By Abdullah Hamidaddin
21 September 2015
Millions of Muslims have arrived in Makkah in Saudi Arabia to perform the sacred ritual of Hajj. In understanding the pilgrimage, many like to focus on the history and symbolism behind it.
According to the Muslim narrative, Hajj is a reenactment of some of the key events in the life of the Patriarch Abraham and his family, who were in Makkah millennia ago. The events mark manifestations of Abraham’s obedience and total submission to Allah’s will, as well as a rejection of Satan and his ways. Performing Hajj is supposed to be a reaffirmation of Abraham’s path.
While many Muslims adopt this narrative about what they do when they perform Hajj, I believe there is a broader motive that underlies the practice of pilgrimage; a motive that makes pilgrimage a human practice irrespective of religion or tradition.
Hajj before advent of Islam
To start with, it worth remembering that Arabs performed Hajj well before the advent of Islam. While we do not know what Hajj meant to them, we can safely assume that they had a different world view from Arabs after Islam, thus a different narrative than what we know today.
Thus to explain the continuity of Hajj amongst Arabs – pre- and post-Islam – we need to explain it in non-Islamic terms. That is, if we want to understand how we as Muslims today think about Hajj it would be enough to understand the meanings we associate with it. But if we want to understand why we – as people – perform Hajj in the first place then we need to think outside the realm of Islam.
This applies to understanding the different forms of pilgrimage all societies perform. Each year millions of Hindus, Buddhists, Christians, Jews and others perform some sort of practice that takes the form of leaving one’s home and moving to another place, which is usually sacred. To understand pilgrimage we need to understand the common denominator between those different people who adhere to different faiths, beliefs and historical traditions.
Collective affirmation of faith
One probable motive is the need for collective affirmation of faith. People who find harmony and satisfaction from their faith also find a need to publicly affirm that faith and to see others doing the same. Pilgrimage in this sense is a form of mutual collective affirmation of faith. In this way pilgrimage is like what followers of faith do in their weekly congregations but at a larger scale and beyond the immediate location of the believer.
One interesting insight made about the religious practice of pilgrimage is that it is essentially a move away from structure to anti-structure. Our societies are organized by roles and statuses, and our day to day lives are constrained and bounded by those. One cannot be a person without being from somewhere, doing something, and belonging to a certain point in the socio-political and economical hierarchy; one lives in a structure.
According to that idea, pilgrimage in its essence is a technique that creates an experience away from structures; it is a way of liberating one’s sense of self from the various imagined constraints we live – a momentary living in an antistructure.
This idea makes more sense to me than pilgrimage being an affirmation of faith, and it relates quite closely to the way Hajj is practiced. The limitations placed on the Muslim pilgrim all seem to erode the different social structures of the different pilgrims and create a new ‘non-structure’.
There is another explanation to pilgrimage, which is even more appealing to me. Some anthropological studies suggest that pilgrimage is a quest for something different or authentic. It is performed by wanderers whose movement from one place to another is driven by a purpose of self-reflection and the desire to discover new people and new places. Pilgrimage according to this is a form of wandering which has an end point from which one returns back to his or her place of origin, albeit after having undergone an experience akin to rebirth.
Whether it is to the River Ganges in India, Lourdes in France, a temple in Thailand, Makkah in Saudi Arabia – and whether it is to affirm faith, or to be liberated from structures, or to wander – pilgrimage is a universal behavior, practiced by most humans. Its roots are to be found in our human nature rather than in the religion or tradition one follows. When looking at the performances pilgrims undertake, it would be useful to consider them as small details in a wider picture. And this picture is one of humans expressing some of their deepest urges to connect with each other, and to discover their innermost selves.
Abdullah Hamidaddin is a writer and commentator on religion, Middle Eastern societies and politics with a focus on Saudi Arabia and Yemen. He is currently a PhD candidate in King’s College London. He can be followed on Twitter: @amiq1