Hajj occurs in the 12th month of the Islamic lunar calendar, called Dhul-Hijjah, between the eighth and the 13th days of the month.
While the specific rituals carried out by Muslims today date back to the Prophet Muhammad's "farewell pilgrimage" in 632 AD, travelling to Mecca was a sacred annual rite for Arabian tribes centuries before the advent of Islam.
According to Islamic tradition, the Kaaba - a black silk-clad stone structure at the heart of the Grand Mosque in Mecca - was built by the Prophet Abraham in biblical times. Hajj is meant to be a commemoration of the trials Abraham was put through by God.
Hajj is, put simply, complex. There are several different ways of performing it, and numerous schools of Islamic thought, between which lie many scholarly differences.
The map above and the explanations that follow are, thus, a simplification of the pilgrimage, meant to lay things out clearly, rather than comprehensively.
Start of Hajj
8th of Dhul-Hijjah
The very first rite of Hajj is entering ihram - a pilgrim's sacred state - when crossing the outer boundaries of Mecca, called Miqat.
Pilgrims have been arriving in Saudi Arabia for weeks in anticipation of this day. On the eigth of Dhul-Hijjah, pilgrims enter ihram, which entails wearing plain garments - two unstitched clothes for men, or any loose-fitting clothing for women - as well as following certain rules, including not hunting or engaging in sexual activity.
They then set out from Mecca en masse to the sprawling tent-city of Mina, whether by foot along pilgrim paths, or by buses and cars. It is an 8km journey.
The pilgrims will spend the day in Mina, only setting out the next morning at dawn.
Day of Arafat
9th of Dhul-Hijjah
The Day of Arafat is considered one of the most important days, not just of Hajj, but of the Islamic calendar. Mount Arafat was the scene of the Prophet Muhammad's final sermon, and after making the 14.4km journey from Mina, pilgrims spend the day here in reverent prayer.
Elsewhere in the world, many Muslims choose to fast on this day.
After sunset, its time to move again, this time to Muzdalifah - a 9km trip - where they spend the night under the stars. Many will also begin collecting pebbles here for tomorrow's rites, departing again just before sunrise.
10th of Dhul-Hijjah
The 10th of Dhul-Hijjah is Eid al-Adha, a day celebrated by Muslims around the world as the greater of the two Muslim holidays.
For those performing Hajj, the day is know as Yamul Hajjil Akbar (The big Hajj day) and is probably the longest day of the pilgrimage, and the most dangerous.
Pilgrims start the day in Muzdalifah and begin heading back to Mina before dawn. Once in Mina, they perform the first Ramy, throwing seven pebbles at the largest of three columns known as Jamarat.
This act is a symoblic stoning of the devil, based on historic tradition. God told Abraham to sacrifice his son, the story goes, as proof of faith. It is believed that at this spot in Mina, the devil appeared and tried to dissuade Abraham from heeding the command. Abraham responded by throwing stones to scare him off.
Millions of pilgrims converge at the Jamarat bridge, which houses the three columns representing the devil, in order to re-enact the story.
The bridge has been the sight of deadly stampedes in the past, with around 350 people being crushed to death in 2006.
But in recent years, the event has taken place without major incident, and this year, Saudi Arabia has unveiled an expanded five-storey structure to accomodate the crowds.
After casting their stones, pilgrims must peform the sacrifice. Completing the story, when Abraham went to sacrifice his son, he found God had placed a ram there to be slaughtered instead.
Pilgrims thus must slaughter a sheep, goat, cow or camel - or more likely, pay for it to be done in their names.
At this point, pilgrims trim or shave (men only) their hair and remove their ihram clothes. Many will then proceed to Mecca to perform Tawaf and Sa'ee, first circling the Kaaba seven times, then walking seven times between the hills of Safa and Marwa.
When all is finally done, they return to their campsite in Mina.
11th-13th of Dhul-Hijjah
From Xi’an (China) to Mecca
The ancient Chinese city of Xi'an is home to the famous terracotta army and was at the very centre of Chinese civilisation during the Tang dynasty from 618 to 907. It is also home to about 60,000 ethnic Chinese Muslims and boasts 1,300 years of Islamic history. Proud of their Islamic heritage and their country's traditions, the Muslims of Xi'an have merged their own ancient Chinese culture with Islam, remaining faithful to the central tenets of their religion.
Forty-six-year-old Ma Yi Ping is well-known within Xi'an's Muslim community.
One of the ten imams at the city's Great Mosque, he also owns a small shop selling Islamic calligraphy in the city's Muslim quarter and acts as a religious teacher for those about to embark on the Hajj pilgrimage. "I was born into a devout Muslim family and I'm the only child. I started studying Quran since I was young. I was told that I should devote myself to Islam as well as [to] the Muslim people and contribute to the peace of our society, to our country," Ma says. "When I was a kid my father sent me to an imam's place to learn the Quran. At that time it was forbidden for children to study in the mosque because of the political pressure brought by the 'Gang of Four'. All religions were affected badly."
China's Communist party closed all of the country's mosques in 1959 and during the 1966 Cultural Revolution, more than 29,000 mosques were destroyed. Ma was 16 years old when the mosques re-opened and he became an imam.
"As an imam, it's my lifetime responsibility to promote Islam," he says.
Ma first went on Hajj in 1994 and has been again several times since.
Unlike in Singapore and Malaysia, there are no elaborate preparations that the Chinese Muslims undertake. Ma helps to guide his pilgrims and teaches them some special prayers to perform while in Mecca. "I want to help the Chinese Muslims as they are very pious. The only problem they face is that they are not familiar with all the religious activities [that take place] during the Hajj, since they are not done locally."
Jia Wang Yi and his wife are two of the soon-to-be pilgrims Ma is helping. Both in their sixties, they have been saving for five years for their pilgrimage.
"This trip is very important to both of us. We have done lots of preparation work with the instructions from the imam and my son. "I have been very conscious of my health, working very hard to study the Hajj rituals, preparing our clothing and medicine. We have prepared thoroughly," Jia says. Their son, Jia Ren Ping, was hoping to go with them but work commitments mean he will not be able to make it this time around. "Both my grandparents and parents desired to participate in the Hajj. But due to various reasons, my grandparents were unable to do so. They faced financial problems and lived during a war-torn period," Jia Ren Ping explains. "Thus, my parents have this strong desire to go to Hajj, firstly to accomplish the will of Allah, secondly to fulfill the wishes of our ancestors."
The Jias will be part of a group of 251 pilgrims leaving Xi'an for the Hajj. As the community is so closely-knit, almost everyone knows the others going from their neighbourhood. Unlike in some other countries, the Chinese pilgrims do not receive any special government subsidies to help cover the cost of performing Hajj. The less well off often save for years to be able to afford it.
For Xi'an's wealthier Muslims, like Jia Hong, who owns a successful fried rice restaurant in the heart of the Muslim quarter, performing Hajj is a matter of coordination and timing. He will be going on Hajj for the first time, but his wife, who has just given birth to their daughter, will be unable to accompany him. "Everything with my family has been taken care of and I am not concerned for my own safety. Going to the Hajj is the obligation of every Muslim. I leave everything in Allah's hands. The Hajj is going to reinforce my faith, not compromise it," Hong says. On the day of departure, the Xi'an central train station is full of those saying goodbye to their friends and relations. Each pilgrim has a send-off party of about 30 to 70 people.
Managing the thousands-strong crowd is one of the biggest challenges facing the city's authorities. Many of those there, including Jia Hong, have never before left the country. As his family and friends wave him off, he says: "What I'm feeling now is beyond words. I just want to get there as soon as possible and fulfill my obligation."
From the Land of the Rising Sun to Mecca
In a series of special programmes, Al Jazeera follows Muslims from around the world as they embark on the Hajj pilgrimage.
The road to Hajj in the Land of the Rising Sun begins with the little known fact that there are ethnic Japanese Muslims.
Everyday the call to prayer is made in different corners of the predominantly Buddhist country - unobtrusively within the confines of its 50 or so mosques and approximately 100 musollas or communal prayer rooms.
Twenty-six-year-old Kubo-san prays at a small musolla in the agricultural district of Saitama, about two hours outside the capital, Tokyo.
Built 15 years ago by Bangladeshi workers, Kubo is the only ethnic Japanese in the congregation.
"I was born into a very ordinary Japanese family," he says. "We did not have a strong sense of religion."
Kubo's upbringing mirrors that of many Japanese - their attitudes and philosophy towards life shaped by the ancient religion of Shinto.
An ancient polytheistic faith, Shinto involves the worship of nature and is unique to Japan.
While divination and shamanism is used to gain insights into the unknown, there are no formal scriptures or texts, nor a legacy of priesthood that structures the religion.
After the Second World War, Shinto suffered a huge setback when the emperor was forced to denounce his status as a 'living god'.
While many historians would claim that the Japanese people lost their faith after this, recent surveys suggest that at least 85 per cent still profess their belief in both Shintoism and Buddhism.
"The first I knew about Islam was in my school days," Kubo says.
"The schools in Japan usually teach history. I knew about Islam in such history classes. Although I knew only a little bit, it shook my soul strongly."
His interest in Islam developed as he read more about it, but it was only when he began to meet expatriate Muslims in Japan that he considered converting.
Now, he is preparing to go on Hajj, the annual pilgrimage to Mecca, for the first time.
"We Muslims pray five times a day towards Mecca. And pray 'peace be upon Prophet Muhammad'. He was born in this town and started Islam in Mecca. So for Muslims, it has a special meaning to go to Mecca. I feel honoured that I have this opportunity to go there."
But just five years ago, Kubo's pilgrimage would not have been possible.
Reda Kenawy is Egyptian but he moved to Japan when he was in his twenties. He worked for a travel agency and decided to branch out to form his own agency specialising in organising Hajj pilgrimages for Japanese Muslims.
"All my staff said I was crazy when I wanted to plan the Hajj trip," Kenawy says. "In terms of business aspects, there must be a demand in the market to cover the costs. It would not work if there are no Muslims going."
"So I told them someone has to start, someone has to take the first step, then others could take it from there."
But, it was an uphill task, particularly when dealing with the Saudi Arabian authorities.
Kenawy says they told him: "We've never heard of Japanese Muslims and we've never heard of Hajj trips organised from Japan."
"So I told them there were Muslims in Japan and I was there as a Japanese. I have the Japanese nationality and I was representing Japan and wanted to bring Japanese pilgrims for Hajj.
"They said I couldn't and that my passport was forged and I looked Egyptian."
'Honour and happiness'
Kenawy persisted in his quest to take Muslim pilgrims from Japan to Mecca and five years on, his travel agency is one of only two registered companies that have been sanctioned by the Saudi government to organise Hajj pilgrimages for Japanese Muslims.
The number of pilgrims using Kenawy's agency has grown year on year, but for him the most encouraging development is the increase in ethnic Japanese Muslims.
"Right now, we have 90 per cent foreigners and 10 per cent [ethnic Japanese]. My dream is to have the opposite - to have 90 per cent Japanese or maybe 99 per cent original Japanese and only one per cent foreigners."
Abdullah Taki is a 36-year-old former body-piercer who converted to Islam in 2006. He made his Hajj pilgrimage in 2007.
"For me, the meaning of visiting the Kaabah is not to see a building but to visit God's home, to meet God," he says.
"At first, when we reached the country by airplane, we entered Madina before entering the city of Mecca. Although I could not see the area because I was in the airplane, when I heard the announcement that we [were there], I shed tears unconsciously.
"I felt an indescribable sense of honour and happiness. I was very deeply touched."
Like Kubo, Taki's contact with Muslims in Japan started mainly with the expatriate community.
Every Friday, Muslims from Turkey, the Middle East, Central Asia, China, India, Pakistan, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Malaysia and Japan pray together in Tokyo's Cami Mosque, which is modeled on Turkey's beautiful Blue Mosque.
There are no official records of the number of ethnic Japanese Muslims but some estimates put it at 10,000 - about a tenth of the country's total Muslim population.
The community of Japanese Muslims is so small that when they meet new faces for the first time, a sense of camaraderie is immediately established.
Higouch-san is 73 years old and has been a Muslim for more than 45 years. Mahmuda Saito is 63 and converted more than 30 years ago. Both know how difficult it can be to practice Islam in Japan.
When Higouch and Saito became Muslims there were only two mosques in the whole of Japan.
"It was very difficult. We Japanese have our own culture and traditions so it is quite difficult to carry out five prayers a day and fasting for a month," Higouch says.
Saito is preparing to go on Hajj for the first time. As for many other Japanese Muslims, this involves a lot of self-study.
"It is not a normal holiday so I try to start from the preparation of my heart," she says.
"To learn how to prepare my mind to carry out the Hajj rituals, I read the books regarding the Hajj everyday at home. I would like to absorb the knowledge of the Hajj as much possible before the trip.
"It could be my last Hajj ... [so] I visit this holy city to try to feel the life of the Prophet and his companions of a long time ago."
Kenawy will be leaving Japan with 120 pilgrims - seven of whom are ethnic Japanese and going on Hajj for the first time and he is hopeful that this number will continue to grow.
"Like when you plant a seed and watch it grow, it can easily die or grow to be a big tree with many branches which cover everything. But it's not a tree yet. It's very easy to be broken now," he says.
"But with all the people's support, I think 10 or 20 years from now, maybe I'm not here, I can see there will be an organisation like a ministry for Hajis like in Singapore or Indonesia."
From Azerbaijan to Mecca
In a series of programmes, Al Jazeera follows Muslim pilgrims from around the world as they prepare to undertake the Hajj pilgrimage.
It is an ancient land at the crossroads of Europe and Central Asia and is said to have been the location of the Garden of Eden.
Different cultures and civilisations have met in Azerbaijan for thousands of years and the country was one of the first to embrace Islam when Arabian invaders imposed their religion on the region in the seventh century.
But when Azerbaijan fell under the control of the former Soviet Union in 1920, atheism became state policy; many Muslim leaders were exiled or killed and mosques were closed down or destroyed.
When the country regained its independence in 1991, many embarked on a journey to rediscover their faith and heritage and to fill the religious vacuum left by Communist rule.
Thirty-one-year-old Salamova Samira is a mother of two and part of the 95 per cent of Azerbaijanis who consider themselves Muslims. But, more significantly, she is one of only five per cent who actually practice their faith and is about to embark on the Hajj pilgrimage.
"I started praying when I was around 12 years old. There was only grandma [Samira's great-grandmother] who prayed in our family. She was 115 years old. She read the Quran," Samira says.
"When I was a schoolgirl, I also took lessons to learn the Quran. This was difficult then as many people viewed Islam in a bad light, unlike today."
The older generation, like Samira's mother, lived their lives without observing the central tenets of their religion and, more often than not, do not feel any need to start doing it now.
Samira will travel from Baku, the country's capital where she lives, to Mecca in Saudi Arabia for the Hajj. But, for her, the road to Hajj has been a long one marked by pain and hardship.
"I had been praying until I turned 17. Then I got married and stopped praying. Having a family with children, I just could not find the time.
"My husband was a Muslim too. He was not against the fact that I prayed regularly. But I just could not do it. I have two daughters, aged 11 and 13 years old," she explains.
Her relationship with her husband soured and after five years of marriage they divorced.
"As the saying goes, when the world knocks you down on your knees, you are in the perfect position to pray," she says.
Performing the pilgrimage seemed like an impossible dream for Samira.
Although she earns a decent living as a house-keeping manager at a hotel, she knew it would take her years to save enough money to go on Hajj.
"Going to the Hajj was my dream. But with my salary, it was not possible. I always thought it would take a miracle for me to go," she says.
But fate was to intervene for Samira when a friend of her mother offered to sponsor her pilgrimage.
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Azerbaijan has witnessed something of an Islamic revival; hundreds of new mosques have been built, old ones have been restored and new religious schools have been opened.
For many young Azerbaijanis, like Samira, an interest in Islam is re-emerging and stronger than ever.
"I can not describe my feelings, the first was fear. At the same time, I feel happy too," Samira says.
"After the Hajj, you would expect more of yourself. Before the Hajj, you can make some mistakes, but after the Hajj, you should be more careful in making your decisions.
"Everyone makes mistakes, commits sin, and lies. After the Hajj, you should not go back to your old ways. It is easy to go to the Hajj, but after that, it is as if you are born again, you become clean and innocent."
"And you should keep yourself that way. That is very hard. That is why I am afraid. But I will go and when I come back, I hope I can manage to do so."
(Source: Aljazeera, 25 November 2009)