Pilgrimage: Hajj

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The Islamic hajj refers specifically to the annual pilgrimage to Mecca, Arafat, and Mina during the second week of the Dhu l-Hijja, the final month of the Islamic lunar calendar. Called a duty of humankind to Allah in the Qur˒an (3:97), and the fifth of the five pillars of Islam, in recent years the hajj has attracted about two million Muslims annually from approximately 160 countries. All adult Muslims with proper intentions (niya), adequate resources, good health, and sound mind are required to perform this duty once during their lifetimes. Other pilgrimages exist in Islam, including visitations to saints' shrines (ziyara), but these are not officially sanctioned.

The Ka˓ba, the focal point of the hajj with its heavenly black stone, was a pilgrimage site long before the time of Muhammad. Shortly before his death, Muhammad claimed this site for Islam, and determined a sequence of symbolic rituals to be performed around it by all Muslims. These rituals reenact events in the lives of Ibrahim (Abraham), the archetype for Islam as founder of monotheism (hanifiyya) and builder of the Ka˓ba, his wife Hagar, and their son Isma˓il (Ishmael). Collective and individual rites at this site not only replicate the actions of Muhammad, but also recall the sacred movements of pious biblical prophets who predate Islam.

Prior to the hajj, pilgrims undergo a ritual cleansing that separates them from their profane individual and cultural identities, and allows them to enter sacred space and time as a unified group of believers before God. Men wear a simple white garment to symbolize their unity as Muslims; women wear customary dress, which demonstrates the meeting of diverse cultures on the common holy ground of Mecca. The initial rite of the hajj (tawaf), which includes a sevenfold circumambulation of the Ka˓ba, is followed by the "running" (sa˓y) of pilgrims between two hills. This action recalls Hagar's frantic search for water. The apex of the hajj is the "standing" of all pilgrims on Mount Arafat from noon until sunset as they pray individually and collectively to their one God. After sundown, all spend the night at Muzdalifa before the next day's ritual performances of the "stoning" and the "sacrifice" at Mina. Both actions reenact the sacred drama of Ibrahim's attempted sacrifice of Isma˓il. Pilgrims throw seven stones at a pillar representing Satan who tried to divert Ibrahim from God's command to sacrifice his son; they sacrifice to celebrate God's substitution of a ram for Isma˓il. This sacrificial rite is embraced simultaneously by pilgrims and Muslims all over the world in gratitude for God's mercy. After the sacrifice, pilgrims may perform another tawaf and sa˓y, and then gradually reenter profane space by cutting or shaving their hair and assuming regular dress.

The Islamic pilgrimage preserves, elevates, and reinforces collective and individual Muslim identities in a constantly changing world. Collectively, pilgrims confirm the basic tenets of Islam, including the affirmation of God's oneness, obedience to God, the necessity for a global Muslim community, and the importance of their prophetic past. Many pilgrims return to their homes with the sense they are connected to a greater, transcendent whole, a seamless religious community that surpasses economic, racial, and cultural differences. As Malcolm X pronounced in his autobiography (1990, p. 338), "The brotherhood! The people of all races, colors, from all over the world coming together as one! It has proved to me the power of the One God." In reality, distinctions among pilgrims exist, as illustrated by the vastly different services and accommodations enjoyed by those of diverse nationalities and classes. In perception, the community reflects unchallenged unity and equality.

Individually, pilgrimage acts as a rite of passage for Muslims who confront major transitions in their lives, including marriage, retirement, illness, or death. As a rite of passage, it also functions as a symbolic affirmation of faith for converts or those who are returning to or renewing their beliefs. In some societies, the hajj transforms ordinary individuals into extraordinary pious exemplars, or social elites. In parts of Egypt, those who have completed the hajj receive an elevated status close to that of a saint. As possessors of blessings (baraka) extracted from the holy land, returning pilgrims become saintly individuals reborn free of sin, deserving of paradise. Having successfully navigated the difficult journey to Mecca and back, pilgrims are likened to Muhammad who also made the tough trek to Jerusalem and paradise in the middle of the night. Hausa Nigerians use the pilgrimage to export local healing practices (involving spirits) into orthodox Saudi culture, for which they are greatly but clandestinely compensated. These healers return home to enjoy loftier social and economic positions as a result of their craft. In both Egyptian and Nigerian examples, the hajj accentuates local Muslim practices that challenge the orthodoxy and sense of monolithic communal unity asserted through collective ritual.

The hajj serves both as a spiritual and political arena. Nineteenth-century Muslim anti-imperialist movements were inspired by the hajj. In 1822 and 1823, Sayyid Ahmad performed the pilgrimage, and then launched a jihad against British influence in Egypt. Imam Shamil of Daghestan and Shaykh ˓Abd al-Qadir of Algeria met during the hajj to discuss the French presence in North Africa and the Russians in the Causasus. Recent global controversies are played out on the pilgrimage stage, since control of the hajj is directly associated with leadership in the Islamic world. In 1935, an attempt was made to assassinate Ibn Sa˓ud during the hajj, in protest of Wahhabi control of the shrines. Recent Saudi control over the hajj has bred resentment and favoritism among those billion Muslims who now have access to the hajj through the rapid air, land, and sea travel of the modern age. In 1986, when King Fahd of Saudi Arabia declared himself to be custodian of the holy sites, Iran challenged his authority by delivering sets of revolutionary sermons condemning America, Israel, and other enemies of Islam (including the Saudi government). The Libyan leader Mu˓ammar al-Qaddafi bypassed Saudi authority when he invoked independent judgment (ijtihad) to deny the hajj as an essential pillar of Islam. In 2002, the Iraqi government provoked the Saudis to take action when they sent civilian planes to transport pilgrims to the holy land without prior notification of the United Nations Security Council, a direct violation of a 1999 agreement. Through increased media coverage of the hajj, along with computer access to the virtual hajj, these tensions among the many conflicting faces of Islam will only increase, as will efforts to make the hajj a venue for common Muslim religious identity around the world.

An image of pilgrims praying at Mount of Mercy appears in the volume two color insert.

See also˓Ibadat ; Pilgrimage: Ziyara ; Ritual .


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Kathryn Kueny

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