April 14, 1997
Web posted at: 11:41 p.m. EDT (0341 GMT)
From Correspondent Gayle Young
CAIRO (CNN) -- In the port city of Suez -- and across the Islamic world -- they are celebrating the Hajj, the pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca.
"This is a joyous day and the best day in the life of a man," said pilgrim Hussein Suleiman Hussein. "It is as if I am being born anew."
Millions of Muslims across the world will trek to Mecca this week for the annual religious event. They circle the Kaaba, a shrine that contains a black stone sacred to the Prophet Mohammed.
Mohammed decreed that every Muslim who can afford it make the Hajj at least once. It is one of five holy duties required in Islam.
A Muslim's first duty is to proclaim that there is only one God and that Mohammed is his prophet. Muslims also must pray five times a day, give charity to the poor and fast during the daylight hours of the holy month of Ramadan.
When a cannon signals that the sun has set during Ramadan, Muslims in Cairo break their fast with friends and family, often inviting the poor to share their meals.
The second-largest religion in the world after Christianity, Islam is also the fastest-growing religion. In the United States, for example, nearly 80 percent of the more than 1,200 mosques have been built in the past 12 years.
Some scholars see an emerging Muslim renaissance as Islam takes root in many traditionally Christian communities.
Islam has drawn converts from all walks of life, most notably African-Americans. Former NAACP President Benjamin Chavis, who joined the Nation of Islam recently, personifies the trend.
"In societies where you have minorities that are discriminated against, I think they may find an appeal in Islam," said Waleed Kazziha of American University in Cairo.
Many moderate Islamic countries such as Turkey and Egypt are becoming more conservative.
Two decades ago, few middle-class Egyptian women wore scarves or veils on their heads. Now they crowd into special emporiums that advertise Islamic clothing.
The shift toward Islamic fundamentalism worries many in the secular world, a fear underscored when splinter groups target Westerners with violent attacks.
Islam vs. the West
But most scholars argue that the extremists are a very small minority and that most Muslims adhere to principles in the Koran that teach peace and tolerance.
"The Islamic world is like any other society we have known in history," said Kazziha. "You might say it has the good, the bad and the ugly."
Founded in 622 A.D., Islam is among the newer major religions. But to the non-Muslim world, it sometimes appears inflexible. Clashes between Islamic tradition and Western influence are sweeping the globe.
In Islam, contrary to Western beliefs, the rights of the community are considered more important than the rights of the individual. Women are seen primarily as caretakers of the home, and religion strongly influences schools, government and courts.
Many Muslims today are trying to find a balance between being members of a global society and maintaining ties to a religion that calls for strict adherence to the Koran.
A case in point is 35-year-old Hisham Hussein, a wealthy playboy who turned to religion and swore off alcohol after an automobile accident.
He is going to Mecca this spring. "The most important thing is to maintain the purity of the Hajj, to lead a pure life," he said.