around the city of Mecca.

Upon first entering the Holy City, pilgrims (or hajjis) go through a rite of purification. All the men and many women put on white robes as a symbol of purity. During the days leading up to the Hajj, they are required to walk all the way around the Holy Mosque of Mecca seven times. This is said to signify the centrality of God for all of life. Pilgrims must also run seven times between the nearby hills of Safa and Marwah, commemorating Hagar’s desperate search for water in the desert (see Gen. 16).

The Hajj itself lasts for four days. On the first day pilgrims gather in the valley east of Mecca, spending the night in tents. On the second day they walk ten miles further east to the plain of ’Arafat. There they stand before God, reflecting on the meaning of their lives and praying to God for mercy. That night they turn back towards Mecca. Along the way they pick up 49 ceremonial stones to throw in the coming days.

The third day begins at the pillar of Jamarat—the place of stoning—where pilgrims throw stones symbolic of their repudiation of evil. This is also the day that Muslims kill a lamb to commemorate the sacrifice that God provided for Abraham as a substitute for his son. This is known as Eid ul-Adha, or “Festival of the Sacrifice.” Jews and Christians also commemorate this famous event, but offer a different interpretation. Whereas Muslims think that the son Abraham offered was Ishmael, the Bible plainly teaches that Isaac was the son of promise (see Gen. 22). During the next three days most pilgrims return to Mecca. After making a final circuit around the Holy Mosque, they begin to make their way home.

It is not hard to understand why so many people travel to Mecca every year. The Hajj is considered an opportunity to meet with God. It is an intense experience of public and private worship, with opportunities for fellowship—the giving and receiving of hospitality. All of this led one observer to ask a rhetorical question that should strike at the heart of every Christian: “Where else on Earth can you find more than two million men and women, from nearly every country in the world, speaking more than 100 languages, all united in faith and purpose, acting with complete cooperation, goodwill, self-discipline and generosity?”

The journey to Mecca is taken for one overriding purpose: to find mercy from God. Herein lies the problem. The most that the pilgrims can hope is that God will treat them with favor for what they have done. But what reason is there to think that taking a long journey, wearing special robes, and walking around a mosque will secure anyone’s salvation? This idea is not based on any promise of God, but only on the tradition of Muhammad.

And what about the problem of sin? The very idea of mercy presupposes that for us to have a relationship with God, our sins must be forgiven—but on what basis? Islam has no doctrine of the atonement. This is what is so strange and so tragic about all the sacrifices offered during the Hajj. The blood flows freely in Mecca, as more than one million animals are sacrificed according to the sacred ritual. Yet these sacrifices are not for atonement, but only for thanksgiving.

Muslims believe that they will be able to overcome sin through their own efforts. This means that they are missing the one thing that is essential for their salvation: a sacrifice for sin, which Jesus has provided through his death on the cross. The Bible says, “In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins” (Eph. 1:7a). For Christians, this is where the pilgrimage begins: at the cross of Christ, where God shows his mercy.

Without this mercy, the Hajj—as impressive as it is—cannot save. Until Muslims accept the Jesus Christ as their Savior, they will keep traveling to Mecca and circling the Holy Mosque, counting on their good works to save them. But they will never receive God’s free gift of eternal life. Needless to say, this is an important time to pray for their salvation, and also to ask how God, in his mercy, wants us to help reach them with the gospel.

[Information about the Hajj comes from the May/June 2002 issue of Saudi Aramco World]

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Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: By Phil Ryken. © 2020 Tenth Presbyterian Church. Website: tenth.org