The Hajj or Haj is the Pilgrimage to Mecca (Makkah) and is the fifth of the "Five Pillars of Islam". Every able-bodied Muslim who can afford to do so is obligated to make the pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in a lifetime. The government of Saudi Arabia issues special visas to foreigners for the purpose of the pilgrimage, which takes place during the Islamic month of Ramadan. However, entrance to the city itself is forbidden to non-Muslims, as the entire city is considered a site holy to Islam.
Upon arrival in Mecca, the pilgrim (Hajji) performs a series of ritual acts symbolic of the life of the prophet Muhammad, and of solidarity with Muslims worldwide. These include circling the Kaaba seven times, spending a night in the city of Medina, and casting a stone at a particular rock formation to symbolize refutation of the devil.
During the month of the Hajj, the city of Mecca receives as many as three million pilgrims. This enormous flow of visitors has burdened the city, which has trouble preventing overcrowding and giving shelter and accommodations to everyone who wants to arrive during the holy month. This situation has resulted in a number of tragic deaths among pilgrims, largely due to the overcrowding conditions. Various organizations dedicated to organizing and managing the Hajj, such as the Hajj Commission of Saudi Arabia, have been forced to reluctantly institute a system of registrations, passports, and travel visas to control the flow of the great numbers of pilgrims. This system is designed to encourage and accommodate first-time visitors to Mecca, while imposing restrictions upon those who embark upon the trip multiple times. The registration system has prompted outcries of protest among some pilgrims who have the wherewithal to make the Hajj on multiple occasions, but the Hajj Commission has stated that they have no alternative to prevent accidents and tragedies.
Nevertheless, in spite of the physical hardships, pilgrims who complete the Hajj consider it one of the greatest spiritual experiences of their lives. The Hajj is seen in many cultures as one of the great achievements of civilization, because it brings together as much as one-fifth of the people of the entire world and focuses them upon a single goal: completing the Hajj. This is an achievement unparalleled in human history, and philosophers have said that only war can compare to the Hajj in terms of scale.
Some cultures allow a Muslim who has completed the Hajj to prefix "Hajji" to his or her name as an honorific. Some American soldiers have recently abused the term "Hajji" as a racial slur during the 2003 invasion of Iraq; one trooper inked "Hodgie killer" on his footlocker.
Islamic law dictates that only Muslims may enter the city of Mecca, and the penalty for a non-Muslim entering the limits of the city is death. This penalty would presumably not be enforced in modern times.
The mystery and appeal of the Hajj have drawn a number of visitors over the years, pilgrims who entered the city in secret and risked their lives to see the Kaaba and experience the Hajj for themselves. The most famous account of a foreigner's journey to Mecca is A Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to Mecca and Al-Madina, written by Richard Francis Burton.