Alone, out of all the major pilgrimages in history, the Hajj survives with its vitality unimpaired. Great Christian pilgrimages are but memories; they have vanished with the passing of the Age of Faith, leaving cathedrals and chapels to mark routes once annually traversed by thousands.
The practice of pilgrimage has roots in the notion of inherent sacredness, which accounts for the universality of pilgrimage. Sanctity attaches to specific places through decisive events which have occurred there. For example, the Buddha Gaya near Benares in India, scene of Gautama’s enlightenment; Jerusalem (meaning the city of peace), the scene of the alleged resurrection of Jesus’; and Canterbury where the Archbishop, Thomas a’ Beckett was martyred. Any site of martyrdom (mashhad: martyrium) attracts pilgrims in its own right; witness the way pilgrims gravitate towards the scene of Hamza’s (the Prophet’s uncle) martyrdom at Uhud, or the city of Karbala which grew as a result of Imam Husayn being buried after he was martyred there.
Pilgrimage is a communal yet very personal event; climaxing in moments of collective contemplation, inducing a heightened awareness of fellowship, yet always surrounding itself with a sense of quiet transcendence. The goal, if indeed there is one, is the journey itself which becomes a sort a preparatory purification, readying the pilgrim to experience another dimension of their being. Pilgrimage, therefore, corresponds to a deep spiritual hunger present in all of us, offering the possibility of transcendence to those who might not otherwise have an opportunity to experience it.
At the same time, this concentration of ethnically diverse people of the same faith coming together in such great numbers, strengthens the community of believers both socially and economically. Goods are traded, friendships made, marriages contracted, deaths occur – these and many other instances of social interaction arise from the opportunity presented by performing a pilgrimage. It is the spiritual as well as the worldly which account for the popularity of pilgrimage within all cultures.
Pilgrimages also are outlets or spiritual remedies, passed from one generation, tradition or culture to another. When one religion supplants another, it frequently inherits its predecessor’s pilgrimage site, making the ritual and symbolic sometimes difficult to comprehend because of the comingling that has taken place. This may happen more than once in a culture or tradition’s life cycle. In Islam, it has happened twice, as Abrahamic sites and rites were perverted for non-monotheistic usage, later to be reclaimed by Islam. When this happens, the site witnesses a purification of historical accretions (cf. Qur`an, 17:81).
Throughout history, iconoclasts have tried to suppress pilgrimage, while governments fear it because of its popular character and the irrepressible manifestation to which it can give rise. The focus of pilgrimage is also liable to shift under the impact of political or economic change: site the Papal monarchy diverting Christian pilgrims from Jerusalem to Rome; in Islam ‘Abdul Malik building the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem to attract pilgrims away from Mecca as part of his efforts to undermine Ibn Zubayr’s rebellion, which would have been funded by pilgrimage revenue.
Islamic pilgrimage, or Hajj, shares with other traditions the basic features of intention or consecration, separation, passage, sojourn (at the shrine or sanctuary), and fellowship, whereby the individual becomes aware of his place as part of a larger social body transcending frontiers, class, culture and language. The reintegration of the pilgrim into his community upon returning from such a journey enriches the community through the pilgrim’s experiential transformings; which alter not only the individual’s perception of themselves; but also that of their family, nation and the cumulative relationship they share with all of them. The hajj uniquely exhibits all these characteristics in very marked and curious ways.
Politically, Hajj constitutes the annual congress of all Muslims, since it is the nearest believers come to a single corporate presence in one place. For peoples of diverse social and cultural origins and backgrounds, coming together with a common purpose promotes not only spiritual awareness but also a sense of solidarity. While mediaeval Christian pilgrimages like Canterbury or Glastonbury promoted national unity, the Hajj promotes international ‘life trade’ and reflects unity of purpose and direction into the lives of its unique community of believers. The Faithfull’s commitment and humility before God, are made sacramental through the seamless ritual garment worn (the ihram) by all.
Spiritually, the outward journey to Mecca precedes the inward journey of Gnosis (ma‘rifah) that follows. The Holy city of Mecca is both location and spirit. Above the visible Ka‘bah are eight other invisible Ka‘bahs disposed along a single axis around which the entire cosmos rotate. The act of circumambulation (tawaf), performed counter-clockwise, makes the Ka‘bah an axis mundi, representing the point of rotation of the spiritual universe.
The Ka‘bah also forms the intersection of two planes, the vertical plane of the spirit and the horizontal one of human existence. The qiblah axis (the direction of the Ka‘bah in Mecca) used in prayer and which determines the orientation of all mosques is the horizontal plane, and the cosmological axis of which the Ka‘bah is the visible point is the vertical one. Prayer can be construed as use of the horizontal axis to relate oneself to the vertical plane of the spirit. Thus salat (prayer) and Hajj form but two acts of a single purpose and orientation.
Of the Five Pillars, four – salat (prayer), siyam (fasting), zakat (alms-giving), and Hajj – are secondary to the central one: shahadah (witnessing), which leads to total awareness. The Muslim Ummah (nation) as a whole enterprise (ummatan wasata) focuse on the qiblah in various ways: through daily prayer, posthumously in burial, and, at least once in one’s life, in Hajj. The qiblah is therefore the Ummah’s centre of gravity and its point of convergence.
The performance of Hajj is an obligation (fard ‘ayn – that is, the individual is duty bound to perform it), as opposed to a collective or conditional obligation (fard kifayah – that is, when part of the ummah or community fulfils a specified obligation the individual is relieved of the necessity to perform it). This differs from the other Pillars in that its performance is based on possessing the material and physical experiences. Muslims perform different types of pilgrimage such as ziyarah, but Hajj and ‘Umrah. Ziyarah (visit to a holy place) are the only types of Islamic pilgrimage that have a similiar look and feel to the pilgrimages found in other traditions; Hajj and ‘Umrah have no connection to other traditions being particular to Islam. Hajj is fard (obligatory), ‘Umrah is Sunnah (tradition) and ziyarah is neither, albeit meritorious (mustahabb). The addition of Madina to the Hajj, though standard practice, falls into the category of ziyarah.
The rites of Hajj are essentially Abrahamic, being a re-enactment of certain events on the life of the Prophet Abraham In studying Hajj, we have to consider both the Abrahamic core and its Muhammadi transformation, and fulfillment through prophecy. (cf. Qur`an, 2:127-9).
The occurrence and recurrence of events in specific localities endow them with a significance beyond their mere placement on a geographical map. Mecca and its environs can best be understood as a sort of divine theatre where this encounter between God and man takes place. Each rite is tied to a particular locality. The sa‘y, which commemorates Hagar’s anguished search for water for her son Ishmael, is performed at the mas‘ah between the two hills of Safa and Marwa. The stoning at Mina commemorates the points at which Satan successively appeared to tempt Abraham. Both relate to the prophecy of the birth of Muhammad in the Qur`an (2:129). The Qur`an refers to Safa and Marwah as sha‘a’ir, signs or evidences attesting to what had taken place in these areas, making Mecca the scene of divine action (Qur`an, 2:158). The well of Zamzam is a third such sign.
The ordained rites (manasik) are both Abrahamic and Muhammadi, but the Muhammadian component is by far the most important, as Muhammad (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) completes the work of Abraham. This explains why ritual of wuquf (standing) at ‘Arafat constitutes the primary rite of the pilgrimage, without which the performance of the Hajj is invalidated. The wuquf is also a commemoration, in this instance, of the Farewell Sermon which the Prophet preached from atop ‘Arafat (also called the Mount of Mercy or Jabal al-Rahma) and of the descent (tanzil) at the close of the sermon in verse (5:3) of the Qur`an.
During the Farewell Pilgrimage, the Prophet substituted the lunar calendar to regulate the year. The lunar year focuses and heightens the sense of fellowship, for the climax of that year, the Eid al-Adha, or the Feast of the Sacrifice of Abraham on the 10th of Dhu’l-Hijjah, coincides with the corresponding rite in Mina on that day. This makes all Muslims spiritually present along with the Hujjaj in Mecca at that moment, so that Muslims, wherever they be, form a single communion. The celebration of Eid al-Adha merely reproduces locally what Muslims are doing in the vicinity of Mecca that same day, so that salat and Hajj coincide.
Islam is a way of life and as such incorporates the political side of human nature. Hajj is, therefore, its political/spiritual festival. Properly understood, the Hajj, throughout history, is both popular assembly (majlis) and a forum for the interchange of ideas and cultures. It was at Mecca during Hajj that Amir ‘Abdul Qadir, the national hero of Algeria, and Imam Shameel, the national hero of the Caucasians, met to discuss the Islamic resistance in the 19th century. In Islam it is not possible to disentangle the spiritual from the political or the cultural from the economic. Islam is a path of unification and a total way of life.
Pilgrimage routes have traversed the Muslim world, from Scutari on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, through Anatolia and Syria to the Hijaz. Many a caravan has come from Iraq or Yemen; yet other routes wer utilized by the North African pilgrims, while an oceanic route from the Far East was finally completed. Monuments all over the Muslim world attest to the religious and economic importance of pilgrim traffic; for example, the Selimiye in Damascus is one the most beautiful of the many facilities provided by a beneficent administration for comfort, as well as the safety of the pilgrims. The facilities includ rest-houses, fortresses and assembly facilities. The reason the square in Scutari is so colossal, relative to the size of the city, is that this was where the annual Hajj caravan formed. At a later stage, the construction of the Hijaz railway (opened in 1908) was but an up-dating of this route. It also formed the lifeline of the Ottoman Empire, and this overlap in function merely reproduced an aspect of the pilgrimage that has always been present, that is, the economic, for trade routes and pilgrimage routes always seemed to converge.
The Hajj has been described as ‘the most important agency of voluntary, personal mobility since the age of the great European discoveries,’ one which ‘must have had a profound effect on all the communities from which the pilgrims came, through which they traveled, and to which they returned.’ People, particularly the merchant class, would avail themselves of the opportunities offered by the pilgrimage to defray in whole or in part, the expenses of the journey for themselves and their families. Everyone returned spiritually uplifted, intellectually (and sometimes materially) enriched. The transformative effect of Hajj on societies, even if only a few of whose members went on pilgrimage, must not be underestimated. Both the Almoravid and Almohad revolutions in North Africa were brought about by hujjaj who realized the religious backwardness of their own societies through coming into contact with Islam. The British and other colonial nations, recognized the dangers of such dynamic interaction and exchange and in some places, notably Nigeria, went to extraordinary lengths to restrict the number of pilgrims to maintain their control over the population.
Today the Hajj may have increased in quantity yet in the eyes of some, has declined in quality. In the past, scholars would spend months or years on Hajj, not only staying near the Ka‘bah precinct but also stopping off at centers of learning en route; today’s pilgrim is not so taken with this same desire to attain knowledge, yet the Hajj has become a vehicle of cultural diffusion, helping to bind different parts of the Muslim world into what some might call the single ‘Nation of Islam’. No other pilgrim journey can boast such a claim.