The holy Ka‘bah in Mecca, shown on the first page of a Malay guide to the pilgrimage, written by Muhammad Azahari bin Abdullah and published in Singapore in 1900.

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. Singapore was an important port of embarkation for the hajj, and pilgrims would gather there from all over Southeast Asia to start the long sea voyage to Arabia.

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.

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.