Providence and the pilgrims' progress

Pious Passengers:
February 3, 1995

Among the 21 ways of attaining martyrdom in Islam is death caused by the rigours of the obligatory pilgrimage to Mecca, the Hajj. Nowadays this happy state is sometimes arranged for the pilgrims by the Saudi authorities, who interpret the increasingly frequent tunnel disasters in the holy city as "the unalterable Will of Allah". An occurrence less easy to attribute to providence is massacre. In 1984, hundreds of unarmed Iranian pilgrims, demonstrating during the Hajj, were shot dead by Saudi police in the obscure Mosque of the Genii.

In his discussion of the modern Hajj, M. N. Pearson makes no mention of these incidents. His book is a sympathetic and scholarly labour of love unconcerned with controversial detail. Yet he does mention the "pious suicide" committed by devout pilgrims who used to jump into the well of Zamzam in the hope of drowning in its holy water. That was in the early 17th century and the authorities put a grill over the mouth of the well.

Pearson calls himself a "sympathetic farangi", a considerate European disbeliever; farangi being the pejorative Persian word for foreigner originally used by the Mughals to describe the Portuguese in India. This self-description is modest because Pearson's book is actually almost a devout defence of the Muslim attachment to God's House. Pearson sees the Hajj as a religious journey undertaken for religious reasons by most Muslims. He condemns standard European misconceptions about the Hajj, such as that it is a visit to Muhammad's tomb. Though Pearson could not do any research in Mecca since the city is open only to Muslims (some European adventurers, disguised as Muslims, have visited Mecca), this limitation has had no adverse effect on his book; the illustrations compensate.

In the pre-modern period, the Hajj was a regular passenger route, mainly by sea, creating lasting religious, economic and cultural links between the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent. Pearson discusses in lavish detail the Hajj undertaken from Mughal India. He shows how the Mughal emperors, like the Ottoman sultans, often sponsored the Hajj in order to secure a reputation for piety. Both dynasties negotiated safe passage for their "pious passengers" from the spice-rich Portuguese, the naval power in the Indian Ocean before the rise of the British empire. The Mughals also sent gifts to the Meccan aristocracy in exchange for religious legitimacy. And occasionally, they despatched potential rivals to Mecca as a form of effective exile. The Hajj always had its political uses.

The Quran sanctions the combining of land and maritime trade with the annual pilgrimage, and so merchants often accompanied the pilgrim caravans. However, Pearson rejects the orientalist claim that Mecca was becoming a major trading centre at about the time of the rise of Islam. He argues, plausibly, that Mecca was always a terminus, never a through-station; the port cities were the important commercial trans-shipment centres. The only export from Mecca itself was, and remains, the Hajj. During the pilgrimage season, the Bedouin sold sheep for ritual sacrifice, barbers cut men's hair, official guides charged high fees for arranging camel transport and accommodation for pilgrims, and there was a brisk trade in religious souvenirs.

Pearson interprets the Hajj as an annual congregation that "integrates the House of Islam''. Certainly: but it is only a temporary solidarity. Many innocent pilgrims carry home only memories of the con-men who fleeced them, the dust and the flies, and the arrogant self-righteousness of the local Meccans. This brief ritual unity does not subdue the competing nationalisms that tear apart the Muslim world the rest of the year. Pilgrimage to Mecca is indeed meant to renew communal solidarity and to facilitate the formation of democratic Islamic public opinion. In practice, it is often merely a pious status symbol and one that is, with air-travel, easily acquired. During his farewell pilgrimage in 632, the Prophet purified the Hajj of its previous pagan associations by ritualising "the stoning of the Devil''. Was that not the symbolic assertion of a just solidarity perennially in conflict with all unjust powers and principalities-such as the ones that rule Mecca today?

Shabbir Akhtar teaches Islamic studies at the International Islamic University, Malaysia.

Pious Passengers:: The Hajj in Earlier Times

Author - M. N. Pearson
ISBN - 1 85065 217 1
Publisher - Hurst
Price - £20.00
Pages - 217pp

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