Okay, it’s been forever since I’ve posted – mea culpa. In my defense, I have moved trans-Atlanically, which is surprisingly time consuming and exhausting! Now that I’m settled, I do have some quasi-big plans for this blog, so hopefully you’ll start to see some improvements coming through in the next few months. In the meantime though . . .
For those who are not aware, we are approaching the time of Hajj, the yearly Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca, which will begin probably early next month, with the Eid al-Adha, the pilgrimage festival, falling around 6 November (the dates are slightly uncertain because the calculation for these dates requires the visual confirmation of the shape of the moon as seen in the Holy City of Mecca). In anticipation, many Muslims are booking Hajj holidays – pre-planned holiday packages that include travel to Saudi Arabia and hotels near the holy sites, which can run anything from 10 to 20 grand for a fully-booked programme. Thus the UAE national newspaper ran a piece today decrying high-end, ‘luxury’ Hajj vacation, claiming that it was unreligious and unholy to undertake the Hajj and stay in 5-star hotels.
So now seems like a good time to talk about the Hajj. I don’t entirely disagree with the National’s argument, but I think they’re over-simplifying the matter. Firstly, it should be pointed out that, from a historical standpoint, the Hajj was always expensive. In fact, that was sort of the point – that’s why the requirement of the Hajj was that it should be undertaken at least once in the lifetime of all adult, male Muslims, presuming that doing so would not damage themselves or their household. Indeed, it serves as one of two rites that can be used to track the exclusivity of practice in early Islam – in the early sources about conversion to Islam, most sources stress prayer and fasting, rituals already held in common with both Jews and Christians throughout the Near East. Beginning in the late eighth century, however, more Islamic scholars began to discuss the Hajj and circumcision as the required rites for conversion, which was, presumably, meant to discourage conversion, in a system in which much of the caliphate’s finances came from taxes levied against non-Muslims.
I think it’s hard for us to fathom just how much those two ritual acts are asking of a person in the eighth or ninth centuries – even for Islamicists, as it’s a point I’ve raised in any number of conferences and seminars. For circumcision, the obstacle is obviously just the ‘ew’ factor – I can only assume the early Muslim missionaries who tried to enforce this policy were met with a lot of WTF? – plus the fact that any kind of surgery was much, much more dangerous than we can even really imagine in the days before antibiotics. For the Hajj, the issue was firstly, that travel was expensive and dangerous and secondly, that the people who were converting in later centuries lived farther and farther from the Holy Cities. It’s one thing to ask people from Syria, Lebanon or northern and southern Arabia to travel to Mecca and Medina – it’s very different to ask the same of people from Iran and the Central Asian steppe, or people from North Africa and the Iberian peninsula (modern-day Spain and Portugal).
So the Hajj is expensive, and it was, really for most of history, also incredibly dangerous – aside from the inherent physical danger of desert travel, there were also often threats of bandits, civil unrest and, depending where you were traveling from, despotic governments to deal with. Indeed, throughout the history of the caliphate, at least for the first three centuries of Islam, one of the duties of the caliph was personally to lead the Hajj caravan, generally from Damascus, at least in part because it was expected he would bring his private retinue with him as extra security.
The modern Hajj is obviously a fairly different animal. Although there are still many Muslims around the world that face hardship in undertaking the Hajj, and even in living memory there are cases of citizens being refused the right to travel, either due to government corruption or civil unrest, particularly once they reach Saudi Arabia, there is a much more complex and tightly-monitored system in place intended to provide security and structure to those participating in the Hajj. Instead, many of the problems faced by the modern Hajj have to do with how many do make it to Mecca – and this is a problem addressed directly in the rise of so-called ‘luxury’ Hajj holidays, that because the hotels closest to the holy sites book up fast, they can often charge ridiculous prices, and so a pilgrim would have to be willing to pay a higher price if he or she wants to be staying centrally.
However, I think the real complaint that lies behind the Nationalist piece has to do with the character of pilgrimage, and that is probably a valid one. The Hajj itself is not simply based on the role of Mecca as holy city of the Prophet (peace be upon him), but also takes its basis from the early history of Islam, the immigration of the early believers out of Mecca to Medina, and then their return years later and their eventual overthrow of the Meccan polytheists, a history which mixes with the Biblical history of Arabia as the home of Ishmael, the son of Abraham and Hagar, the slave-girl, with the Ka’ba standing as a shrine to the one God built by Abraham himself.
Thus, the traditions of the Hajj – the actual day-to-day activities that a pilgrim performs whilst there – developed among the first generation of Muslims, and represent something about what they want to preserve about their own history. The rites are very complex and very diverse (there’s a list on the wikipedia page which is brief but accurate), but one of the things they all have in common is a sense that pilgrims should be humble and pure. Indeed, this concept actually pre-dates Islam – even before the rise of Islam, the Ka’ba and the area surrounding it were a haram, a protected space, in which fighting and quarreling were forbidden, and in which tribes could meet to make peace or to exchange goods. As the traditions of the early Muslims developed, they kept this tradition of haram, remembering the Prophet’s (peace be upon him) peaceful negotiations with the Meccans that allowed for the early community of Muslims to return to the city. It’s for this reason that pilgrims change into plain white clothing and are forbidden to wear jewelry or perfume within the holy city, so that, in their role as pilgrim, they are all the same.
Obviously, this has always been the expectation and never the rule – those who were well-off could always get better treatment than those who weren’t (indeed, there were periods of Islamic history in which Islamic thinkers toyed with the idea of whether it was legal to send someone on Hajj on your behalf), but one of the characteristics on the modern Hajj – and one of the complaints I’ve heard most often from Muslims – is that it’s become more stratified and more hierarchical, not less, as more and more people are able to go on pilgrimage, which, at least to me, seems to be the inverse of what the traditions of the Hajj are intended for.