Reflections on the Hajj

The Hajj is one of the five pillars of Islam. It is a ritual act all Muslims should undertake sometime during their lives if they can. It was the brainchild of one of the supreme social architects of a bygone era, the prophet Muhammed. In his time, performing the Hajj meant traveling for perhaps thousands of miles by foot or horse or camel to Mecca, the holiest city of Islam. It would often take a pilgrim a year or more to do the round trip, and when he returned to his native village he would be known and honored for the rest of his life as a Hajji. Most Muslims yearned to make the trip but weren’t able to, especially if they lived in the farthest outposts of the Muslim world, like Morocco or Indonesia.

But for those who did make the Hajj it was an epiphany, a moment of truth. No doubt, many pilgrims had an extraordinary spiritual experience. From a functional point of view, however, it was preeminently an exercise in bringing people together from all over the world of Islam, and from all social classes, and rubbing their noses in the fact of their shared identity as Muslims. The pilgrim would arrive in garb that advertised his rank and place of origin, but all was cast aside as the hajj began when they all donned the same white robes. For a few days they prayed together and walked together between the holy places and engaged in the same ritual acts. Then they went home and spent the rest of their lives telling the other villagers about their experiences.

Looked at as a device for establishing one’s identity as belonging to a very large group, the Hajj may well have no equal in history. It is certainly one of the main reasons and quite possibly the most important one why Islam has endured through the centuries, despite the lack of a hierarchical priesthood and an institutionalized central authority.

Like so many other institutions devised in a bygone era, the Hajj has been overtaken by modern technology and the recent population explosion. Now many if not most Muslims can fly to the holy places, at affordable cost, and there are many more Muslims than ever before. I have no reliable figures for the annual attendance back in medieval times but it cannot have been more than thousands. During this last event, according to the Saudis, there were nearly three million pilgrims, all participating in the same rituals, along the same routes, at the same specific times.

On January 12 over 345 people died during a stampede of pilgrims that happened during one of the climactic moments of this year’s Hajj. It was a tragedy, but as long as everyone concerned insisted on adhering to a formula laid down many centuries ago, it was probably inevitable. Every year the number of pilgrims increases, and in recent years casualties have usually occured. Every year the authorities try harder to anticipate the problem and beef up security measures. This year security was tighter than ever. But the pilgrims came in record numbers and the crowds simply overwhelmed the controllers.

Saudi authorities are planning to spend four billion rials (almost one billion dollars) to expand the bridge where the stampede occurred, giving it four levels, to facilitate more orderly traffic flow for future pilgrims. But where will all this end, as long as cut-rate airfares around the world encourage the vast majority of the billion plus Muslims scattered around the world to fulfill their ancient Koranic obligation and come to Mecca at least once, to follow a tortuous route that the Prophet and his followers prescribed fourteen hundred years ago? Maybe the Saudis ought to consider changing the rules, by encouraging pilgrims to come at any time of the year, whenever it suits them, instead of bunching them all together in one vast annual jam. Or at least they could do the ritual acts in shifts, divide the pilgrims into groups which would do their ritual acts seriatim, over a period of weeks. But as long as the authorities are convinced that the writ of Allah cannot be trifled with, any such change is probably unthinkable. Better to build a bigger bridge for a billion bucks, and hope for the best next year.

This rigidity is part of the larger problem that the recent unpleasantness on the Jamrat bridge outside Mecca has highlighted. All three of the great monotheistic religions have devoted adherents who insist that their holy writ is immaculate and unalterable. So you don’t just have Muslims stampeding like lemmings, you have school boards in Kansas that insist the earth was created 6000 years ago, and you have orthodox Jews throwing stones at cars in Jerusalem for daring to drive on a Saturday. These pious folks not only create problems for themselves, they constitute an infernal nuisance for the people around them. And over the last several decades their militancy has grown, to the point they are graduating from being a nuisance to being a major threat. Our leaders would never have been able to embark on our misbegotten adventure in Iraq, for example, without their support.

But this is not the whole story, or should not be. From a historical point of view the institution of the Hajj is a great invention, as I indicated. Its present problems are due not to the basic concept but to the failure of the people administering it to adapt to modern times. So let’s look at the basic plan and see what we can learn from it.

In my opinion, the number one problem facing humanity in this transitional era is to develop a popular sense of global community. None of the major religions can do this because each is too parochial, too competitive with the others. It is up to the philosophy or world view of humanism to accomplish this task. But so far, humanism hasn’t begun to rise to the challenge. It needs a hook or two, approaches that work that will give humanists everywhere the sense that belonging to the global humanist community is somehow supremely important, and encourage rational people of all faiths and nationalities to enlist in a panhumanist movement.

Don’t take me too literally. I am not proposing an annual pilgrimage to Darwin’s village or any such thing. I am simply presenting a diagnosis of the problem, and framing a question. How do you persuade large masses of individuals to share the sense that they belong to a community that is bigger than their own particular group or nation? Mohammed faced a similar problem many centuries ago and devised an ingenious solution. Can we devise something that meets our global needs in this day and age?

Carl Coon 1/18/06

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