Muslim pilgrims defy Saudi religious police to visit cave
By Asma Alsharif
MECCA, Saudi Arabia (Reuters) - As Muslims from all over the world congregate for the annual haj pilgrimage, some are defying the edicts of Saudi Arabia's strict Wahhabi school of Islam by climbing al-Nour mountain in the hope of attaining spiritual favor.
Tucked under slabs of granite near the top of the 660-meter mountain on the outskirts of the sacred city of Mecca, dozens of pilgrims jostle for a glimpse of the Hera'a cave where they say God first revealed the message of Islam.
Muslims believe it was in this cave, near the peak of al-Nour, where 1,400 years ago the Archangel Gabriel told the Prophet Mohammed that he was the messenger of God with the command: "Recite!"
Between 2.5 million to 3 million pilgrims are expected to arrive in Mecca by Friday to perform the haj, a duty that all able-bodied Muslims must undertake at least once in their lifetime.
Red-faced and panting, men and women of all ages made their way up the mountain, some chanting prayers under their breath, others grunting with pain from the steep climb.
"This is a sacred place... I struggled getting up here but it was a nice kind of struggle," said Asma Mohammed, 30, when she reached the top, beads of sweat dotting her flushed face. "I had this sense of reverence as I was climbing."
"I feel closer to the prophet because (I followed) his paces," she said, resting on a granite boulder near the cave, as the setting sun shone on her face.
Abdulrahman al-Assaf, a Syrian pilgrim, proudly lifted his thoub to show a prosthetic leg that had carried him up the mountain in an hour, not much longer than it took more able-bodied men. Continued...