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Mecca: Behind Geographic TV's Rare Look Inside - National Geographic

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  • Zafar Khan
    Mecca: Behind Geographic TV s Rare Look Inside http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2003/10/1020_031020_meccahajj.html Brian Handwerk for National
    Message 1 of 1 , Oct 22, 2003
      Mecca: Behind Geographic TV's Rare Look Inside


      Brian Handwerk
      for National Geographic News
      October 20, 2003

      The National Geographic Television documentary Inside
      Mecca premieres in the United States on Wednesday,
      October 22, at 8 p.m. ET/PT on PBS.

      One out of every five people on Earth, or some 1.3
      billion, practice Islam. Over 80 percent of these
      Muslims live outside the Middle East.

      While followers of Islam are scattered around the
      globe, they share a single spiritual center—Mecca,
      Saudi Arabia. Muslim faithful throughout the world
      face Mecca during their five daily prayer sessions,
      and each year two million Muslims visit the holy city
      during the hajj, a sacred pilgrimage that represents
      the religious experience of a lifetime.

      All adult Muslims who are physically and financially
      capable are expected to make a pilgrimage to Mecca at
      least once in their lifetime. The hajj is an enormous
      melting pot that gathers believers from over 70
      countries and reveals the many faces of modern Islam.

      "All races, all nationalities, all people in one
      place, concentrated, all in one direction worshipping
      the one God. This has to be very powerful," Daisy Khan
      told National Geographic Television. Khan, a Muslim,
      serves as the executive director of the Asma Society,
      an Islamic cultural and educational non-profit
      organization based in New York and New Jersey.

      During the five-day hajj, believers seek to become
      closer to God, ask pardon for their sins, and renew
      their spiritual commitment.

      The events of the hajj have long remained veiled from
      non-Muslims, who are forbidden even to enter the holy
      city of Mecca. But a team of Muslim filmmakers gained
      access to Islam's holiest place at the peak of the
      pilgrimage to document the holy event for National
      Geographic Television.

      Holy City

      Anisa Mehdi, the film's producer and director, said
      the crew's personal faith became an essential part of
      their film, noting that only Muslims could make such a
      film because only they can enter the holy city of

      "There is something ultimately universal about hajj. …
      Something different types of people can relate to,"
      Mehdi told National Geographic Television. "It is a
      search for the divine and a search for self. It is a
      quest for absolution and for meaning in life. It is a
      chance to get a lot off your chest and to replenish
      the reservoir."

      The hajj is an event of religious devotion, but faith
      alone doesn't make it happen. For the Kingdom of Saudi
      Arabia, the hajj is both a sacred trust and a
      logistical challenge that keeps its organizers busy

      Iyad Madani, Minister of Hajj for the Kingdom of Saudi
      Arabia, explained the enormity of the undertaking to
      Mehdi's film crew: "If you can, imagine having twenty
      Super Bowls in one stadium where two million people
      will come to the same stadium. … [A]dd to that [the
      fact] that these two million people will actually be
      taking part in playing the game as well. It may give
      you a glimpse of the preparations needed for hajj."

      The pilgrimage has changed over time, even as it has
      grown in size. Today's experience varies according to
      the wishes and wealth of the pilgrim—from long
      personal journeys of spartan comfort to package tours
      with air-conditioned tents.

      Mecca is a modern city that's in the business of
      catering to pilgrims. The government of Saudi Arabia
      now provides pilgrims on hajj with water, modern
      transportation, and healthcare facilities.

      The hajj takes place in the last month of the Islamic
      year. Because the lunar Islamic calendar (the Hijra
      calendar) has only 354 days the hajj moves about 11
      days earlier each year. It takes about 33 years to
      make a full annual cycle. The next hajj, which falls
      in the year 1424 of the Hijra calendar, will take
      place this winter in late January and early February.

      Radiant With Faith

      Before entering the holy city, pilgrims undergo a
      ritual cleansing and declaration of intent to enter
      ihram, a state of spiritual readiness. All pilgrims
      dress in simple, uniform attire—two white sheets for
      men, loose dresses, and head scarves for women. Their
      goal is to become equal in the eyes of God.

      "The most important thing to gain is brotherhood and
      sisterhood," Khalil Mandhlazi, a Muslim from South
      Africa, told National Geographic Television.

      During the hajj, pilgrims spend five days performing
      rituals and rites that commemorate the trials of the
      prophet Abraham and his family and symbolize the
      essential concepts of the Islamic faith.

      All pilgrims visit Islam's most sacred shrine at the
      Grand Mosque, home to the Ka'abah, the place of
      worship that Muslims believe God commanded Abraham and
      Ishmael to build over 4,000 years ago. Muslim faithful
      believe Abraham was told by God to summon all mankind
      to visit the place.

      Today millions heed the call, saying as they arrive
      "Labbayka Allahumma Labbayk." (Here I am at your
      service, O God, here I am.) While at the Ka'abah,
      pilgrims perform tawaf, the rite in which faithful
      circle the Ka'abah counterclockwise seven times.

      During the hajj pilgrims also hurry seven times
      between two small hills in a ritual known as the sa'y
      to reenact the story of the search for water and food
      by Abraham's wife Hagar. They spend an entire day on
      the Plain of Arafat outside the city of Mecca offering
      prayers of supplication and thanks in what's often
      seen as a preview of the Day of Judgment. And they
      stone three pillars at locations where Abraham pelted
      a tempting Satan.

      The close of the hajj is marked by a festival known as
      Eid al-Adha. The feast commemorates Abraham's
      willingness to sacrifice his own son at God's command.
      (According to belief, however, God allowed Abraham to
      sacrifice a lamb instead.) The event is celebrated in
      Muslim communities everywhere, but nowhere more so
      than in Mecca, where pilgrims have just completed the
      religious experience of a lifetime.

      Few leave the hajj unchanged. "When you really want to
      go on hajj, you feel you've been invited: God wants
      me—and it's a really good feeling," said Fidelma
      O'Leary, a college professor and converted Muslim from
      Austin, Texas. "Then you get here and you look around
      and you see there's millions of other people, and
      you're like an ant. Your significance is suddenly down
      to zero. It's a paradox. But it's a good paradox."

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