Hajj: Journey to the Heart of Islam

As a new exhibition illuminates the creative expressions of a Muslim ritual, James Piscatori explores its spiritual dimension

January 19, 2012





Credit: Leiden University Library; Benaki Museum, Athens; The Trustees Of The British Museum



Hajj: Journey to the Heart of Islam



British Museum



From 26 January until 15 April 2012


Each year, vast numbers of Muslims travel to Mecca to participate in the hajj, the most highly charged ritual of the Muslim calendar. Fulfilling a primary obligation of the faith (Koran 3: 90-91), many find spiritual solace in the cosmopolitanism of the pilgrimage while also often engaging in the secular pursuit of business, diplomacy or status.

The hajj carries immense symbolic significance, representing the oneness of the Islamic community (the Koran speaks of the umma wahida, the one community of the faith). The ritual that cuts across all sects, with some differences, suggests common bonds that stretch, geographically, from the Middle East to Africa and Asia and into the Muslim minority communities of Europe, the Americas and Australasia; and temporally from now to Judgement Day. The hajj is also viewed as an affirmation of the equality of all believers. The simple white cloth that pilgrims don, and that some retain to use as a burial shroud, represents humility before God but also negates the hierarchies and inequalities that otherwise seem important in life.

Over the centuries pilgrims have returned home with newly acquired prestige, many receiving the honorific hajji as a consequence. Increasing numbers have written of their spiritual journey, with many recording the transformative effect that it has had on both their individual piety and perception of belonging to a larger collective enterprise. Works such as The Autobiography of Malcolm X and the convert Muhammad Asad's The Road to Mecca emotionally discuss the pull of what is believed to be the Islamic centre and the life-changing experience it entailed. For Malcolm X, participation in the hajj brought him to the realisation that Islam stood for a non-racialist form of brotherhood. Artistic expressions, notable examples of which are presented in the British Museum's luminous new exhibition on the hajj, have depicted the Kaaba, the cubical edifice at its core around which pilgrims rotate in prayerful ritual, and other aspects such as the re-enactment of the Prophet's Farewell Sermon on Mount Arafat. Persian, Mughal and Ottoman miniatures are complemented today by folk art murals in Egyptian villages, stylised calligraphic representations such as those by Ahmed Moustafa, the Egyptian artist living in Britain, or the evocative black-and-white photography of the Saudi Reem Al Faisal. It should not be surprising to discover that one can do the "virtual hajj" on Second Life.

Over the centuries, the symbolic power of the hajj has been apparent to Muslim elites who have sought to harness it to legitimise their rule or extend their influence through ostensible acts of generosity and patronage. The Umayyad caliph in the early 8th century, al-Walid ibn 'Abd al-Malik, decorated the door to the Kaaba in gold, for instance, and the 'Abbasid caliph, Abu Jafar al-Mansur, enlarged the area for the circumambulation of the Kaaba in the mid-8th century. The Mughal sultan, Muzaffar II, known for sending personally transcribed copies of the Koran to Mecca and Medina, built a hospice in Mecca in the early 16th century and generously assisted poor travellers.

The Ottomans in the mid-16th century carried out a major redevelopment that gave the holy places the form that Saudi Arabia, the current custodian of the sanctuaries of Mecca and Medina, inherited. They also undertook to build a railway from Damascus to Medina, to facilitate the pilgrimage but mainly to support Ottoman garrisons in Arabia. Its strategic value was recognised in the Arab Revolt of 1916 that pitted the local rulers, the Hashemites, against the Turks, and today the Saudis have announced their intention to rebuild some of the lines that were destroyed then.

The Saudis have invested vast amounts of money in the expansion of the holy places of Mecca and Medina, reform of the guide (mutawwif) system, and improvement of the accommodation and transportation facilities for the 2.5 million pilgrims who perform the hajj. The logistical and managerial difficulties cannot be underestimated, especially when it is recalled that pilgrims have died in tragic accidents in the past 30 years. But there have also been more pointed criticisms of Saudi control. Some regret that the massive expansion of the holy places has been detrimental to the historical and religious character of Mecca (as well as Medina) and to the financial advantage of Saudi elites; others argue that the Saudis have "Wahhabised", or imposed a particularly conservative form on, the hajj. President Nasser of Egypt thought the hajj should not be promoted as other-worldly but should become an "Islamic world parliament" de-linked from the Saudis with whom he was locked in bitter enmity. The Islamic revolutionary regime in Iran has been particularly vociferous in its opposition to the status quo and, especially after more than 400 people died in clashes between Iranian pilgrims and Saudi security forces in 1987, it has called for the internationalisation of the holy places.

The controversy over the Saudis' self-identification as the custodian or servant of the holy places (khadim al-haramayn) is one way that the pilgrimage, as universally respected as it is as a pillar of the faith, has been criticised for what might be called its secular aspects. Another is the political economy of the hajj, which may have the effect of accentuating, rather than superseding, difference among the believers. Pilgrims have long benefited from the commercial side of the hajj, and today this often takes the form of fast-food restaurants or Russian pilgrims hawking binoculars and African women selling brightly coloured cloth and inexpensive prayer mats. Yet pilgrims have also long criticised the petty greed of hoteliers and some merchants, forming what the Iranian writer Jalal Al-e Ahmad observed in his hajj account of the early 1960s, Lost in the Crowd, as the ironic "business" of the pilgrimage. More recently, however, the problem has reached a different order of magnitude, with many pilgrims divided according to their ability to pay. The more well-to-do stay in attractive housing or elite hotels; poorer pilgrims stay further away from the sacred precinct in conditions that are often inadequate despite government regulation.

It is also the case that, while Mecca remains supreme as the heart of Islam and attracts Muslims particularly from areas such as Southeast Asia and Africa who may regard themselves as on the periphery, there have always been other pilgrimages. While the Persian mystic Mansur al-Hallaj famously thought that the hajj could be done in one's own home as an inner journey, other centres have developed throughout the Muslim world. Karbala and Qum for the Shia, Nizamuddin/South Delhi in India and Dewsbury in Yorkshire for the Tablighi Jamaat, and Kaolack in Senegal for the Niassene Tijaniyya Sufis are just a few examples of the many other forms of pilgrimage that exist. Like the great pilgrimage to Mecca, they assume a spiritual significance beyond the act of travel and, like them, are subject to political and social contestation. Religious and political authorities often seek to exploit them - or indeed to ban them, as the Saddam Hussein regime did of Shia pilgrimage to the shrine cities of Iraq for fear of their oppositional potential.

But as diverse, even as sectarian, as the pilgrimage experience may be, the hajj exercises a profound hold on the modern Muslim imagination. While it obviously constitutes physical movement from one place to another, it is pre-eminently a journey of the mind, projecting believers across space and time, even often in the process overcoming barriers of gender and politics. On one level, as a religiously charged, transnational force, the pilgrimage operates in a circle of competing meanings and control, complicating would-be patrons' quest for legitimacy. But on another, as the myriad artistic and literary expressions over the centuries attest, it has spoken to and uplifted the human spirit.




James Piscatori is professor of international relations and head of school in the School of Government and International Affairs, Durham University.

Please login or register to read this article

Register to continue

Get a month's unlimited access to THE content online. Just register and complete your career summary.

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments