The Muslim holidays are closely linked to joy and happiness, without forgetting the importance of worship and drawing closer to God. Two of the most important holidays for Muslims are Eid al-Fitr after the holy month of Ramadan and Eid al-Adha, which comes in the folds of the al-Hajj “pilgrimage”.
Dhu al-Hijjah month is the last month in the al-Hijri, or “Islamic” year. Hajj rituals start at the beginning of this month. The first ten days of this month are spent in spiritual, worshipful virtuous days culminating in Eid al-Adha on the tenth day. This day is called Arafa, which leads into the three Tashreeq days.
The pilgrimage to Mecca, known in Arabic as “the Hajj” is one of the five pillars of Islam. It should be attempted at least once in the lifetime of all able-bodied Muslims who can afford to do so. It is the most important of all Muslim pilgrimages, and is the largest pilgrimage for Muslims.
The Hajj is associated with the life of the Islamic Prophet Muhammad from the 7th century, but the ritual of pilgrimage to Mecca is considered by Muslims to stretch back thousands of years to the time of the prophet Ibrahim. Pilgrims join processions of hundreds of thousands of people from around the world, who converge on Mecca for the days of the Hajj. Al-Hajjij “people who perform Hajj” perform a series of rituals: each person walks counter-clockwise seven times around the Ka’aba, the cube-shaped building which serves as the lodestone for all Muslim prayer, runs back and forth between the hills of al-Safa and al-Marwah, drinks from the Zamzam well, goes to the plains of Mount Arafat to stand in vigil and throws stones in a ritual Stoning of the Devil.
Ihram is the first pillar of Hajj, which is the intention of entering into the act of Hajj. It is the name given to the special spiritual state in which Muslims live while on the pilgrimage. During Ihram, the pilgrims all wear the same clothes: the white robes of pilgrimage. The white robe is meant to show equality of all pilgrims in the eyes of Allah, and to stress that there is no difference between a prince and a pauper. Ihram is also symbolic for holy virtue and pardon from all past sins.
While conducting the ihram in Mecca, a pilgrim may not shave, clip their nails, wear perfume, swear or quarrel, hunt, kill any creature, uproot or damage plants, cover the head for men or the face and hands for women, marry, wear shoes over the ankles, perform any dishonest acts or carry weapons. If they do any of these their pilgrimage is invalid.
Al-Hajjij are prevented from many things in order to complete their Hajj in a correct way. These days, it is also preferable for Muslims to fast during their pilgrimage, because the prophet Mohammed said that the first ten days of Dhu al-Hijjah month are the best days in the year to worship God. After finishing the Hajj pillars on the ninth day of Dhu al-Hijjah month, the tenth day is “Eid al-Adha”. On this day, pilgrims then can shave their heads, perform a ritual of animal sacrifice, and celebrate the three day festival of Eid al-Adha before continue their Hajj pillars.
On the day of Eid al-Adha, all Muslims pray the Eid prayers in the mosque and then slaughter a sacrificial sheep. In Yemen, after the Eid prayers the first thing people do is the slaughtering of the sheep, after which they break fast on the liver of the sheep. Yemenis then go to visit relatives. Children, men and women wear new clothes, and families offer Eid cookies and sweets. Some of the sacrificial meat is distributed as charity for the poor people.
Both on the day of Eid and for three days after, people praise Allah by saying “Allahu Akbar, Allahu Akbar La ilaha illa Allah, Allahu Akbar, Allahu Akbar wa llilah alhamed,” a recitation meaning “God is the greatest, there is none worthy of worship except Allah, thanks be to God”.
After the three days of Eid, people begin preparing for the return of the pilgrims. The joy of the pilgrims’ returns is just as great as the joy of the Adha holiday itself. The family of a pilgrim, along with their neighbors, will begin preparing food, cleaning the house, and purchasing fireworks.
Once the pilgrims have arrived, the neighborhood will set off firecrackers and fireworks, and in villages far from police stations, family members will also celebrate pilgrims’ return by firing guns into the air.
One of the most beautiful traditions in Yemen—particularly in Old Sana’a—is the farewell and subsequent welcoming of a pilgrim. This tradition is known in Arabic as “al-Madrha,” meaning “the swing.
This tradition dates back to many years ago, when the joy families felt at receiving a returning pilgrim reflected the myriad difficulties and risks a pilgrim would encounter during their pilgrimage. Al-Madrha is made after Eid, and its purpose is to call the pilgrim safely home. Leading up to the Madrha, Yemenis will issue prayers and celebrate with dances and folk songs special to al-Madrha. All of these actions are designed to express peoples’ wishes for their loved ones’ pilgrimages to end safely.
Zinab Ahmed, an old women of old Sana’a, said that Madrha was practiced during pilgrimages because the pilgrimages of the past were arduous, perilous journeys, and many pilgrims spent three to four months to get to the holy land and back.
“Before a pilgrim when on Hajj, he would write a will, because he did not know whether he would return from his journey. He also asked for forgiveness from his family and neighbors before leaving, and this tradition has continued until today,” she said.
After their return, pilgrims are laden with gifts of prayer rugs, prayer beads, zamzam water, jewelry and other items. Neighbors and friends come to have lunch in the pilgrim’s home, also bearing congratulations and gifts.