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Mecca and Medina

The annual hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca, has involved Muslims from all round the world for over a thousand years. This prayer book contains two miniature paintings of the holy cities of Mecca (where the black Ka'bah is clearly visible) and Medina.

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Mecca and Medina

Depiction of the Holy Cities of Mecca and Medina. India, 19th century
BL Or. MS 16211, ff. 14v–15
Copyright © The British Library Board

What is the hajj?

At least once in their lifetime, every Muslim who is able to do so must journey to Mecca and perform the prescribed rites of hajj. Around 2-3 million pilgrims, dressed simply in white sheets and sandals, gather in the Saudi Arabian town to retrace the steps of the prophets. Male pilgrims shave their heads during the trip to symbolise the cutting away of sin. The hajj is always done from days 8 to 13 of the 12th month of the Islamic calendar, Dhu al-Hijjah, to which the pilgrimage gave its name.

Why is Mecca important for Muslims?

The city holds the holiest site in all Islam, the Masjid al-Haram ('Sacred Mosque'), and was declared a site of pilgrimage by the Prophet Muhammad in 630. That was the year of his triumphant return to the city after years of exile in Medina.

Inside the Sacred Mosque is the Ka'bah, a large cubical building said by Muslims to have been built by Abraham. In the Ka'bah is the "black stone", an object Muslims believe was given to Abraham by the angel Gabriel. The name Ka'bah comes from the Arabic word meaning 'cube', and refers to the cube-shaped stone structure inside the Grand Mosque in Mecca. As the focal point for worship during the daily prayers, it unifies all Muslims: wherever they are in the world, Muslims pray in the direction of Mecca and the Ka'bah. This direction is known as the qiblah.


Mecca at the height of the hajj, with pilgrims massed around the Ka'bah

Why is Medina important for Muslims?

Medina, where Muhammad fled in 622, is the second holiest site in Islam. Muhammad is buried at Medina. While a visit to his tomb there is not a prescribed part of the pilgrimage, many pilgrims make use of their presence in Arabia to visit it, and other places associated with the Prophet's life.

The third holiest site in Islam is the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, where Muslims believe Muhammad ascended to heaven on his horse Buraq to receive divine commandments. For Shia Muslims the cities of Najaf and Karbala in Iraq are also important centres of pilgrimage as they contain the tombs of the martyrs Ali, the Prophet's son-in-law, and Husayn, the Prophet's grandson.

What book do these illustrations come from?

The Dala'il al-khayrat (Guide to Goodness) is a popular prayer book for pilgrims, attributed to Muhammad ibn Sulayman al-Jazuli, who died when he was allegedly murdered in in the 1460s. Al-Jazuli's biographers claimed for him descent from Muhammad; according to legend, his body was exhumed 77 years after his death and found to be fully intact. His book is still in print today and available in many translations.