Eastern Art Online, Yousef Jameel Centre for Islamic and Asian Art

Ashmolean − Eastern Art Online, Yousef Jameel Centre for Islamic and Asian Art

The Five Pillars of Islam

A series of short films on the five pillars of Islam - the five duties obligatory for all Muslims - told through objects from Oxford collections.

Detail of a sitarah made for the Mosque of the Prophet in Medina, Egypt, 1791-1792


In this short film, the Yousef Jameel Curator of Islamic Art discusses the fifth of the five pillars of Islam: hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca.



'I entered the pilgrim state under obligation to carry out the rites of the Greater Pilgrimage...and [in my enthusiasm] I did not cease crying "Labbaik, Allahumma" ["At Thy service, O God!"] through every valley and hill and rise and descent until I came to the Pass of ’Ali (upon him be peace), where I halted for the night'.

This quote, taken from the account of 14th century North-African traveller Ibn Battuta, shows how the pilgrimage to Mecca is a momentous experience in the life of every Muslim. Known as hajj in Arabic, the pilgrimage to Mecca is the fifth and last pillar of Islam and reenacts the journey undertaken by Abraham, a highly revered patriarch and prophet in Islam, and his family through the desert. The Qur’an states that 'it is the duty of all men towards God to come to the House a pilgrim if he is able to make his way there' [Qur’an 3:91]. Therefore every Muslim, at least once in a lifetime, must carry out the hajj if he or she can afford it and is physically able. This act of worship is performed during the month of Dhu’l-Hijja, which is the last month of the Islamic calendar. To embark upon it, pilgrims abandon comfort and prepare for a physical and spiritual journey as servants of God. As such, they adopt a simple white garment that symbolizes the state of ritual purity, or ihram, required to perform the hajj.

While the journey to Mecca is a key part of the hajj, the main rituals take place once pilgrims reach the holy city. After praying at the Ka’ba pilgrims circumambulate the sanctuary seven times in an anti-clockwise direction, a rite known as tawaf. This is followed by a visit and a drink at the Zamzam well, which marks the spot where Hagar and Ismael, Abraham’s wife and son, found water in the desert. Before returning to Mecca to participate in a communal prayer, pilgrims also run seven times between the hills of al-Safa and al-Marwa, a ritual that reenacts Hagar’s search for water.

The core part of the hajj starts on the seventh of the month of Dhu’l-Hijja. Pilgrims gather in Mina, outside Mecca, to head to the Plane of Arafat and assemble on Mount of Mercy to perform a ritual prayer. The next morning in Mina, pilgrims throw seven stones against a stone pillar known as jamra al-‘aqaba, a rite that echoes the stoning of the devil by Abraham and his family. This brings us to the 10th day of Dhul’-Hijja and to the peak of the hajj, when a domestic animal, usually a sheep, is sacrificed and the Eid al-adha, or Feast of Sacrifice, one of the most important Islamic festivals, begins.

With the end of the hajj the status of ihram is lifted; male pilgrims shave their heads and women cut a lock from their hair. At this point pilgrims may return to Mecca for a final circumambulation of the Ka’ba, or visit other holy sites such as the Prophet Muhammad’s tomb at Medina as part of a minor pilgrimage known as ‘umrah.


Oxford: Ashmolean Museum, 2006, Pilgrimage: The Sacred Journey, Ruth Barnes and Crispin Branfoot, eds. (Oxford: Ashmolean Museum, 2006)


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