A journey through Hajj, Islam's special pilgrimage

Updated 9:41 AM ET, Mon August 20, 2018

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(CNN)For the 1.8 billion Muslims around the world, the Hajj is considered a spiritual pinnacle. Each year, up to three million pilgrims descend on Mecca -- the epicenter of the Muslim world -- to seek redemption, to forgive and to be forgiven.

Wrapped in white cloth, worshippers embark on the five-day pilgrimage, considered one of the five pillars of Islam. All Muslims who are physically and financially able are required to make the journey to Mecca at least once in their lifetime.
Mecca is meant to be the bedrock of Muslim unity, with the Hajj lauded as a place where pilgrims shed class, race, and nation. In his 1964 pilgrimage, less than a year before his assassination, black civil rights activist Malcolm X marveled at the "spirit of unity" between white and non-white Muslims -- he later disavowed many of his beliefs about racial separation on returning to the United States.
But as Saudi Arabia has taken a more muscular approach to foreign policy with the rise of a young Crown Prince, Mecca has emerged as a political fault-line. A diplomatic spat between Saudi Arabia and Canada over a human rights statement resulted in the closure of one of the main flights between Canada and the kingdom, reportedly complicating matters for hajjis, or Muslim pilgrims.
A bruising Saudi-led 2016 embargo on Qatar, and the dissolution of diplomatic ties with Iran in 2016 has also disrupted pilgrimages for nationals of those countries in recent years. In Yemen, the ongoing war between Houthi rebels and Saudi-backed forces has all but trapped millions of would-be Yemeni pilgrims.
Still, Mecca is brimming with over 1.5 million international pilgrims this year, according to Saudi officials. These are devout Muslims who tenaciously pursue the pilgrimage, enduring the inconveniences of an ard