The most sacred place in Islam is the city of Mecca (or Makkah in Arabic), which is located in the western part of Saudi Arabia about seventy-five miles (121 kilometers) inland from the port city of Jidda in Hejaz province. Although it was clearly a sacred place for centuries before the time of Muhammad (c. 570–632 C.E.), and includes the famous Ka'ba, a cube-shaped building said to have been built by the Hebrew patriarch Abraham and in whose southeastern corner can be found the venerated "Black Stone," supposedly given to Abraham by the Angel Gabriel, the city's sacredness in Islam derives primarily from the fact that it was the Prophet's birthplace.
Muhammad lived peacefully in Mecca, managing his wife's business affairs, until he was about forty years of age, when he began receiving revelations from God via the Angel Gabriel. He soon began to preach his new faith, supported by his devoted wife Khadijah and a growing number of followers. But after his wife died, he began to struggle against opposition from several quarters and, in the year 622, he was forced to flee to the nearby city of Medina one step ahead of a plot to assassinate him. This retreat, called in Arabic the Hegira, or "flight," later became the base-year for the Muslim calendar.
Eventually Muhammad returned to Mecca in triumph, and after his death in 632, his revelations were gathered together into the Muslim holy book, the Koran. These revelations included the "Five Pillars of Islam," one of which asserts that every Muslim should make a pilgrimage, called the hajj, to Mecca at least once in his or her lifetime. Thus the city annually plays host to two million Muslims from all over the world. Wearing a white robe called an ihram, the pilgrims are expected to circle the Ka'ba seven times, to run another seven times between two hills, Safa and Marwa, to spend from noon until sunset on a hill in the valley of Arafat, to throw stones at the devil in the valley of Mina, and to sacrifice sheep and goats. The hajj occurs only in the first two weeks of Dhu al-Hijja, the last month of the Muslim lunar year, and during the time they are in Mecca and its environs the pilgrims are expected to observe some strict taboos, including abstinence from sexual activity. Those who make this pilgrimage are entitled to add the title hajji to their names.
Thus, like Jerusalem, Mecca has become a worldwide place of pilgrimage. It is clearly a place apart, a place brimming with spirituality and sacredness, despite the fact that only Muslims are permitted to visit it.
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