Very different, symbolic hajj in Saudi Arabia amid virus

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Hundreds of Muslim pilgrims circle the Kaaba, the cubic building at the Grand Mosque, as they keep social destination to protect themselves against the coronavirus ahead of the Hajj pilgrimage in the Muslim holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia, Wednesday, July 29, 2020. During the first rites of hajj, Muslims circle the Kaaba counter-clockwise seven times while reciting supplications to God, then walk between two hills where Ibrahim's wife, Hagar, is believed to have run as she searched for water for her dying son before God brought forth a well that runs to this day. (AP Photo)

DUBAI – Muslim pilgrims, donning face masks and moving in small groups after days in isolation, began arriving at Islam’s holiest site in Mecca on Wednesday for the start of a historically unique and scaled-down hajj experience reshaped by the coronavirus pandemic.

The hajj is one of Islam's most important requirements, performed once in a lifetime. It follows a route the Prophet Muhammad walked nearly 1,400 years ago and is believed to ultimately trace the footsteps of the prophets Ibrahim and Ismail, or Abraham and Ishmael as they are named in the Bible.

The hajj, both physically and spiritually demanding, is intended to bring about greater humility and unity among Muslims.

Rather than standing and praying shoulder-to-shoulder in a sea of people from different walks of life, pilgrims this year are social distancing — standing apart and moving in small groups of 20 to limit exposure and the potential transmission of the coronavirus.

The pilgrimage is a journey that Muslims traditionally experience with relatives. In past years, it was common to see men pushing their elderly parents around on wheelchairs in order to help them complete the hajj, and parents carrying children on their backs. The communal feeling of more than 2.5 million people from around the world — Shiite, Sunni and other Muslim sects — praying together, eating together and repenting together has long been part of what makes hajj both a challenging and rewarding experience like none other.

This year, however, pilgrims are eating prepackaged meals alone in their hotel rooms and praying at a distance from one another. The Saudi government is covering all the pilgrims' expenses of travel, accommodation, meals and healthcare.

While the experience is starkly different, it remains an opportunity for pilgrims to wipe clean past sins and deepen their faith.

Ammar Khaled, a 29-year-old Indian pilgrim who was born and raised in Saudi Arabia, said although he's alone on the hajj, he's praying for those he loves.