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Chapter 1: The Pilgrimage of Islam

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By: Shaykh Fadhlalla Haeri

Chapter 1
Pilgrimage in Different Religions and Cultures

Many religions and cultures have practised a form of pilgrimage. Islam, however, is the only spiritual discipline in which pilgrimage has been made an obligatory rite.   We shall briefly explore the practice of pilgrimage in Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism and Hinduism and a few other cultures.


Pilgrimage among the Jews

The Jews came to Palestine to visit places associated with biblical events.  In Judges 21:19 there is a reference to the festival of Jehovah which took place annually at Shiloh to the north of Bethel.  In Hebrew this festival is called the hag, a word which is almost identical to the Arabic word for pilgrimage (hajj).  Once the Tabernacle had been installed, the pilgrim made a sacrifice and prostrated at the shrine.  In more ancient times only the head of the family participated in the activities, while in later times the whole family took part. 

In the seventh month of the Hebrew year, pilgrims went to Jerusalem to celebrate the Festival of Tabernacles.  They shaved their beards, wore ragged clothes and brought offerings and incense.  The Book of Psalms contains songs sung by the pilgrims to celebrate their visit to the Temple in Jerusalem.


Pilgrimage among the early Christians

The Christians also visited Palestine to see places associated with biblical events.  An account exists from a Christian woman named Egeria who lived around 400 CE in which she tells of her pilgrimage to Palestine and the sites she visited.  The central devotional practice which she and her group performed was to read the passage of the Bible relevant to each site they visited. It was during the reign of Constantine in the early fourth century that a pattern of public worship associated with these sites developed. 

Certain centres of pilgrimage had developed in Europe by the early fourth century.  The bones of Peter and Paul were enshrined in Rome, and the graves of the many Christian martyrs who died under Roman persecution became shrines.  The shrines of lesser pious people and martyrs appeared all over Europe and people visited these sites in anticipation of blessings.  It became a custom, and in 787 CE a church decree, that every church should have some kind of relic associated with a saint or martyr.  A trade in ‘the limbs of martyrs’ had begun, as reported by St. Augustine of Hippo in 400 CE. To explain the resultant flood of articles, it was widely believed that all relics possessed the miraculous power of self-multiplication.  The test of popularity as to whether a particular site became a  place of constant visitation was whether the relic had the power to perform miracles or not. Those that were reputed to have this power enjoyed a steady stream of visitors. 

Besides Rome, there were only a few other places in Europe that enjoyed international popularity, such as Santiago de Compostella in northern Spain, where in 816 CE the body of St. James was said to have been miraculously rescued from the waves of the Atlantic.  There was a popular shrine in France, another in Germany, and a third in Italy, in addition to Canterbury Cathedral in England. 

In Britain the veneration of wells and springs was also common, and many of these sites became popular places of visitation, particularly for those who sought healing from some disease or physical ailment.  These wells and springs often derived their fame from the fact that some pious person had baptized converts there in the early days of British Christianity.  Many, however, derived their popularity from pre-Christian legends and were re-dedicated by missionaries for the baptism of converts.


Pilgrimage among the Buddhists

Reincarnation being central to Buddhist belief, the Buddhist is anxious to achieve as many pious acts as possible in order to break out of the cycle of rebirth.  Pilgrimage is considered one such pious act.  As in the Christian tradition of visiting sites associated with the life of Jesus, Buddhists travel to important sites connected with the Buddha’s life.  These sites are grouped into three.  The first group comprises the places of the Buddha’s birth, his enlightenment, his first sermon and his death;  the second group consists of six places which he visited; while the third consists of places which are associated with Buddhist culture. 

Pilgrimage is an important practice among the Tibetan Buddhists, and since its beginnings the essential element seems to have been the act of circumambulating the person or place which the pilgrim wishes to honor.  During the rite of circumambulation the person or place is kept on the right-hand side of the pilgrim, which is the opposite of the Islamic circumambulation of the Ka‘bah.

One form of pilgrimage is to visit a monastery and go around its environs, prostrating oneself at every step.  The pilgrim is not allowed to halt for food or rest, otherwise he loses the benefit of his pilgrimage.  His body must be fully stretched out in front of him, with his hands joined.  The pilgrim makes these prostrations even in rain or snow.  Older pilgrims and women with children may simply walk around the monastery, telling the beads of their rosary or turning the prayer-wheels they hold in their right hands.  Some pilgrims, when journeying towards a shrine, prostrate themselves the entire way.

Pilgrimage in Tibet is beset with difficulties, and generally involves crossing harsh and treacherous terrain.  Because of the dangers, people usually travel together in large groups.  Sometimes rich people pay others to make the pilgrimage for them; they may also pay for poorer people to make the pilgrimage, as an act of merit.  All classes of people make the pilgrimage, however, hoping to win forgiveness for past sins.  There are always many beggars who live around the shrines and avail themselves of the generosity of the pilgrims.


Pilgrimage in China

The Confucian mandarins considered pilgrimage to contain an element of disorder and danger to the state.  They disliked the peasants leaving their lands, believing the practice potentially harmful to the country's agriculture.  Hence it was not a particular feature of religious practice in China, although it was widespread among the Buddhists there.    

Mountains were the main places of pilgrimage in China, for originally the mountain was seen as an intermediary between the heavens and man.  Five official sacred mountains existed in China, the most important of which is called Ta’i Chan.  The time for pilgrimage was in the spring. In ancient Chinese tradition the Emperor had to go on pilgrimage to certain sacred mountains.  He was expected to rule society according to the laws of the universe, and his mandate had to be renewed with every new dynasty.  His pilgrimage consisted of a double sacrifice; one at the foot of the mountain, and one at the peak.

Pilgrims organized themselves into societies, each member contributing to a communal fund.  Generally they set out on foot at the beginning of the year, the group leader carrying a flag with the group’s place of origin and other details.  Pilgrimage was often made on behalf of a sick person who could not make the journey.


Pilgrimage in Japan

Both Buddhists and Shintoists perform pilgrimage in Japan.  One of the most frequent circuits of pilgrimage is the visit to the sanctuaries of Shikoku (mostly during March and April).  The majority make a single complete tour of the sanctuaries, although some do it several times.  In principle, the pilgrimage is made on foot.

One of the objectives of pilgrimage in Japan is to compel the rich to beg, even if it be only once in their lives.  The inhabitants of the villages through which the pilgrims pass believe it assures the well-being of their ancestors to give small quantities of rice or money to the pilgrims.  It is considered mandatory for the people to tend to any pilgrim who falls ill, and should a pilgrim die while in someone's care, the latter must pay for his burial.  The Japanese pilgrim retains the robe he wears on pilgrimage, as this will later serve as his funeral shroud.  The hat and cane are also kept, as they are placed on his tomb.

Generally the Shintoists in Japan concentrate on making pilgrimage to one sacred place at a time, while the Buddhists perform a circuit.  There is, however, one Shinto custom whereby a hundred temples are visited in a certain order, and a card is left at each temple in order to effect a cure for a sick person.


Pilgrimage among the Hindus

Pilgrimage in Hinduism is an ancient rite, as attested by numerous places throughout India attracting millions of people.  Some places draw people from all over the country, and others largely from neighboring cities, towns and villages.  Hindus perform pilgrimages to earn religious merit, to fulfill  vows upon the resolution of a problem, and to expiate ritual impurities.    

Most of the sacred sites lie either on riverbanks, at confluences or on the coast.  The value of water as a purifying agent was important in locating places of pilgrimage.  The word commonly associated with visiting these places means ‘undertaking a  journey to river fords, and great emphasis is laid upon ritual purification  by bathing.

Hindu pilgrimage strongly indicates that the roots of Hinduism were originally monotheistic. The famous epic known as the ‘Mahabharata’ describes a grand tour of the entire country of India, listing many places of visitation: virtually every site is devoted to Brahma, the Creator, and there is no mention of the other prominent deities such as Siva, Vishnu and Krishna, nor of icons or of temples dedicated to these deities.


Common Features of Pilgrimage

Certain common features exist among the various types of pilgrimage we have just described which we enumerate below: 

  1. The significance of water by the site of a sacred place or shrine.  Water is important as a means of purification, both for purposes of ablution and for curing the sick.

  2. The ancient origin of many sites of pilgrimage.  Newer faiths build their temples and shrines in places which have been venerated since ancient times.

  3. Difficult access to the sacred places, requiring the pilgrim to make a long and arduous journey, including jungles and deserts.

  4. The need to make sacrifices as part of the rites of pilgrimage. This includes offerings of food, flowers, small amounts of  money or similar tokens.

  5. Physical obeisance at  the  shrine,  and in some cases on the road towards the shrine.

  6. Making the pilgrimage on foot.

  7. A special  mode  of  dress.  This  dress  is  often  preserved  as the pilgrim’s shroud.

  8. Belief that objects left at a sacred place will become impregnated with divine or supernatural energy.

  9. Importance of mountains and isolated locations as places of worship.

  10. The benefits of maintaining all night vigils at a sacred place.

  11. Certain times of the day and dates in the lunar calendar, especially the full moon, are considered more auspicious for pilgrimage.

  12. Certain foods are prohibited during the pilgrimage.

  13. Abstention from cutting the hair or nails, as well as from sexual relations during the time of pilgrimage.

  14. The more removed the rites of pilgrimage become from their original purity, the more likely is the growth of an avaricious priestly class and the rise of superstitious practices.


The Pilgrimage of Islam

As we stated earlier the pilgrimage of Islam fully symbolizes the universal life experience.  The analogies are numerous.  For example, a central rite is circumambulating the Ka`bah counterclockwise, as the planets revolve around the sun.  The Ka`bah geometrically represents a cube, and symbolizes the four dimensions as well as the four basic elements: fire, water, earth and air.  This circumambulation is circular in shape, while the prayer at the station of Abraham represents a vertical line.  Going between the two hills of Safa and Marwah represents a horizontal line of striving and arrival.  The pilgrim sets out from the Ka`bah to the plain of ‘Arafat, traveling beyond the boundaries of the Sacred Precinct.  The meaning of this action is that he has traveled beyond the confines of the cosmos to stand upon the vast, solitary sacred plain of ‘Arafat, which symbolizes divine presence and knowledge.  Then he returns to the confines of the Sacred Precinct to stone the pillars, which represent the attachments of creational existence, attachments that distance him from divine knowledge.  Finally, he returns again to circumambulate the Ka`bah, back to the cosmic, orbital movement, but this time with knowledge of a dimension beyond time and space.  Thus the Muslim pilgrim ritualistically enacts the reality of his existential experience.  Relating and witnessing with the physical world whilst receiving the inspirations and delights of being acted upon by the one source – Allah, the Master of the known and the unknown.

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Preface: The Pilgrimage of Islam ] Introduction: The Pilgrimage of Islam ] [ Chapter 1: The Pilgrimage of Islam ] Chapter 2: The Pilgrimage of Islam ] Chapter 3: The Pilgrimage of Islam ] Chapter 4: The Pilgrimage of Islam ] Chapter 4: The Pilgrimage of Islam (Continues) ] Chapter 5: The Pilgrimage of Islam ]