Hajj: Makkah and a Million Muslims

Three million people attend the religious pilgrimage of Hajj every year. Last year, for three weeks, I was one of the three million. I cleared myself of all expectation and entered into the experience with an interest for the political, religious and social organisation of so many people. Visiting the city of Makkah1 and seeing the Kabba2 during the period of Hajj has been awakening. The ritual of circling the Kabba seven times, is one depicted in painting, photograph, television and poetry. It is represented as a serene, deep spiritual exercise in which the human soul is loosened from the body and is allowed to soar, as if for the first time. Indeed it would seem meditative, the physical distracted by a particular repetitive task, while the mental can work at comprehending the magnitude of the moment.

Sadly the entire process is fraught with practical concerns. Safety first is the best policy, allow yourself to float with the crowd, be unintentionally pushed, kicked, shoved, elbowed until you reach your seventh, then quietly seethe in anger in the corner. All of this travail reminds you of your own insignificance and in this way a sense of spiritual detachment can be achieved even without the concurrent attachment to the almighty.

Nonetheless as people pace from behind and squeeze into impossible spaces in front, I have to and begin to understand that some people have practical concerns and need to achieve things quickly. I personally would prefer a slow and measured tawaf3, but I can understand the preference for speed or even for some groups to link arms forming a ten-person chain that can neither be breached nor broken. Some even choose to run, a difficult task, but one often attempted nonetheless. It is barely compatible with the interpretation of not running around the Kabba. These are mere differences of opinion that manifest in frustration for both groups, the runners are too fast and the walkers too slow, it’s this aggravation that hinders a deeper sense of spirituality.

Different Islamic groups, from different countries, cultures and sects interpret the practice of tawaf differently. Frankly the difficulty of differing interpretations – even in the most totalitarian of countries – will always arise and cause problems, unless there is the acceptance of difference, Iktilaaf4 must be the prevailing doctrine, if we can allow those who wish to run to do so and those who wish to walk to do so as well. Iktilaaf, put simply, is the acceptance of disagreement and difference in Islamic law. It can be considered a social doctrine also, one that defines and refines the daily practice of Muslims toward each other. All it requires – in the Hajj example – is a little organisation and a lot of interpersonal understanding, though the latter should be aided by the fact that it is not as general and vague as interpersonal, it is as sentimental and bonding as inter-Muslim. Though Hajj is merely an example, iktilaaf is a concept that stretches to define the practice of Islam itself. Ayesha Jalal explores the idea that an individual Muslim can follow Islam in an extremely personal way leading to a proliferation of different Islams.5 Her idea is deeply connected to a specifically South Asian understanding of Islam and its attempts to be accepted. From the line of Ghalib and Iqbal, two of the most famous poet philosophers in South Asian history, Jalal seeks to justify the existence of a context-specific-Islam that need not live in the shadow of an Arabian interpretation. Iqbal said of Islam that it is an emotional system of unification that recognizes the worth of the individual.6

Hajj is a period where ostensibly the ummah7 notion is expounded in a breathing reality. Muslims from all over the world, different nations, cultures, sects, all come together to perform the same rituals and rites. This in itself however is not an example of this corrective ikhtilaaf. It is not in the assembly of differing understandings, rather it is in the quotidian conduct and behaviour of Muslims to each other where this will be seen. When a Shi’ia Muslim, took me to the top of Mt. Hira and educated me on Shi’ia numerology, he did so not to convert me, but to share with me an Islam. In accepting that what he does, performs and believes is as much Islam as what an orthodox Sunni does, is how this corrective ikhtilaaf can function. As we live, breathe and write in this world of multiple Islamic identities we should and must accept each as legitimate.

The experience of Hajj impressed upon me the need for this with more urgency than ever. It seemed that the entire experience had been manipulated to send pilgrims down a one track lane that homogenised their experience and their understanding of Islam. This is notable at the mountain of Hira, the mountain where the first ayat or verse of the Quran was said to have been recited to the prophet Muhammad. The mountain is not a government sponsored tourist site, it is privately sponsored and has very little upkeep in terms of rubbish collection, step maintenance and safety precautions (these all add to the charm it must be admitted). What must be noted here, is not merely the ironic reversal of the private-public value of services argument that exists in the West especially the US and the UK, but how withholding of public patronage can devalue a site immensely in terms of its accessibility. To exacerbate this particular concern, Saudi officials are seated in a small white booth at the base of the mountain warning potential traverses of this spiritual site that it is ‘shirk‘ – association of something else as God – to worship at the mountain, to climb or even revere it in anyway. ‘Shirk‘ is considered one of the fatal sins of Islam, it is intimately tied to iconoclasm and the destruction of idols which in Islam are not worthy of the praise reserved only for God. Claiming that the worshipping at the mountain is ‘shirk’ would and had indeed successfully put off many Muslims from visiting it. A large government sign from the ‘Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice‘ states that the prophet never even climbed this mountain and CDs of explanations are disseminated at its base. The audacity to try and homogenise all Muslims experience of Hajj into a monolithic discourse sanctioned by the Saudi state is a prevailing issue not just during the pilgrimage itself, but in the entire Muslim world and how the pilgrimage is used to impress upon visitors certain messages. What matters is not whether Hira truly was the place of the prophet, what matters, is that the Muslim who believe it should be free to visit the mountain without impediment or harassment. The Saudi state is motivated by a survival instinct that has deformed into an obsession with control.

This controlling instinct is part of a long chain of Saudi legitimacy-bargaining. The rulers of the land of Arabia have constantly had to prove their authority using the pilgrimage of Hajj as a marker. Few grasped this as well as Abdul Aziz Ibn Saud, the first King of Saudi Arabia, who enforced many changes to the pilgrim routes in response to the previous Hashemite rule. This solidified his international standing, as an Indian delegation noted praising the increased security in particular, legitimising Ibn Saud’s capture of the Hejaz region.8 This example has not gone unnoticed and the modern Saudi state apparatus has gone beyond legitimising itself, to blatant self-promotion. Controlling the experience down to the minutiae of administrative controls gives the state a self-assured power that few can contest. Both nationally and internationally the state solidifies its position as rightful custodians of the religion, Islam. The Hajj has therefore become a pageantry of the Saudi state ideology. Facets of the doctrine are rolled out throughout the pilgrims visit. The idea of an untainted and pure Arabian Islam that has to be sheltered by creating a homogenous pilgrimage, the show of a modern Islamic nation that is technologically fresh and religiously pristine and finally the idea that the family of Al-Saud are the rightful guardians of the holy places of Islam. These are inescapable notions that permeate the whole experience of Hajj.

Time is a key theme that defines Hajj. This is no longer the age of Ibn Battuta9, of bare foot treading earth for years to reach the final goal. This is the era of the technological, the power of speed, the preservation of time that is offered sparingly to each task. This is the era of hyper-mobility, theorised by Hannam, Sheller and Urry. The inter-disciplinary study of mobilities recognises the movement of people and ideas both locally and globally.10 This era of ‘hyper-mobility’ means Hajj can now be completed in ten days, even less in some cases. Holidays can be booked from jobs that otherwise need you, families can accompany you or be left to Skype or face-time every night. It seems that no where wastes time selling Hajj postcards anymore. The emphasis therefore, is no longer on the virtue of the journey to Makkah, but on the outcome, the experience while there. This development, as a facet of scientific modernism and the growth of technology, has benefitted greatly the Saudi state’s homogenisation of Hajj. No longer does the pilgrim have to travel through various and distinct Islamic countries and cultures, they can now transport seamlessly from London to Makkah with only the space-less time-less carrier of an aeroplane to interfere. The experience is therefore swiftly dispatched usually within three weeks, and is limited to the time the pilgrim spends under the watchful eye of the Saudi government.

That watchful eye is never more apparent than in the Saudi sponsored architectural monstrosity that overhangs the Kabba. The Swiss-made clock tower eyes followers with an ironic reminder of the exact time. Not a single pilgrim can miss it, it is a stark and terrifying symbol of the modern Saudi state and its positioning on the doorstep of the Haram Al-Sharif11 (though more aptly put, the Haram is reduced to being on the doorstep of the clock tower) is emblematic of the Saudi power doctrine. It is Islamic and modern. Ignoring its anarchic political system, the Saudi government looks to use architecture to unnaturally fuse these two ideas – Islam and scientific modernism. It is not to say that these two ideas are incompatible, but merely that a fusion for the sake of political parading, as opposed to a genuine political fusion of ideas, has created a landscape in Makka soured by the presence of ‘time’ in what should be a truly time-less experience. Even atop Mt. Hira as the pilgrim openly flouts the government’s authority they are called to remember the time and the awesome persuasion of the Saudi state. There is no escape.

In response to this unavoidable procession of power and continual presence of ‘time’ how does one quell the anger of those who wish to walk slowly around the Kabba, and the frustration of those who wish to run? How to first recognise and accept difference, and then harmonise it peacefully? Accepting these various Islams, all co-existing and co-operating would require a great effort of human understanding across modern and historical geography, undoing the careful and pivotal planning of the Saudi state. Pointing to it, must be the first step, as with any traveller and their destination, recognition of the objective must be the initial stride forward.

1 The central religious city of Islam within Saudi Arabia that houses the Kabba. return to main text
2 A stone cuboid building of extreme religious significance, it is required for all Muslims to face toward the Kabba while praying and visit it at least once for the pilgrimage of Hajj in their lifetime. return to main text
3 The tawaf is the process of circling the Kabba and this must be completed seven times to complete the pilgrimage of Hajj correctly. return to main text
4 Iktilaaf means disagreement on matters of Islamic scholarship and is therefore the opposite of ijma or consensus. return to main text
5 Ayesha Jalal. Self and sovereignty: individual & community in south Asian Islam since 1850. London: Routledge, 2000, Pg. 2. return to main text
6 Mohammad Iqbal, The Reconstruction of Religious Thought In Islam, London, Oxford University Press, 1934, Pg. 139. return to main text
7 The notion of Ummah, is that of the entire Islamic peoples in unison. It is a supra-national concept that envisages Muslims as a bloc of believers. return to main text
8 Peters, F. E, ‘The Hajj: The Muslim Pilgrimage to Mecca and the Holy Places‘, (Princeton University Press, 1994) p 360/361. return to main text
9 Ibn Battuta was a 14th century traveller who noted down his movements across the entire Islamic world. He is known as one of the greatest travellers of all-time due to the sheer distance he covered from various parts of Africa, to the Middle East and South Asia. return to main text
10 Hannam, Sheller, Urry, ‘Editorial: Mobilities, Immobilities and Moorings’, Mobilities, Vol 1, No. 1, (March 2006) p 1. return to main text
11 The holy mosque of Islam that surrounds the Kabba. return to main text
Haram Al-Sharif and Mecca.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

All writers' views in articles are their own and do not necessarily represent the opinion of the Asfar team.

Published by Asfar in London, UK - ISSN 2055-7957 (Online)