A lot more than 1.7 million Muslims gather for start of hajj BY SAEED NASIR

Muslim pilgrims pray at the Grand Mosque, prior to the annual HajJ

MECCA, Saudi Arabia (AP) — In Saudi Arabia, more than 1.7 million pilgrims are marking the beginning of the hajj pilgrimage on Wed by circling the cube-shaped Kaaba in Mecca — Islam’s holiest site — and undertaking a series of rites that trace the footsteps of the Prophet Muhammad.
Muslims believe that the rites also trace the footsteps of the prophets Ibrahim and Ismail — Abraham and Ishmael in the Bible.
The Kaaba represents the metaphorical house of God and the oneness of God in Islam. Observant Muslims surrounding the world face toward the Kaaba through the five daily prayers.
The hajj is required of all Muslims once in a lifetime. The challenging journey testing pilgrims’ tolerance as they withstand long waits and thick crowds on the path to achieving religious purification and repentance.
Egyptian pilgrim Ahmed Ali, on his first hajj, said he was thankful to maintain Mecca.

“It’s an indescribable sense, a spiritual sense. Because of God, I feel great,” he said.
A 104-year-old Indonesian woman is among those executing the hajj this year, according to Saudi government bodies. Ibu Mariah Marghani Muhammad is subscribing to more than 220,000 pilgrims from Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim country.
The journey of the five-day-long pilgrimage begins for most when they depart from other countries dressed in “ihram.” For men, that requires putting on only terrycloth, seamless white garments meant to stand for unity among Muslims and equality before God. Women wear loose clothing, cover their hair and forgo makeup and toenail polish to attain circumstances of humility and religious purity.
After prayers in Mecca, pilgrims will head to a location called Mount Arafat on Thursday night where the Prophet Muhammad sent his last sermon. From there, pilgrims will head to an area called Muzdalifa, picking up pebbles along the way for a symbolic stoning of the devil and a casting away of sins that takes place in the Mina valley for three times.
Over the years, the Saudi administration has spent billions of dollars to improve the safety of the pilgrimage, especially in Mina where a few of the deadliest situations have took place, including a stampede and a collision of two crowds that crushed people under the power in 2015 that wiped out more than 2,400 people.
Saudi Interior Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Mansour al-Turki informed reporters in a media conference that a more than 100,000-strong security force is on the floor around Mecca to secure the hajj and assist pilgrims. He said the number of pilgrims at the hajj, including those from within Saudi Arabia, could reach 2 million.
“Everything is well prepared,” he said. “We’ve our plans, we have people trained to enforce those strategies, but this cannot be done only by system and by what we do. Pilgrims have their own responsibility, and we wish they comply with the schedule plans and the stream of path.”
Health representatives said also, they are prepared to package with any injuries or accidents, and have more than 100 ambulances deployed over the hajj sites.
Bangladeshi pilgrim Mohammad Nasser, 53, said the Grand Mosque casing the Kaaba is congested and busy, but thinks overall the Saudi authorities has handled the crowds well so far.
“Thank God it is certainly going excellent and even. I’m very happy that I’m here,” he said.

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