MOUNT ARAFAT (AP) â€” More than 2 million Muslim pilgrims made the climactic ascent to Mount Arafat, Islam’s most sacred site, to pray Monday for salvation, and Saudi Arabia’s top cleric called for Islamic unity in the face of what he called the West’s war on Islam.
After offering prayers on the mount, tens of thousands of the faithful rushed down the hill to the Muzdalifah, where they collected pebbles to use in one of the last rituals of the Hajj, the stoning of the devil. Under a fatwa, or religious edict, issued two years ago, the stoning now may begin before dawn prayers on Tuesday. The decree was an attempt to ease the terrible crowding at the site of the stoning, the Jamarat, where hundreds of pilgrims have died in stampedes over the past quarter century.
“It’s better to go now before the crowd gets too big. They have had a lot of problems â€” stampedes and other horrors. We want to finish early,” said Turkish pilgrim Jawat Ahmet.
Speaking at a mosque on the plain of Mount Arafat, Sheikh Abdul Aziz Sheikh, the kingdom’s grand mufti, said Muslims were facing critical challenges, among them accusations of terrorism and human rights abuses and calls for revisions in their school textbooks, many of which make nonbelievers, especially Jews.
“Oh, Muslim nation, there is a war against of our creed, against our culture under the pretext of fighting terrorism. We should stand firm and united in protecting our religion,” he said.
“Islam’s enemies want to empty our religion from its contents and its meaning,” said Sheikh, the Saudi kingdom’s top religious authority.
“But the soldiers of God will be victorious,” he said.
The faithful called out: “Amen.” After sundown people were still rushing toward the Muzdalifah in a frenzy, squeezing between cars and buses, to collect pebbles. Many pilgrims were pushed in wheelchairs, others used crutches, and hundreds rode atop buses and minivans waving national flags.
Pilgrims from 178 countries were registered at the hajj. After collecting 49 pebbles, the pilgrims will throw seven of them before Tuesday at three symbolic pillars representing Satan. The ritual continues with 21 more stones cast on both Wednesday and Thursday.
Across the Muslim world, the Eid Adha feast marking the pilgrimage begins Tuesday after dawn prayers.
Under a scorching sun Monday, the mass of pilgrims, hands raised to heaven, had converged on Mount Arafat, not far from Mecca and walking in the steps of Islam’s 7th century prophet Muhammad to the site where he gave his last sermon three months before he died in 632.
A day earlier, the faithful from across the globe trekked through the 13 kilometre valley of Mina for the start of rituals at the mount. As they walked, the crowd chanted “Labaik Alluhumma Labaik” (“We are coming answering your call, God”).
Many of the pilgrims cried as they offered prayers Monday â€” overcome with emotion by what is for most a once-in-a-lifetime journey to Islam’s most holy places, a pilgrimage they believe cleanses them of sin.
Islam requires that all Muslims who are financially and physically able make the hajj at least once.
After Sheikh’s fiery sermon, many in the massive crowd continued their prayers outside the mosque, others clambered up the hill, holding out helping hands to fellow pilgrims trying to reach the top of the mount, a rugged hill. Men and women, otherwise not allowed to mix in the conservative kingdom, jostled against one another.
At the summit, pilgrims pushed and shoved to get near enough to embrace a sacred pillar. Some paused to photograph the occasion.
“Oh God, I am your obedient servant come to you to ask forgiveness,” Moroccan pilgrim Abdul Wahid Boughriba said in a tearful prayer.
Helicopters hovered above the plain â€” dotted by pilgrims all the way from Mecca to the base of the mount â€” to keep watch against the overcrowding which has spawned stampede tragedies in the past. Two years ago, 244 people were trampled to death when the crowd panicked during the ritual stoning.
Saudi authorities, meanwhile, replaced the cover of the Kaba with a new one on Monday in an annual ritual at Mecca’s Great Mosque. The black cover, called Kiswa, is about 658 square meters of silk weighing 670 kilograms and embroidered with 15 kilograms of gold thread.
The new Kiswa cost 17 million Saudi riyals ($4.7 million).
The old one is usually cut into pieces and given to Muslim dignitaries visiting the kingdom.
The Kaba, the huge cube-like edifice, is considered the focal point of the hajj. It also serves as the Qibla, or centre of the Islamic world toward which all Muslims turn in prayer.
The Quran declares the Kaba was the first place of worship designated by God. Muslims believe that the Kaba was built by Abraham on the foundations of an earlier temple built by Adam, the progenitor of all mankind.