by Dr Seán McLoughlin
This blogentry is an edited version of a short article first published in “Living Community”, a special edition of the Journal of the Shap Working Party on World Religions in Education (2001/02, 25-27), http://www.shapworkingparty.org.uk/journals.html
Muslim constructions of ‘community’ have to be defined in terms of the ummah. Today this global collective of Muslims is around 1 billion strong, drawing members from virtually every country of the world. Ever since the death of the Prophet Muhammad in 10 AH / 632 CE, and the spread of his message beyond the Arabian Peninsula, Islam has had the potential to articulate a universal identity that periodically transcends the local particularities of a given people or place.
Perhaps the most concrete expression of this ummah - for both Muslims and non-Muslims alike - remains the Hajj, the annual pilgrimage to Makkah and its environs. As one of the five pillars of Islam, it is the Hajj that brings believers together at the site of their faith’s genesis. The rites of this sacred journey not only purify the individual believer of his or her sins, but also attest to, and reaffirm, the diachronic and synchronic continuity of the ummah. So while pilgrims follow in the footsteps of the Prophet Muhammad, who is said to have established the prescribed rituals before his death, the Hajj is now ‘the largest and most culturally diverse assembly of humanity to gather in one place at one time’ (Bianchi 1995: 88). Indeed, as many as 2.5 million Muslims, including around 20-25,000 British-Muslims, make their way to Makkah every year.
For sociologists and anthropologists, the ‘functionalist’ understanding of rituals such as the Hajj, has long been that they integrate communities, suspending - if only temporarily - the complexities and contradictions of social life ‘outside’ sacred time and space. Thus, crossing into the ‘liminal’ (Van Gennep 1960) space of performing the Hajj, pilgrims can be divested of their profane worldly statuses, including hierarchies of class, gender, nation and race. This can also create a more egalitarian relationship between pilgrims, something that anthropologist, Victor Turner (1969), called ‘communitas’. However, the integrative function of ritual does not impose uniformity of meaning upon participants. Rather, it is perhaps better seen as providing a common symbolic form, which enables the aggregation of a community, while at the same time allowing for the expression of ‘multi-vocal’ individual interpretations of an event or experience (cf. Cohen 1985).
Certainly, such perspectives were apparent in the recollections of Hajj that I have been involved in recording. In their reflections, Pakistani and Kashmiri heritage respondents from Greater Manchester and Lancashire stressed a range of constructions of community, emphasising the following: the common origins and destiny of Muslims; the symbolic importance of the pilgrim’s ritual attire and actions; and the experience of encounters with other co-religionists from around the world.
When I just walked into the mosque and I saw the ka’ba [the cube-shaped central shrine that Muslims circumambulate within Makkah’s Great Mosque], the only thing I could do was cry. I was completely taken over by the event. It is as though you have come back home. I felt as though the ka’ba is the very source of our beginning. Hajj drives the message into you, how dependent we are on God. You see the whole sea of humanity around you. You only know a very few people but you are able to link yourself to all the others and say, ‘Alhamdulillah [thanks be to God], I am actually part and parcel of this sea that is before me, the sea of humanity’. (Iftikhar, 50s, retired textiles worker)
I think what Zindapir [a Sufi shaykh from Pakistan] said about the concept of ihram [the sacred state into which pilgrims must enter before performing their pilgrimage] is pretty much how I felt. He said it was a rehearsal for the hereafter. When you’re in the divine presence, that’s how you will be. A Muslim dies with only two sheets of cloth [a shroud]. Likewise when performing Hajj, a Muslim wears only these two white cloths [also known as the ihram]. No matter if [s]he is a king or a beggar, there is no difference between them in the sight of God. (Majid, 50s retired textiles worker)
In Makkah sharif [noble Mecca] you’re sitting around the ka’ba, you see lots of people from all walks of life, old, young, little boys, from all corners of the world, which amazed me. I remember talking about ‘multi-culturalism’ and ‘pluralism’, even writing essays about such things in Britain, and trying to understand other people … At that time all these things came to mind. Everyone tries to communicate with one another, even smiles or letting one person pass before you, letting them go in front or apologising, even sharing dates that you’ve got, or fruit, with the next person. I couldn’t speak their language, they couldn’t speak mine, but the smiles on each other’s faces made you feel really, really happy. (Khalid, 20s, teacher)
Pilgrimage to Makkah has always been, even in pre-Islamic times, an important site for the ritual re-affirmation of community. However, in the pre-modern period, the time and effort needed to travel to Makkah generally meant that the numbers of Muslims attending the Hajj were relatively small (Eickelman and Piscatori 1990). Only in an age of more rapid globalisation, and with the advent of rapid communications systems such as railroads, steam ships and eventually international air travel, has the Hajj become accessible and affordable to a larger number of ordinary believers. As Fischer and Abedi (1990: 170) report, numbers participating have mushroomed in the early and especially the late modern period: 1850 (40,000); 1902 (200,000); 1964 (1,000,000); 1984 (2,500,000).
The compression of time and space associated with globalisation (Hall 1991) allows the world to be experienced as more of a single place and this has impacted on the ways in which people imagine communities (Bryan S. Turner 1994). In terms of the ummah, an often-quoted example is the pilgrimage account of Malcolm X (1968), the African-American-Muslim civil rights leader, who explains his wonder at the ‘colour-blind’ brotherhood he witnessed during the Hajj. Indeed, some scholars have argued that globalisation is also gradually homogenising contemporary Muslim identities. The suggestion is that as knowledge of ‘high’ or ‘orthodox’ Islam becomes virtually universal – be that through transnational flows of pilgrimage, modern education, preaching movements or the new media - there is a shift away from the widespread forms of ‘folk’ Islam (Gardner 1995).
Such trends are undoubtedly highly significant, and would seem to be especially marked amongst some segments of newly urbanised, aspirational, groups such as international labour migrants and diasporas. Indeed, undertaking the pilgrimage to Makkah can be one way of marking a new commitment to ‘purist’ Islam. However, despite the homogenising tendencies of globalisation, diversity is still alive and well in the Islamic ummah. Indeed, even though it annoyed most of my respondents that denominational differences should be aired at all during the Hajj, some of their number did find that aspects of their journey underlined their difference from, as well as undoubted commonalities with, other Muslims. In the puritanical drive to erase the bid’a (religious innovation), Saudi religious authorities have long since destroyed many places of ziyarah. While not part of the rituals of Hajj, such minor sites of pilgrimage are still sought out by many pious Muslims as places that still offer great continuity with their sacred past.
You think, ‘I’ll go to such and such a Sahaba’s [Companion of the Prophet] grave’, and there aren’t even names there and it is so sad. They’ve wiped all the past memories of the pious people. I was in Madinah sharif [the city where the Prophet is buried] and there was a person in the graveyard and he was trying to take some of the dust from one of the graves and the guards caught him … At each graveyard and other ziyarats they have these massive posters or signs saying, ‘It’s forbidden in Islam to touch the graves or to believe that there’s any blessing or to take stones or dust’ … There are some simple brothers and sisters who aren’t very educated … and they think, ‘Oh, this must wrong’. (Munawar, male, 30s, housing worker)
What such debates make clear is that while the sacred journey to Makkah is often imagined as constructing a community set apart from the profanities of social division, the whole event does, inevitably, take place within a particular spatial-temporal location. As Fischer and Abedi (1990) maintain, contested inferences from various social, economic and political, as well as religious, contexts always impact on the Hajj. Indeed, in bringing Muslims together in close proximity, the Hajj can magnify the fact that the ummah is a community of very differently positioned communities, as well as emphasising the irrelevance of social status before God. Some of my British Muslim respondents were only too aware of the economic privileges and political freedoms that their own Muslim communities benefit from by living in the West.
I think we’re lucky being in Europe. Alhamdulillah, we have work, a job that financially pays us quite well. It’s far too easy for us. Because we have the money, we want luxuries even when we go there. We still want the best accommodation, the best food. We’ll travel on the coaches, but those people who come from poorer countries, they’ll sleep rough, they’ll eat little and they’ll even walk from one place to another. Yeah, so I value those people’s Hajj more than ours and I think that their Hajj is more valuable to Allah too, because they’re having to make more sacrifices. (Nasreen, female, 30s, housewife)
At the same time, in a secularising society, where many may feel the absence of God-consciousness, pilgrimage to the House of God remains a great source of spiritual connection, strength and renewal.
I definitely need something like this because I need to be kept strong in some way and we can’t live in Saudi Arabia, we can’t live in Makkah or Madinah. Our life is in England and, as I say, we need to be reminded of Islam and this has helped me a lot. (Asma, female, 20s, women's group worker)
Such observations alert us to the contextuality of all constructions of community and the fact that we all manage and maintain multiple, overlapping and competing belongings.
Cohen, A. The Symbolic Construction of Community, London, Routledge, 1985.
Eickelman, D.F. and J.P. Piscatori (eds.) Muslim Travellers: Pilgrimage, Migration and the Religious Imagination, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1990.
Bianchi, R. ‘Hajj’, in Esposito, J. (Editor in Chief) The Oxford Encyclopaedia of the Modern Islamic World, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1995.
Fischer, M.J. and Abedi, M. Debating Muslims: Cultural Dialogues in Postmodernity and Tradition, Wisconsin, The University of Wisconsin Press, 1990.
Gardner, K. Global Migrants, Local Lives, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1995.
Gennep, A. Van. The Rites of Passage, Chicago, University of Chicago, 1960.
Hall, S. ‘Old and New Identities, Old and New Ethnicities’, in King, A.D. (ed.) Culture, Globalization and the World System, Basingstoke, Macmillan, 1991.
Malcolm X with the assistance of Alex Haley, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, London, Penguin, 1968.
Turner, B.S. Orientalism, Postmodernism and Globalism, London, Routledge, 1994.
Turner, V. The Ritual Process, Chicago, Aldine, 1969.