Mecca: Behind Geographic TV's Rare Look Inside - National Geographic
- Mecca: Behind Geographic TV's Rare Look Inside
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 centerMecca,
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
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 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 pilgrimfrom 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 attiretwo 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
meand 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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