October 14th, 2013
01:58 AM ET
By Sarah Brown, CNN
(CNN) – Millions of Muslims began the Hajj pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia on Sunday, which represents one of the largest annual human gatherings on the planet.
The Hajj is one of the five pillars of Islam, a journey every Muslim is expected to take in his or her lifetime if the person is physically and financially able.
This year, the Saudi Arabian city of Mecca is hosting more than 2 million Muslims, about 1 million fewer than last year, according to the Associated Press.
Our iReport team has asked pilgrims who have performed the Hajj about how the experience changed them - and for their advice to those undertaking the pilgrimage for the first time.
The result is a mix of spiritual and practical life lessons that transcend Islam.
iReporter Amir Abdul Latip from Brunei said the Hajj taught him a patience that’s carried over to his life after the pilgrimage.
“I'm still not perfect, but the Hajj has changed my perspective on the temporal nature life, the universe, and everything else,” he says.
“Just be patient and always try to help others,” Latip says, adding that the Hajj helped “widen my views to see a bigger picture of our existence.”
Patience is an order during the Tawaf, a Hajj ritual in which throngs of pilgrims circle seven times around the Kaaba, a cube-shaped building considered the most sacred site in Islam.
The whole five-day event, which attracts around 3 million people, is slow going and sometimes chaotic.
“Several times things are not in control of the organizers – they try their best for pilgrims but they cannot do all due to some unforeseen circumstances,” said iReporter Muhammad Zafar from Simi Valley, California, who performed Hajj in 2011 with his family.
2. Down to earth
Ameer Hassoun, an Iraqi-born doctor who lives in New Jersey, said a key part of the Hajj is learning from other pilgrims.
“It taught me how to be very down to earth, to treat everything with humility, that there is no difference between us - no matter where we are," he said.
“People around the world share their own experiences from their home countries and so it’s a very fertile land for learning.”
For Hira Hasnain, a student in North Carolina who spent three weeks undertaking the Hajj, one of the most rewarding experiences was uncovering new aspects of her faith by meeting new people.
“It brings you closer, it provides a sense of unity.,” she says. “You realize that everyone around the world is striving to … achieve closeness to God and everyone has different ways of doing it.”
“Try to understand where everyone is coming from and your enjoyment of Hajj will be that much more meaningful,” Hasnain says.
3. Everywhere was white
iReporter Rafiu Olasunkanmi Yusuf, a Nigerian who works in Malaysia, said his 2003 pilgrimage revealed a “need to move closer to God.”
“Everywhere was white, that symbol of purity,” he said. “There was no distinction on the basis of race, country or color of the skin. One can feel the presence of the Almighty God as we perform the religious rites.”
Since then Yusuf, has tried to “devote more time to spiritual uplift and less time to worldly pursuits."
Haq, meanwhile, says his pilgrimage taught him to acknowledge God in “everything I do.”
“I pay close attention to my obligations as a Muslim,” he says. “My prayers, obedience to parents, fasting, zakat [gifts to charity -- another of the five pillars of Islam] - I repent more often, and make more dhikr [prayers reciting the names of God].
“I also try to educate my Muslim and non-Muslim friends, co-workers and peers on Islam,” he says.
4. The hajj is hard
iReporter Amaan Haq from Woodbridge, Virginia, undertook his first Hajj in 2011 with his wife and said preparation was essential.
“Read and understand before embarking what acts are required from you,” he said. “The Hajj is hard even if you're young.”
The Hajj can be a physical and mental endurance test, with pilgrims sometimes walking miles each day. Haq advises pilgrims to take drinks or electrolyte salts to stay hydrated in the 90-degree Arabian sun.
Other iReporters recommended that first time pilgrims obtain a guide if possible, saying the complex sequence of rituals to be performed and the sheer size of the gathering can be overwhelming.
5. Just do it
Latip from Brunei said his final advice for those wishing to undertake the journey was to get going.
“Just do it,” he said.
“Don’t wait until you’re too old and frail,” he says. “And with costs rising year after year, it’s better to do it sooner if you can.”
That advice can apply to journeys other than Hajj, too.
About this blog
The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team.