MOUNT ARAFAT, Saudi Arabia — Around 2 million Muslims from nearly 200 countries gathered around a hill in Saudi Arabia on Monday, marked by a small white pillar, joined in their faith and desire to purify their souls at the start of the annual hajj pilgrimage.
It is here, in Mount Arafat, where the pillar stands to mark the location of the Mountain of Mercy, known in Arabic as Jabal al-Rahma. The Prophet Muhammad is believed to have delivered his last sermon atop the hill to tens of thousands of followers, calling on Muslims to unite.
Some 1,400 years later, countless Muslims have made the journey to Mount Arafat as part of the elaborate and physically demanding purification rites of hajj. Muslims believe the rituals, which start in Mecca and culminate at Mount Arafat, also trace the footsteps of the prophets Abraham and Ishmael.
The culminating moment of hajj is spent on Mount Arafat. It is an emotional experience for pilgrims because it is here, on this rocky desert hill, where they believe the gates of heaven are open for prayers to be answered and all past sins to be forgiven. Men and women alike openly weep, their hands stretched out in prayer and supplication as they reaffirm their faith.
Many can be heard repeating the phrase "Labayk Allahuma Labayk," or "Here I am, God, answering your call. Here I am."
For many Muslims, the trek to Mount Arafat is itself the answer to a lifetime of prayers. Hajj is a central pillar of Islam and all able-bodied Muslims are required to perform hajj once in their lives.
For many of the pilgrims it's also the first and only time they board an airplane or travel abroad. Most come from African, South Asian and Middle Eastern countries with high poverty. They have saved for years for this pilgrimage, where men are not distinguished by their wealth or affiliations.
As part of the ablution of hajj, Muslims must forgo vanity and sexual intercourse for the four-day pilgrimage.
Men dress in seamless white terrycloth garments meant to symbolize the equality of mankind and a return to God. Women also look inward rather than to their appearances by giving up perfume, makeup and fashion for long, loose clothing and a headscarf.
Syrian pilgrim Mohammed Firas has come to hajj without his children. They were killed in Syria's civil war, he says, a conflict that has claimed more than 100,000 lives.
"I pray to God on this great day to swiftly lift our country's suffering," he said.
Without referring to any group or ruler in particular, Saudi Arabia's mufti, Sheik Abdulaziz bin Abdullah al-Sheikh, used his annual hajj sermon to warn Muslims against divisions, sectarianism and chaos.
"The Muslim community is targeted by the enemies of Islam, who want to serve blows, sow divisions and spread chaos, and so it is necessary to impose control on this... and for Muslims to protect their homelands," he said.
Pilgrims are also taking extra health precautions this year, with many wearing face masks because of concerns over a new respiratory virus centered in the Arabian Peninsula. The virus has killed more than 50 people in the kingdom this past year, prompting Saudi officials to slash visas for hajj by 20 percent in part because of concerns about an outbreak. They say no cases of the coronavirus have been detected among pilgrims.
Around sunset, as Muslims break their fast, the pilgrims on hajj leave Mount Arafat and head five miles to Muzdalifa, where they collect a handful of pebbles for a symbolic stoning of the devil, which began on Tuesday, marking the start of the three-day Eid al-Adha feast.