Every principal world religion has pilgrimage as a significant tenet. This pilgrimage is central to the “sacred geography” of the faith and provides an opportunity to the believer to traverse this physical space and seek to interact directly with the Divine.
Hajj, one of the five pillars of Islam, attracts a few million Muslims every year from all over the world to the town of Mecca, about 70 kilometres from the port city of Jeddah on the Red Sea.
Hajj can be approached in terms of its complex history; the belief system that is its motive force; the journeys that have been undertaken by pilgrims over the last 1,500 years from different parts of the world, and the arrangements made for the hundreds of thousands of pilgrims who congregate at the same time in the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. All these aspects are presented in the book in some detail.
The book begins with an excellent introduction by the distinguished scholar of religion and Islam, Karen Armstrong. She looks at the place of pilgrimage in different religious traditions and points out that all pilgrimages are made up of arcane rituals that have a unique symbolic value for the believer even as they seem “hopelessly archaic” to the outsider. A study of the Hajj, she concludes, will enable us not only to learn about Islam but also “to explore untravelled regions within ourselves”.
M A S Abdel Haleem lucidly describes the various rites and rituals of Hajj, setting out the historical background where necessary and embellishing the text with beautiful sketches, maps, photographs and paintings. A comprehensive history of Hajj is provided in two chapters by Hugh Kennedy and Robert Irwin, while Ziauddin Sardar describes the Hajj of modern times. The book ends with two chapters by Venetia Porter, one depicting Hajj through modern art while the other discusses the textiles of Mecca and Medina, particularly the curtain of the Kaaba as it has evolved over time.
According to Muslim belief, Mecca was associated with Adam who built there the first house of God, the Kaaba. The Kaaba was later restored by Prophet Abraham, who dedicated it to the worship of the one true God and made it a pilgrimage centre. After Abraham, over the centuries, while the Kaaba remained the centre of pilgrimage for the Arab people, the pure monotheistic faith got diluted, with a number of tribes placing idols of different “gods” in and around the shrine. Prophet Mohammed (d. 632AD) removed these idols and restored the shrine to its pristine glory. In AD 624, the Prophet, in the course of the afternoon prayer in Medina, changed the direction of prayer from Jerusalem to Mecca, on the basis of a divine revelation, thus making the Kaaba the permanent qiblah of Islam.
Prophet Mohammed undertook only one Hajj in his lifetime: since then, Hajj takes place on the same days of the Hijri calendar (8–12 Dhul–Hajj) and replicates the rituals performed by the Prophet. This involves the completion of a series of rituals at the Grand Mosque (Haram Sharif) in Mecca, followed by prescribed rituals on designated dates at sites outside Mecca, consisting of: a night stay at Mina; the “standing” at Arafat; spending one night under the open sky at Muzdalifa, and then the return to Mina for three days when pilgrims perform the sacrifice (usually a sheep) and stone satan over three days. Before or after the Hajj, almost all the pilgrims pay a visit (ziyarat) to Medina to worship at the Grand Mosque and pay their respect to Prophet Mohammed who is buried there.
Given the piety of Indian Muslims and the wealth of its rulers in medieval times, Indians have always constituted a major part of the annual pilgrimage, with over 10,000 pilgrims performing Hajj annually in Mughal times. In 1880, Indian pilgrims at Mecca numbered 15,000 in a total congregation of 93,250.
While for the pilgrim himself the Hajj is a supreme religious duty and a unique spiritual experience, the sheer scale of the pilgrimage has, from the earliest times, posed an extraordinary administrative challenge for political leaderships across the Muslim world to ensure the safety and comfort of pilgrims. Substantial armed escorts used to accompany thousands of pilgrims as they moved in large caravans from Istanbul, Damascus, Baghdad and Cairo, to protect the congregation from wayside marauders.
In the 19th century, national and even global intervention became necessary as mass transport made the pilgrims vulnerable to disease. In 1865, a cholera epidemic affected 90,000 pilgrims, of whom 15,000 died. This compelled the British Indian government to intervene reluctantly in Hajj management by introducing regulations relating to the safety and the health of pilgrims, with officials being located at the Indian ports as also in the British Legation in Jeddah.
Now, well over two million pilgrims congregate at Mecca, with the Haram Sharif having been expanded to accommodate nearly a million worshippers at the same time. The number of Indian pilgrims has also steadily increased, going up from about 40,000 in 1990 to 1.7 lakh at present, usually the second largest national group after Indonesia.
Clearly, the Hajj is a great personal ordeal, both physical and psychological, as each pilgrim moves from place to place in congregation and performs the same elaborate rituals as other pilgrims at the same time. How, then, is the Hajj a journey to the heart of Islam?
The pilgrimage brings together the global Muslim community in an expression of its shared faith and belief. The rituals of Hajj link each pilgrim to the founders of his faith since the sacred geography of Mecca and the holy sites is associated with Adam and Eve, the Prophet Abraham and his family, and Prophet Mohammed, his family and Companions. But, above all, the Hajj is a spiritual experience: amid the sacred precincts which are associated with his revered prophets and the origins of his faith, the pilgrim undergoes the true loss of his individuality, merges himself with the mass of the ummah and experiences a direct communion with the Almighty.
This book is perhaps the most valuable compendium on Hajj produced so far. It brings together the best writings on different aspects of the Hajj — religious, historical, political and administrative. It is lavishly illustrated with some of the most beautiful art work produced by Muslim artists over the last 1,500 years, along with rare photographs and attractive maps. The book presents the rare combination of the highest standards of scholarship embellished with the allures of an attractive coffee table book.
(The author is the former Indian Ambassador to Saudi Arabia)
HAJJ – JOURNEY TO THE HEART OF ISLAM
Editor: Venetia Porter
Publisher: Lustre (Roli Books)
Price: Rs 2,975