MECCA, Saudi Arabia (AP) – Some 2 million Muslim pilgrims massed in their holiest city Tuesday to reaffirm their faith after a tumultuous year that has raised fears Islam is being demonized after the Sept. 11 terror attacks.
Calls to prayer echoed over the city at sunset, followed by an eerie silence as hundreds of thousands of worshippers from around the world bent to offer whispered prayers around the Kaaba, Islam’s holiest shrine, in Mecca’s Grand Mosque.
The silences – alternating with the deep voice of the cleric reciting from the Quran, Islam’s holy book – brought a sense of peace and order to Mecca, a sleepy city that has been transformed in a matter of days into a teeming metropolis for the annual hajj, or pilgrimage.
The hajj is one of the five pillars of Islam. Every able-bodied Muslim is required to perform it at least once in a lifetime if he or she can afford it.
This year’s hajj is taking place at a time when many of the world’s 1.2 billion Muslims believe that their faith, born in Mecca 14 centuries ago, is the target of a hate campaign by the West since the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States.
Saudi-born exile Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaida terror network are blamed for the attacks, which killed thousands and sparked the U.S.-led military campaign in Afghanistan after its former Taliban rulers refused to surrender bin Laden for trial.
Fifteen Saudis were among the 19 suspected hijackers who slammed airliners into New York’s twin towers and the Pentagon in Washington on Sept. 11. A fourth plane crashed into a Pennsylvania field.
”Islam has been the victim of Sept. 11,” said Ahmad Turkistani, a Saudi who heads the Virginia-based Institute of Islamic and Arabic Studies in America.
”We need to disassociate Islam from the wrong practices of some of its followers and protect it from those who want to associate it with violence and destruction,” said Turkistani, 48, who is in Mecca for the hajj.
Because of post-Sept. 11 tensions and the war in Afghanistan, Saudi authorities have taken stringent security measures in Mecca – a city of 500,000 during the rest of the year.
Roadblocks have sprung up on all roads leading to Mecca, checking for hajj permits of Saudi residents, passports for pilgrims who arrived from abroad and illegal residents. Local press reports say that scores of arrests have been made.
More than 80,000 volunteers, police and soldiers have been deployed in Mecca. The city is closed to non-Muslims.
A dream come true for devout Muslims anywhere, the hajj begins with a visit to Mecca’s Grand Mosque in a ritual known as tawaf al-qoudoum, in which worshippers walk seven times around the Kaaba, a large black stone cube structure that, according to Islam, is a sanctuary dedicated to God since time immemorial and to which Muslims the world over face during their prayers.
Today, pilgrims will move to Mount Arafat, the site where Islam’s Prophet Muhammad gave his last sermon in 632 A.D. On Thursday, they’ll offer prayers there from noon to shortly after nightfall in a ritual that’s interpreted as a foretaste of the Day of Judgment.
Worshippers sacrifice a sheep, goat, cow or camel on Friday – the first day of the Muslim Eid al-Adha, or feast of sacrifice – and the rituals end with the symbolic stoning of the devil in Mina, also outside Mecca.
To manage the movement of the 2 million pilgrims, thousands of unarmed police will man the route from Mecca to Mina, as well as 7,000 locations for distributing food, water, medical care and even telephone services, officials said.
High temperatures during the five-day ritual will range from 86 to 95 degrees in the desert region.
”This is an occasion in which Muslims from everywhere meet at one place – Chinese Muslims, Arab Muslims and black Muslims,” said Richard Russell, a health worker from New York City who converted to Islam six years ago.
”It shows you that Islam is for everyone,” said Russell, who renamed himself Mohammed after he adopted Islam. ”I hope that those who are ignorant about this can learn something. Islam doesn’t teach terrorism.”