About two million Muslims from around the world prayed at a desert hill in Saudi Arabia on Monday, joined in their faith and desire to purify their souls at the start of the annual hajj pilgrimage.
It is here on Mount Arafat, marked by a white pillar, where Islam's Prophet Mohammed is believed to have delivered his last sermon to tens of thousands of followers some 1,400 years ago, calling on Muslims to unite.
Prayers on and around the mount are a climactic emotional and spiritual moment in the hajj. The faithful believe that on this day the gates of heaven are open, prayers are answered and past sins are forgiven. Among the crowds of pilgrims Monday, men and women wept as they stretched their hands out in prayer and supplication.
"Labayk, Allahuma, labayk," they repeated — "Here I am, God, answering your call. Here I am."
The prayers at Arafat, outside the holy city of Mecca, are part of the elaborate and physically demanding purification rites of hajj. Hajj is a central pillar of Islam and all able-bodied Muslims are required to perform it once in their lives. While following a route Mohammed once walked, the rites are believed to ultimately trace the footsteps of the prophets Ibrahim and Ismail, or Abraham and Ishmael as they are named in the Bible.
For many pilgrims, the hajj is an answer to a lifetime of prayers — particularly for the poor, who often save for years for the chance to make the journey. The rites emphasize equality before God, whether rich or poor. Men dress in seamless white terrycloth garments symbolizing simplicity. Women wear long, loose clothing and a headscarf, forgoing perfume and makeup
Syrian pilgrim Mohammed Firas has come to hajj without his children. They were killed in Syria's civil war, he says, a conflict that has claimed more than 100,000 lives.
"I pray to God on this great day to swiftly lift our country's suffering," he said.
In his annual hajj sermon at a mosque near Mount Arafat, Saudi Arabia's mufti, Sheik Abdulaziz bin Abdullah Al Sheikh warned Muslims against divisions.
"The Muslim community is targeted by the enemies of Islam, who want to deal blows, sow divisions and spread chaos," he said, adding that Muslims must "protect their homelands."
Many of the pilgrims wore face masks, part of extra precautions this year because of a new respiratory virus centered in the Arabian Peninsula. The virus has killed more than 50 people in the kingdom this past year, prompting Saudi officials to slash visas for hajj by 20 percent in part due to concerns the presence of massive crowds in close quarters could cause a wider outbreak.
They say no cases of the coronavirus have been detected among pilgrims.
Around sunset, the pilgrims on hajj leave Mount Arafat and head eight kilometers (five miles) to Muzdalifa, a desert plain where they collect pebbles. Those pebbles will be used in a symbolic stoning of the devil that begins on Tuesday, marking the start of the three-day Id al-Adha feast, celebrated around the Muslim world.
Want to enjoy 'Zen' reading - with no ads and just the article? Subscribe todaySubscribe now