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Muslim haj can confuse first-timers
MECCA, Saudi Arabia |
MECCA, Saudi Arabia (Reuters) - As the annual pilgrimage opens in the Muslim holy city of Mecca on Monday, few first-time pilgrims say they are entirely free of anxiety and confusion about the rituals they must perform.
In the heat of the moment, in the crowds, the jostling and the kaleidoscope of sensations, they say they can easily forget what they learnt in months of study and practice.
If they have waited years for a chance to come, because of the costs and visa quotas, they are under extra pressure to carry out correctly haj rituals that have changed little since the first Muslims performed them more than 1,400 years ago.
The procedures, down to the minutiae of dress and personal hygiene, matter to believers because to perform the haj properly at least once in one's lifetime is a religious obligation for every Muslim who has the means to do so.
Wajid Ali, for example, a barrister from the Pakistani capital Islamabad, said he had been anxious about possible violations of his ihram -- the state of ritual purification that pilgrims enter for two stages of the full pilgrimage.
"I worried a lot," he said, "because when you are in ihram you are not supposed even to scratch your skin or use perfumed soap. Luckily I have my father with me for advice."
A group of Shi'ite Muslim pilgrims from California spent months preparing, but when they first entered the Grand Mosque the initial experience was too bewildering to be as inspiring as they had expected, said one of their companions.
The haj, like most highly charged religious activities, has also attracted its fair share of myths and superstitions, often passed on from one group of hajis to the next by word of mouth despite the denials and objections of the experts.
Handbooks, professional guides, phone-in programmes on television and now a haj fatwa hotline help to fill the gap, providing answers to the myriad questions that arise.
Although the rituals may seem complicated and the details are sometimes daunting, in practice no human authority monitors performance, and pilgrims rarely intervene with criticism of what other pilgrims are doing.
And, as with all fatwas, Muslim scholars always add a rider at the end of their opinion. "God knows best," they say.
Here are some aspects of the haj that most often cause problems or anxiety for pilgrims, together with the views of the majority of orthodox religious scholars:
-- The transition to the state of ihram is an essential part of the pilgrimage, even if it takes place days in advance. The pilgrim arriving from afar must either go through the rituals at home before departure or, at the latest, at or near fixed points around the city of Mecca, sometimes at a distance of more than 200 km (120 miles). This can cause confusion.
CLOTHING WITHOUT STITCHES
-- Pilgrims know that the two pieces of cloth worn by men during the haj must not contain stitches, even on the edges, so buttons are out of the question. But many go too far and imagine there is a ban on sandals or money-belts with stitches.
TOUCHING THE KAABA
-- An old superstition holds that pilgrims should touch or kiss the black stone, possibly of meteoric origin, embedded in one corner of the Kaaba, the cube-shaped shrine at the centre of the Grand Mosque in Mecca. The scholars say there is no such requirement, but have no objection to pilgrims raising their right arms in homage as they pass the stone during the ritual circumambulation of the Kaaba.
-- Because women cannot take part in the pilgrimage while menstruating, many find it convenient to take hormones to delay menstruation until the event is over. Religious scholars have repeatedly said that this is permissible.
PERFORMING THE HAJ FOR OTHERS
-- Many pilgrims ask questions about performing the pilgrimage on behalf of a relative. The usual answer is that pilgrims can do so for either dead or invalid relatives, but that they should first perform the haj in their own name.
(Editing by Kevin Liffey)
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