Uzair Ali, a 2004 Salem High School graduate, is among the millions of Muslims performing the Hajj pilgrimage this year, which begins Thursday.
Ali, who lives in Chicago, said he's been planning his trip to Mecca since the summer.
"It's an obligation to fulfill it," the 26-year-old said. "You're supposed to do it."
Hajj is required for every Muslim to perform once in their lifetime if they are physically and financially able.
Ali said he wanted to go last year, "but I didn't want to zero out my bank account."
Pilgrims book their trips through travel agencies and can select pilgrimage packages varying in price anywhere from $5,000 to $10,000.
What Do Pilgrims Do?
This year, Hajj is Oct. 25-29, or in the first half of the Islamic lunar calendar month Dhul-Hijjah. Hajj is about commemorating the sacrifices Prophet Abraham and his family were willing to make for God.
Pilgrims take part in various rituals during Hajj, such as circling the Kaaba. The Kaaba is the iconic black cube-like structure in Mecca, which is believed to have been built by Abraham as a place of worship. Pilgrims also visit other spiritual sites.
"I didn't know the order of the places you were supposed to go," Ali said.
He said he attended Hajj workshops to prepare, part of which is making amends and asking for forgiveness from people.
"You wrap up all your loose ends because it's humanity standing before God," he said.
Pilgrims wear simple clothing to remove socioeconomic status symbols and emphasize equality. They fill their days with worship and remembrance of God in the hopes of receiving blessings and forgiveness.
People who are unable to perform Hajj fast and celebrate Eid to participate in the blessings of the Hajj season. This holiday is called Eid al-Adha, or the Festival of Sacrifice, which this year will be on Friday, Oct. 26.
Muslims gather for a special prayer service and sermon the morning of Eid al-Adha and spend the day eating and visiting with family and friends.
They also sacrifice or donate animals for sacrificing like cows, goats or sheep. This is done to celebrate God's mercy in allowing Abraham to sacrifice an animal instead of his son and to commemorate Abraham's willingness to carry out the sacrifice. The meat is distributed and eaten among family, friends and the needy. Pilgrims also sacrifice an animal and distribute the meat to those in need.
Ali said he comes back to Canton to see his family every Eid and is sad to not be doing that this year. But he said his parents and sisters are proud of him for fulfilling this obligation.
"Forgiveness," Ali said about what he's hoping to get out of the pilgrimage. "You're supposed to go there and make a specific connection."
He said he's a little nervous about the trip and is hoping above all to make good use of his time.
Ali said he will be there for two-and-a-half weeks and plans on visiting historic sites that he wasn't able to see on his first visit to Mecca in 2010.
- Followers of Islam, called Muslims, believe in one God and Muhammad as the last prophet. This is known as the testament of faith.
- Muslims believe that the Quran, or holy book, is the word of God revealed to Muhammad.
- “Allah” is the Arabic word for God, which is used by Muslims and also by many Arab Christians.
- Muslims also believe in Jesus as a prophet – just like they believe in Adam, Abraham, Moses and Muhammad, who is considered the last prophet.
- The five pillars of Islam, or the main duties of a Muslim, are the testament of faith, prayer, fasting, charity and pilgrimage to Mecca.