The Hajj: Why millions of muslims travel to Mecca every year

This week marked the start of the hajj, wherein Muslims from around the world will converge in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, for one of the largest religious gatherings in the world. For those outside the faith, here are some important things to know.

More than 2 million people are expected to take part in this year's hajj, which means "pilgrimage." The pilgrimage to Mecca is the fifth pillar of Islam, and all Muslims must make the trip at least once as long as they can afford it and are healthy enough to go.

RELATED: Pilgrims heading to Mecca

15 PHOTOS
Pilgrims heading to Mecca
See Gallery
Pilgrims heading to Mecca
An aerial view of the tents of Muslim pilgrims is seen on the second day of Eid al-Adha in Mina, near the holy city of Mecca, during the annual haj pilgrimage September 13, 2016. REUTERS/Ahmed Jadallah
Muslim pilgrims shave their heads after they cast stones at pillars symbolizing Satan, during the annual Haj pilgrimage on the first day of Eid al-Adha in Mina, near the holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia September 12, 2016. REUTERS/Ahmed Jadallah
Muslim pilgrims walk on roads as they head to cast stones at pillars symbolizing Satan during the annual haj pilgrimage in Mina on the second day of Eid al-Adha, near the holy city of Mecca September 13, 2016. REUTERS/Ahmed Jadallah
Muslim pilgrims leave after they finished their prayers at Namira Mosque in Arafat during the annual haj pilgrimage, outside the holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia September 11, 2016. REUTERS/Ahmed Jadallah
A boy climbs Mount Mercy on the plains of Arafat during the annual haj pilgrimage, outside the holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia September 11, 2016. REUTERS/Ahmed Jadallah
Muslim pilgrims gather on Mount Mercy on the plains of Arafat during the annual haj pilgrimage, outside the holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia September 11, 2016. REUTERS/Ahmed Jadallah
A Muslim pilgrim prays on Mount Mercy on the plains of Arafat during the annual haj pilgrimage, outside the holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia September 11, 2016. REUTERS/Ahmed Jadallah
A Muslim pilgrim touches a rock on Mount Mercy on the plains of Arafat to receive blessings during the annual haj pilgrimage, outside the holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia September 11, 2016. REUTERS/Ahmed Jadallah
Muslim pilgrims walk on roads as they head to cast stones at pillars symbolizing Satan during the annual haj pilgrimage in Mina on the first day of Eid al-Adha, near the holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia September 12, 2016. REUTERS/Ahmed Jadallah TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
A Muslim pilgrim prays on Mount Mercy on the plains of Arafat during the annual haj pilgrimage, outside the holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia September 11, 2016. REUTERS/Ahmed Jadallah
Muslim pilgrims gather on Mount Mercy on the plains of Arafat during the annual haj pilgrimage, outside the holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia September 11, 2016. REUTERS/Ahmed Jadallah
A Muslim pilgrim holds a copy of the Koran as he prays on Mount Mercy on the plains of Arafat during the annual haj pilgrimage, outside the holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia September 11, 2016. REUTERS/Ahmed Jadallah
A Muslim pilgrim supplicates for God as he holds an umbrella on Mount Mercy on the plains of Arafat during the annual haj pilgrimage, outside the holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia September 11, 2016. REUTERS/Ahmed Jadallah
Muslim pilgrims cast stones at pillars symbolizing Satan, during the annual Haj pilgrimage on the first day of Eid al-Adha in Mina, near the holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia September 12, 2016. REUTERS/Ahmed Jadallah
HIDE CAPTION
SHOW CAPTION
of
SEE ALL
BACK TO SLIDE

The rituals of the hajj are meant to praise God and commemorate the lives and acts of the prophets Muhammad and Abraham, or "Ibrahim," who is the patriarch of Judaism, Christianity and Islam (hence "Abrahamic" faiths).

Several rituals make up the hajj; the most recognizable is probably the "tawaf."

That's when pilgrims circle the Kaaba, a Muslim shrine, seven times, both at the start and end of the hajj. During other rituals, pilgrims also throw stones at walls that represent the devil and travel up the mountain where Muhammad is said to have given his last sermon. Sheep are slaughtered, and the meat is given to the poor.

SEE MORE: Israel Is Literally Going Underground To Keep Hamas Out

The Kaaba — meaning "cube" — is the holiest site in Islam. Islamic tradition says it was built by Abraham and later reclaimed by Muhammad. The Kaaba is the point that all Muslims face during their daily prayers.

One goal of the hajj is to bring together Muslims of different cultures and backgrounds. But at times, the massive event breeds political disputes.

Those disputes usually erupt between Saudi Arabia, officially a Sunni country — and the home to both Islam's holiest cities Mecca and Medina — and Iran, which is officially Shiite. When a 2015 stampede left hundreds or possibly thousands of pilgrims dead, Iran was quick to point the finger of blame at the Saudi royal family.

This year, a diplomatic row between a Saudi-led coalition of nations and the small nation of Qatar has led to uncertainty for Qatari citizens wanting to make the trip.

Near the end of the hajj, Muslims around the world celebrate Eid al-Adha, the "Feast of Sacrifice."

The feast marks one of two major Muslim holidays celebrated each year; the other, Eid al-Fitr, is celebrated at the end of Ramadan.

Read Full Story

Sign up for Breaking News by AOL to get the latest breaking news alerts and updates delivered straight to your inbox.

Subscribe to our other newsletters

Emails may offer personalized content or ads. Learn more. You may unsubscribe any time.