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Introduction: The Pilgrimage of Islam

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By: Shaykh Fadhlalla Haeri


Alone, out of all the major pilgrimages of 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 churches and chapels to mark a route 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 in consequence of something decisive having happened there, for example, the Buddha Gaya near Benares in India, scene of Gautama’s enlightenment; Jerusalem (meaning the city of peace), the scene of Jesus’ alleged resurrection; and Canterbury where the archbishop Thomas 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 popular and collective; it climaxes in a moment of collective purposefulness, producing a heightened awareness of fellowship, but always involving transcendence. The physical goal, and indeed the scene of the pilgrimage phenomena, is but the threshold of the spiritual. The journey becomes a preparatory purification, readying the pilgrim to experience another dimension of beingness. The other, unknown, subtle world lies on the boundary of the mundane. Pilgrimage, therefore, corresponds to a deep spiritual hunger present in all of us, offering the possibility of transcendence to those who might not otherwise experience it.

At the same time, the concentration of ethnically diverse people of the same faith coming together in such great numbers strengthens the community of believers socially and economically. Goods are traded, friendships are made, marriages contracted, deaths occur – these and many other instances of social interaction arise from the opportunity presented by performing pilgrimage. It is the spiritual as well as the worldly aspects that account for the popularity of pilgrimage in all cultures.

Pilgrimages are spiritual remedies which are passed from one generation to another as well as from one tradition or culture to another. When one religion supplants another, it frequently inherits its predecessor’s sites of pilgrimage, making the ritual and symbolic content difficult to read. Sometimes this happens more than once. In Islam, it happened twice, as Abrahamic sites and rites were perverted to 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: the Papal monarchy diverted Christian pilgrimage from Jerusalem to Rome; in Islam ‘Abdul Malik built the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem to attract pilgrims away from Makkah 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 his return enriches that community by his experience, which alters his perception of himself, his family, his nationality and his relationships with all of them. Islamic pilgrimage exhibits all these characteristics to a very marked and unusual degree. It is only in modern times that the political, social and revolutionary benefits of Hajj have been overtaken by mass production of ritual mismanagement.

Politically, Hajj constitutes the annual congress of all Muslims, since Hajj is the nearest the 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 upliftment but also solidarity. Whilst mediaeval Christian pilgrimages like Canterbury or Glastonbury promoted national unity, the Hajj promotes international ‘life trade’ and reflects the unity of purpose and direction into the lives of the community of the faithful. The equality of believers’ commitment and humility before God are made visible in the uniformity of the ritual garment worn (the ihram) for it is seamless.

Spiritually, the outward journey to Makkah precedes the inward journey towards gnosis (ma‘rifah) as the goal. Makkah 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 rotates. 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 phenomenal existence. The qiblah axis (the direction of the Ka‘bah in Makkah) 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 peripheral to the central one: shahadah (witnessing), which leads to realization. The Muslim Ummah (nation) as a ‘middle nation’ (ummatan wasata) focuses on the qiblah in various ways: daily in 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 a categorical 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) but differs from the other Pillars in that its performance is based on possessing the material and physical means. Muslims perform different types of pilgrimage such as ziyarah, Hajj and ‘Umrah. Ziyarah (visit to a holy place) is the only type of Islamic pilgrimage that corresponds to the pilgrimages found in other traditions; Hajj and ‘Umrah have no correspondence with other traditions but are 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 which were decisive for the subsequent course of monotheism, but endowed with fresh significance by virtue of their ritualized incorporation in Islam. In studying Hajj, we have to consider both the Abrahamic core and its Muhammadi transformation, and fulfillment of prophecy. (cf. Qur`an, 2:127-9).

The occurrence and recurrence of events in specific localities endow them with a significance beyond the merely phenomenal. Makkah and its environs can best be understood as a sort of divine theatre where the encounter between God and man took 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 that areas, making Makkah 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 Muhammadi component is by far the most important, as Muhammad (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) resumes and completes the work of Abraham. This explains why the particular component of wuquf (standing) at ‘Arafat constitutes the primary essential 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) in the middle of that sermon of the crucial revelation 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 Makkah 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 Makkah 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 Makkah 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 the path of unification and a total way of life.

Pilgrimage routes traversed the Muslim world, from Scutari on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, through Anatolia and Syria to the Hijaz. Another caravan came from Iraq and a third from Yemen; yet another route was utilized by the North African pilgrims, whilst finally there was the oceanic route from the Far East. Monuments all over the Muslim world attest to the religious and economic importance of the pilgrim traffic; for example, the Selimiye in Damascus is only the most beautiful of the many facilities provided by a beneficent administration for the comfort as well as the safety of the pilgrims. The facilities included rest-houses, fortresses and assembly points. The reason the square in Scutari is so gigantic, relative to the size of the city, is because this was where the annual Hajj caravan formed up. 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 converged and coincided.

The Hajj has been described as ‘the most important agency of voluntary, personal mobility before the age of the great European discoveries,’ one which ‘must have had profound effects 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 elsewhere. The British and other colonials recognized the dangers of such dynamic interaction and exchanges and in some places, notably Nigeria, went to extraordinary lengths to restrict the number of pilgrims to maintain their control on the population.

Today the Hajj has increased in quantity but declined in quality. Formerly 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; sometimes a pilgrim would be so taken with a teacher that he would break his journey and stay on, picking up the next year’s caravan. Since traders and pilgrims made use of the same routes, the merchant class also benefited from chance encounters. The Hajj was a vehicle of cultural diffusion, helping to bind different parts of the Muslim world into a single ‘nation of Islam’. Since ‘Umrah in Ramadan is particularly meritorious, people would arrive in Makkah during Ramadan and stay on for Dhu’l-Hijjah, thereby performing both ‘Umrah and Hajj. As scholars from different parts of Dar al-Islam were brought together in the act of pilgrimage, a process of cross-cultural exchange naturally took place.

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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 ]