Mecca Bound

Robert Irwin

  • The Hajj: Muslim Pilgrimage to Mecca and the Holy Places by F.E. Peters
    Princeton, 399 pp, £19.95, July 1994, ISBN 0 691 02120 1
  • Pilgrims and Sultans: The Hajj under the Ottomans by Suraiya Faroqhi
    Tauris, 244 pp, £34.50, May 1994, ISBN 1 85043 606 1
  • The Hadj: A Pilgrimage to Mecca by Michael Wolfe
    Secker, 331 pp, £19.99, January 1994, ISBN 0 436 58404 2

In the section of The Anatomy of Melancholy devoted to the perils of religious enthusiasm, Robert Burton pauses briefly to comment on the complex and meritorious rituals of the hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca:

their fastings, their running till they sweat, their long prayers, Mahomets temple, tombe, and building of it, would aske a whole volume to dilate: and for their paines taken in this holy pilgrimage, all their sins are forgiven, and they are reputed so many saints. And divers of them with hot bricks, when they return, will put out their eyes, that they never after see any profane thing, bite out their tongues, etc.

Although the performance of the hajj might fire certain pilgrims to extreme expressions of devotion, recent books which dilate on the history, politics and economics of the hajj are chary of investigating the passions aroused by the Muslim’s performance of its rituals.

F.E. Peters’s The Hajj provides a clear and accurate picture of the organisation of those rituals, drawing on the travel narratives of, among others, al-Harawi, the 11th-century Shi’ite enthusiast for pilgrimages of all sorts; Ibn Jubayr, the 12th-century Andalusian who went on pilgrimage to cleanse himself of the shame of wine-drinking; and Ibn Battuta, the pious Moroccan whose piety did not deter him from plagiarising Ibn Jubayr. However, Peters has also drawn heavily on such Western travellers to Mecca as Ludovico de Varthema, Domingo Badia y Leblich, John Lewis Burckhardt and Richard Burton. While most Western reports pretended to be objective, in some cases this was a pretence only, and Peters would have been better advised to have treated Varthema’s 16th-century Itinerario as a novel about oriental travel, rather than as a veracious report. Varthema gets a disturbing number of details about Medina wrong. His account of having seen a pair of unicorns in the ‘Temple’ of Mecca is fantastic and his subsequent story about the Queen of Aden’s attempt to vamp him wildly implausible.

The case of Burton’s A Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to al-Madina & Meccah (1855) is less clear. It is certainly possible that Burton made the journey as described, even though, elsewhere in his writings, he shows himself to be a master of unreliable narration and his account of the holy places of the Hejaz relies heavily and explicitly on Burckhardt’s Travels in Arabia (1829). Female hajjis, or pilgrims, have always had to perform the rituals unveiled, but Burton describes women pilgrims as wearing veils or masks. (The prescription that women should not veil themselves during the rituals is frequently alluded to in medieval Arabic amatory treatises when they come to discuss the legitimacy of gazing on women’s faces. It also seems that some men travelled to Mecca in the hope of finding a bride as well as divine favour.)

Despite doubts about some of the sources quoted by Peters, his book is in other respects reliable, as well as being sufficiently comprehensive to replace older accounts of the hajj by Snouck Hurgronje and Gaudefroy-Demombynes. By reading the sources a cites, one can follow the key rituals in some detail. Before he enters the sacred area around Mecca, a man dons the ihram, a robe composed of two white sheets – no special dress is prescribed for women pilgrims. The Kaaba in Mecca is an approximately cubical building with a black stone set in silver in one of its corners. The pilgrims circumambulate the Kaaba seven times. Then they run backwards and forwards seven times over the short distance between Mecca and Marwa. Then, on the ninth day of Dhu’l-Hijjja (the month of pilgrimage), they go out from Mecca to stand for the day on the plain of Arafat and try to listen to a sermon. (The standing at Arafat is the central part of the rites.) The following day, at a place called Mina, they stone three pillars (a symbolic stoning of Satan) and sacrifice sheep or goats. Finally, the men take off the ihram and shave off all or part of their hair, before making seven more circumambulations of the Kaaba. Although a visit to the tomb of the Prophet Muhammad in the nearby city of Medina is not part of the ordained rituals, most pilgrims do in fact visit it.

Such is the hajj in barest outline, but there are many additional details to be mastered and, if the pilgrim has failed to conform to one or other of the regulations, complex rituals of propitiation to be carried out. Experts on the hajj sought to anticipate all sorts of likely and unlikely queries and contingencies. Thus, a 12th-century Persian homiletic treatise, The Sea of Precious Virtues, advised prospective pilgrims that while it was perfectly acceptable to stone the pillars with emeralds or rubies, neither arsenic nor collyrium would do. Some of the mysterious observances of the hajj can be and have been interpreted as a re-enactment of Abraham’s wanderings in the wilderness and of his dealings with Hagar, Isaac and Ishmael. In this way, Muslims symbolically make contact with a primitive monotheism which flourished in Arabia before to the preaching of Islam. The 12th-century Sufi mystic, al-Ghazali, however, although successful in glossing many of the rituals, was reduced, when he came to the running backwards and forwards between Mecca and Marwa, to remarking that there were some divine decrees which passed all understanding and that these were the ones it was most important to obey, since the only reason to obey them was one’s duty to obey God.

Pilgrims and Sultans covers the 16th and 17th centuries. Like Peters, Suraiya Faroqhi concentrates on the external aspects of the hajj, its logistics, politics and economics. She is very good on the architectural and other patronage extended by the Ottoman sultans to the holy places and their inhabitants. She reveals that every year the sultans spent sums on maintaining their title to protect the holy places and the pilgrimage which would have been sufficient to fund a major war in the Early Modern period. The great caravans, which set out annually from Cairo and Damascus, and which usually took between forty-five and fifty days to reach the holy places, were fantastically elaborate affairs. Besides the expected complement of guides, soldiers and baggage-handlers, the retinue often included a fireworks officer, an orchestra and one or more official poets. Caravans often travelled in the coolness of the night and Joseph Pitts, an Englishman who accompanied his Muslim master as a slave, describes the lanterns on tall poles used to guide the travellers. The prosperity of Damascus at that time was crucially dependent on the safe departure and return of the hajj. Although both Peters and Faroqhi are interested in commerce, neither discusses the pilgrimage’s role in the slave trade. Even as late as the early decades of this century, some Africans financed their pilgrimage by selling their children.

Michael Wolfe’s The Hadj is the story of an American convert’s pilgrimage made in 1990. Wolfe, who also writes novels, conscientiously avoids the politics of the contemporary hajj and his responses seem curiously muted. He enjoyed many encounters with his co-religionaries, and appreciated the multi-racial and democratic aspects of the hajj, but there is a feeling of something being held back and I never fully understood why Wolfe had become a Muslim or had made the pilgrimage. One gets a stronger sense of the crowds and the heat than of the divine from his book. But perhaps that is as it should be – a matter of pious decorum.

There are many other books waiting to be written on the subject of the hajj. For example, the importance of the annual assembly at Mecca as a focal point for the collection and dissemination of cultural practices and ideas has yet to receive adequate discussion. In the 11th century, Shi’ite Isma’ili agents travelled to Mecca to recruit and indoctrinate disciples who would carry the subversive doctrines out to the limits of the Muslim world. Later, in the 18th and 19th centuries, the holy places were the most important recruiting ground for reformist Sufi orders, such as the Naqshabandiyya. In more recent decades, the gathering of the pilgrims has provided an opportunity for the distribution of both pro-Saudi and anti-Saudi propaganda. Similarly, the trade fair which ran concurrently with the assembly at Mecca had considerable importance for the evolution of Islamic art. Chinese silks, Mosuli metalwork, Iranian ceramics and Syrian glassware were traded and transported, via Mecca, from one end of the Islamic world to the other. The cultural coherence of Islamic art surely owes something to the hajj.

Another book waiting to be written might focus on the more personal and affective aspects of the rituals, drawing on the narratives of mystical, mad, disgruntled, satirical, fervent, erotic and bogus pilgrims. Every hajj is different. Abu Bakr Siraj al-Din, an English Sufi who made it in 1948, experienced his pilgrimage as a journey back in time, to before the missions of Muhammad, Jesus and Moses, as well as towards childhood and the helplessness of a child. ‘At times’ he wrote, ‘one had almost the impression that one’s body was dissolving as though a process the opposite of creation was taking place.’

Jalal Al-e Ahmed (1923-69) is well known (in Iran at least) as the author of Gharbzadagi, translated as Occidentosis: A Plague from the West, a furious polemic against what he perceived as Iran’s uncritical absorption of Western ideas and technology. Khasi dar Miqat (1966), translated as Lost in a Crowd, is another of Al-e Ahmed’s eccentric masterpieces, an observant, waspish, vivid, abrupt and satirical account of his journey to Mecca. In it, he jumps from topic to topic like a stinging insect. He denounces the Saudis’ close links with the Americans. He attacks the tasteless eclecticism of the architecture of the Prophet’s Mosque at Medina. He fumes at the way Shi’ites wishing to show reverence to certain holy tombs in Medina are harassed by local Sunni Muslims. A diatribe about disgusting sanitary conditions shades effortlessly into a denunciation of the Saudi regime, ‘evidently preoccupied with guzzling up oil profits: let all these hajjis burst open because of the filth, but keep those oil wells pumping.’ Picking up on themes raised in Occidentosis, he draws attention to the ugliness of Western Chevrolets, jets, steel, glass and neon lighting in such holy settings, commenting that ‘they’re so eager for Western industrial products! Everything they use during the ceremonies is either Western or Japanese. The only thing they use during the ceremonies that is not machine-made by companies is the sacrificial animals.’ Al-e Ahmed was resentful also of the Arabs’ proprietorial attitude towards Islam, and believed the guardians of the holy places were unworthy of their trust: ‘Medina and Mecca must be set free from the disgrace of these gentlemen and be declared two international Islamic cities.’

Many of Al-e Ahmed’s themes – contempt for the Arabian monarchies, criticism of the excesses of Arabian Wahhabi iconoclasm, denunciations of the American presence in the Arabian peninsula and demands for the internationalisation of the holy places – have since been picked up by Iranian followers of the Ayatollah Khomeini. The curious feature of Al-e Ahmed’s pilgrimage, however, is that it is never quite clear whether he made his journey to Mecca as a believing Muslim or whether he travelled and wrote as a secular intellectual. Other cases are less ambiguous and one instance among many of an irreligious pilgrimage is that of the eighth-century Umayyad prince, al-Walid, who took camel-loads of wine and hunting dogs with him.

The tenth-century mystic, al-Hallaj, taught that there was no need literally to go on pilgrimage to Mecca. The true hajj was an internal matter of the heart. Nevertheless, al-Hallaj did go on pilgrimage several times. On the occasion of his return from the first of them, the lice removed from his robe weighed the equivalent of two and a quarter grams. This his disciples, but not his critics, took to be a sign of great holiness. Al-Ghazali, by contrast, placed great stress on the actual performance of the hajj, which he regarded as a symbolic anticipation of death, in which the donning of the ihram prefigures the inevitable shroud. Symbolism apart, death has always been a notable visitor to Mecca during the month of pilgrimage. Many of those who participate are quite old and frail, and every year the hajj takes its toll. Michael Wolfe’s was a relatively comfortable pilgrimage. Even so, as he makes very clear, the hajj remains an ordeal during which many pilgrims fall sick and some die.

It has always been a potentially dangerous affair. Among the officers who used regularly to participate in Mamluk and Ottoman pilgrimages was one known as the Nazir al-Mawarith al-Hashriyya, whose job it was to collect for the sultan the goods of those who died intestate during the rites. The arrival of the Black Death in Mecca and Medina in 1348-9 gave rise to much anguished debate among local religious scholars, for a saying attributed to the Prophet promised that no disease should ever enter the holy cities. In fact, pilgrims were always at risk from epidemic disease, mass panics and bedouin attack. In the 19th century cholera was the greatest menace. ‘The yellow wind’ first attacked the hajj in 1865. Of the 90,000 taking part that year, 15,000 died during the pilgrimage and subsequently pilgrims returning to Indonesia, India, Afghanistan, West Africa, the Balkans and elsewhere spread the epidemic worldwide. Fears of the return of cholera gave Britain and France the opportunity to intervene in the affairs of the Hejaz and to regulate the pilgrimage. Indeed, the late 19th-century hajj could be seen as a British imperial ceremony, which was directed in large measure by the Foreign Office and the India Office, and brought together Muslims from all over the Empire. More pilgrims came from British territories than from anywhere else. Britain organised quarantine stations and imposed controls on the dangerously crowded pilgrim ships. British agents, spies and Indian pilgrimage officers reported on the progress of the hajjs. The inhabitants of Mecca and Medina were fed mostly by imported food from British India. Only the Dutch, with their large Muslim population in Indonesia, had anything like a comparable interest in the management of the pilgrimage.

The pre-modern hajj was a leisurely affair and a man might acquire a wife and several children as he journeyed. But the great pilgrimages on foot across Africa have now ceased and the last great camel caravan set out from Cairo in 1883. From the late 19th century onwards, most pilgrims were conveyed to the Hejaz in coal-fired steamships. When, soon after the First World War, King Husayn first encountered a motor car at Arafat, he took a crowbar to the vehicle, crying: ‘As the Prophet had found the country, so should it remain for every good Muslim.’ It was a vain gesture and in fact, ships, cars and trains helped keep the hajj going during the difficult years of Depression and world war. However, it is air travel that has led to an explosion in the numbers going on pilgrimage. As well as pride and awe, today’s crowds in and around Mecca inspire anger and fear in some of those present. In 1987, Iranian-organised demonstrations against America, Israel and the Saudi regime took place in Mecca. About four hundred pilgrims, mostly Iranian, were killed in the disturbances. In 1990 (the year of Wolfe’s pilgrimage), a stampede in a tunnel between Mina and Mecca led to the death of 1426.

Already in 1948, Abu Bakr Siraj al-Din had commented on the numbers present at the stoning ritual. ‘The increasing difficulty and hardship of performing this rite (the rocks are small and the pilgrims this year were about seven hundred thousand in number) is no doubt in proportion to the increasing power of Satan over mankind. I confess that at one moment I almost turned back in despair.’ This year, about two and a half million pilgrims went to Mecca and the press trying to get close enough to the pillars to stone them led to a panic in which as many as two hundred and fifty pilgrims were trampled to death. As unmanageable numbers crowd into the holy places in future years, further disasters seem likely.