Hajj a profound yet also shared experience
Pilgrimage is a common and widely cherished component of many religious experiences. Typically entailing a purposeful act of journeying, pilgrimage is guided and inspired by principles, some of which are shared across a number of religious faiths and practices, especially those in which geographic location is important. In pilgrimage, the destination is significant, but the journey is paramount and the rituals are highly symbolic. While reaching a holy place is the impetus behind making the journey, the focus is on a prescribed set of steps that the devotee takes with specific intentions and attentive observance for progress.
Until relatively recently, the Arabic word Hajj — with the short vowel — applied to pilgrimage in a number of religions in the Middle East, where the destinations were also multiple. That was the case up until a few decades ago, when various parts of the Holy Land were still accessible to all citizens of the Arab world. Hajj references back then included the pilgrimage Arab Christians were able to make, mostly to Jerusalem and Bethlehem, which are important sites in the Christian story.
Hajj, with the long vowel, refers to the person (singular masculine in this form) who made the devotional journey, regardless of his faith. In the past it included Christians and Muslims who went from Syria to Palestine. While Muslims and Christians from countries such as Jordan and Egypt are able to visit the Holy Land today, citizens of countries that do not have peace agreements with Israel stopped being able to perform this Hajj from the middle of the 20th century. Therefore, a hajj, or a hajjah (the feminine form), refers today predominantly to a Muslim person who has conducted Hajj to Makkah and Madinah.
In Islam, Hajj is a multi-day journey that is best undertaken at a specific time, between the ninth and 13th of Dhu Al-Hijjah, the month of pilgrimage in the Hijri calendar. While the different steps and stages of Hajj, known as manasik, are prescribed in intricate detail, down to the specific supplications the faithful are advised to recite, the hajj or hajjah maintain plenty of opportunity to experience the different stations in personal and potentially profound ways.
Performing pilgrimage is very much a physical act, since it involves the use of the body for crossing distances to visit specific locations. But, because of its intended spiritual benefits, pilgrimage is also a poetic experience.
A number of historically significant works of literature have drawn on allegory to describe the pilgrim’s journey, especially the transition from some form of darkness to a contrasting state of enlightenment and close communication with the divine. While the most famous of these works remain — regrettably — from Europe, Dante’s “Divine Comedy” (early 14th century) being chief among them, they contain reference to the east, albeit woven through the poetic imagination of the author and his time.
Pilgrimage is very much a physical act. But, because of its intended spiritual benefits, it is also a poetic experience.
One of the most widely read allegories of pilgrimage in Christianity is the English writer John Bunyan’s “The Pilgrim’s Progress,” a 17th-century narrative that stresses the benefits of renouncing the burdens of this world in pursuit of higher purpose, through a straight and narrow path.
In the Middle East, pilgrimage not only has its own literature and poetics, it also has a rich history in diverse traditions. For example, historians highlight imperial patronage of Islamic Hajj under Ottoman rule in its heyday. Records from the 17th century recount stories of the long caravans progressing along routes that stretched from Bukhara to Istanbul, converging on Aleppo and Damascus before making their way south to Hijaz. Long journeys that crossed dangerous terrains, at the risk of disease or theft, also included stretches of lush greenery, especially equipped resting stations and treats for the road, including balls of dough for the camels.
Today, Hajj is a modernized enterprise. Having its own ministry, Hajj is fully catered for by the government of Saudi Arabia to accommodate the more than 2 million Muslims who descend on the country each season. Ever-increasing modern equipment is constructed and deployed around the different sites, including water sprinklers to ease the heat, high-speed trains to facilitate travel, and mobile apps to assist devotional practice. These services have increased the number of people able to make Hajj, including those who need medical or mobility assistance.
After days of travel, preparations, invocations and prayer, the pinnacle of the Makkan Hajj experience is a private moment of contemplation on top of a mountain. Wuquf in the station of Arafah, on the ninth day of Dhu Al-Hijjah, is the most essential rite. Without it, Hajj is not complete. Stories vary about the historical significance of Arafah, a plain approximately 20 kilometers east of Makkah, which is also known as Arafat and Jabal Al-Rahmah — Mount of Mercy. The most commonly circulated accounts involve Adam and Eve, or Abraham, thus establishing the ancient significance of the place.
Dressed in the modest clothing of ihram, in which beautification is symbolically minimized and purity is maximized, the hajj is encouraged to focus on devotion. Historical instruction included a cessation of battles or killing of any living creature. Pilgrims are instead encouraged to actively participate in collective prayers and private supplications. These acts of quiet devotion are considered superior to jihad. Admitting to guilt and pleading for forgiveness on this day are believed to grant it. Unburdened from signs of worldly status, Muslims consider this assembly of believers as a foretaste of the end of times. While it is a strong reminder of human failing and the need for redemption, the collective rite of wuquf is both a powerful and an empowering experience for many Muslims across the globe.
Every able Muslim is required to make the Hajj journey, to partake in the symbolic anticipation of the moment when the masses will face their creator, also without worldly possessions or power. Much like the idea of pilgrimage itself, this ritual is a form of experiencing outwardly our senses of spirituality, in profound yet also shared ways.
- Tala Jarjour is author of “Sense and Sadness: Syriac Chant in Aleppo” (OUP, 2018). She is currently Visiting Research Fellow at King’s College London and Associate Fellow of Pierson College at Yale.