The Hajj and its spiritual connotations
The Muslim religious pilgrimage to Mecca, known as the hajj, satisfies the fifth and last pillar of the faith. From its tradition as a pillar of Islam, the word Hajj has applied only to the pilgrimage to Mecca. The Hajj rites have been handed down through the ages and are connected to the Abrahamic tradition. According to religious dictum, all Muslims must fulfill each of the required acts.
The pilgrimage consists of a series of rites performed in around the city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia. The rituals of the hajj are performed between the 8th and the 13th days of the 12th month (Dhul Hajjah) of the lunar calendar. While some of the rituals, like Arafah,which is the most important part of the ritual, must be performed at a particular time, certain others, like shaving the head or offering sacrifice can be done over a longer period, mostly towards the end of the rituals.
Hajj connects Muslims historically through the generations as well as geographically to other Muslims around the world at any particular time. Hajj is a celebration of divinity and a form of worship that reflects the unity of all Muslims from all over the world. It is one of the most important unifying elements in the Muslim community (umma), and it is a journey that marks a huge change in the spiritual and social life of each individual.
When one refers to the history of human spirituality, the Hajj is profoundly typical. Long before human beings began to map their world scientifically, they developed a sacred geography. Anything in the natural world that stood out from its surroundings was believed to give human beings direct access to the divine world, because it spoke of something else.1 In that dry region of the Hijaz, the spring of Zamzam may have made Mecca a holy place before a city was built there.2 The life sustaining and purifying qualities of water have always suggested the presence of sacred power. Conversely, sacred places like Mecca and Medina are often associated in this way with the beginnings of life, since they so obviously connect heaven and earth. For instance, in the Islamic world, traditions developed claiming that the Ka'ba is the highest spot on earth, because the polar star shows that it is opposite the centre of the sky;3 that the Ka'ba marks the place where human life began, where the Garden of Eden was located, where Adam named the animals and where all the angels and spirits (except Iblis) bowed down to the first man.4 The first entity that experiences some kind of unity during hajj is the pilgrim himself.
The hardship of the journey separates the pilgrims from their ordinary lifestyle: they may have to abstain from sex or abjure any form of violence. The rigours of the road symbolize the difficulty of the ascent; and social norms are subverted, as rich and poor walk together as equals. The pilgrimage is an initiation, a ritualized ordeal that drives participants into a different state of consciousness. Ritual is an art that many of us have lost in the West, and some pilgrims are doubtless more skilled at it than others. The value of a rite does not depend on credulous belief. In traditional society, ritual was not the product of religious ideas; rather, these ideas were the product of ritual. The Sanskrit for a place of pilgrimage is tirtha, which derives from the root tr: to 'cross over'. When they arrive at their destinations, pilgrims perform other rites, carefully crafted to help them make the transition to the divine. For instance, in Mecca; pilgrims re-enact the story of Hagar and Ishmael; walking in the footsteps of Adam, Abraham and Muhammad, they circle the Ka'ba seven times. One can suggest a pilgrimage is just such a ritual. It is a practice that if performed with love, imagination and care, enables people to enter a different, timeless dimension. It liberates us from the surface of our lives. By leaving our ordinary lives behind, turning ourselves physically towards the centre of our world, returning symbolically to the beginning, submitting ourselves to the demanding rites of Hajj, and living kindly and gently in a properly orientated pilgrim community, we can learn that life has other possibilities. The challenges of the rites can drive us beyond our normal preoccupations into a different state of mind so that, if we have been skilful, mindful pilgrims, we have intimations of something else, a mode of reality that can never be satisfactorily defined. May be in exploring and experiencing the Hajj, therefore, we can learn not only about Islam but also to explore the untravelled regions within ourselves.
Moreover, Hajj is a clear manifestation of the unity of the human self and body in complete submission to the One and Only God. During the journey of hajj, the Muslim embarks on a deep spiritual journey which witnesses serious self-denial, where he neglects most of his physical needs, opening the door for his soul to overwhelm his relation with existence and reach a profound climax of joy in submission to Allah, the One and Only God.
The Quran directs pilgrims towards the concept of unity through a very wise divine order, which says what means: 'There should be no indecent speech, misbehaviour, or quarrelling for anyone undertaking the pilgrimage…' (Al-Baqarah 2:197). Accordingly, the pilgrim needs to understand that the Quran is clearly directing Muslims, who are going for hajj, to drop any manner or attitude that would lead to their division or would result in any kind of dispute. The rituals of hajj smoothly and peacefully take the pilgrims towards the understanding and the experiencing of practical and down-to-earth unity. Then, the Quranic order denies them anything that would cause division or partition.
Just like many other nations, some Muslims might go emotional or a bit fanatic about a certain cultural concept, identity, or political view. Differences and disputes might rise and cause division between Muslims. That is where hajj serves best. Hajj is a compelling conference of unity that practically re-directs each pilgrim to his real identity and his first priority: being a Muslim, a brother or sister of all Muslims.
The sense of sharing that prevails during hajj makes the pilgrims focus on what is in common, not on what is different. It provides a calm and comfortable atmosphere that ignores social differences and the diversity of political views and cultural habits. All are one in the eyes of God, standing on the same mount of Arafat, seeking the same end, which is the closeness of God.
The outcome of such a peaceful unity is a common joy that prevails and mesmerizes the senses of thousands of pilgrims. Then, the real prize is the absolute forgiveness that each pilgrim receives. Coming down from Mount Arafat, they are all forgiven for sure. Hand in hand, they come down, as pure as a newborn.
International Exhibition Review
'HAJJ: Journey to the heart of Islam' is an exhibition at the British Museum in London that tells the phenomenal story of Hajj, unique among the world religions, from its beginnings until the present day. Though it was sub-named 'Journey to the Heart of Islam', the exhibition actually illustrates the way in which the Hajj represents spatial, temporal and spiritual journeys that combine to create its unique experience. It introduces the subject of Hajj to those for whom it is unfamiliar and presents it afresh to Muslims who know it better than anyone else. The exhibition portrays the history, the voices of pilgrims and the material culture associated with Hajj together in one place. Running in parallel with the history of Hajj is the story of the material culture that surrounds it, whether paintings evoking the journey; archaeological finds from the Hajj routes; manuscripts, historic photographs and tiles illustrating the holy sanctuaries at Mecca and Medina; certificates and pilgrim guides commemorating the experience; or scientific instruments for determining the direction of Mecca.
Furthermore, there are the objects taken by pilgrims on Hajj or brought back as souvenirs, and the beautiful rare textiles made annually especially for the Ka'ba are also on show. All of these complement and personalize the history, allowing us to glimpse the experience through individuals, deepen our understanding and see how art has been used in the service of Islam. On the other hand, the story of Hajj crosses so many very different disciplines, from religion, history and archaeology to anthropology, travel and art history and so forth.
The intensity of the exhibition lies in its efforts to convey the different dimensions of the pilgrimage. This is clear from its beginning when visitors are led through the circular Reading Room of the museum, mirroring the pilgrims' circumambulation of the Ka'ba. Despite the breadth of the information presented, there is a clear and uniting message. The Hajj embraces both the change and constancy of human history, and cannot be separated from its unique fusion of the physical and metaphysical aspects of human existence.
'It is not only a journey in space to the centre towards which one has always turned ones face in prayers, but also a journey in time far back beyond the missions of Muhammad, Jesus and Moses.'
— Martin Lings (1909-2005)
Scholar, performed Hajj 1948 and 1976.
Islamic traditions teach that the most sacred sanctuary, the Ka'ba, is not only the centre and navel of the world but also its highest point. Ka'ba's spatial position corresponds to the polar star: 'no place on earth is closer to heaven than Mecca.' This is why prayers said in its sanctuary are more clearly heard. When the explicit religious symbolism of centre and height is weak, the physical elevation of the land nevertheless retains a certain prestige.
Spatial Deployment, Temporal Difference
In representing the first spatial deployment the Ka'ba becomes a visible trace of the creative process through which unity progressed into four-ness and a tectonic expression of the appearance of space and directionality from its maternal, non-directional source, the point. The corners of the Ka'ba correspond with the original divine quadrature of 'the first and the last, and the outward and inward' (57:3), which inheres in all created quadratures that God set for himself as the house of being. In this correspondence, the inward correlates with the corner of the black stone, God's right hand on earth, which the pilgrims kiss in recognition of its significance. When the sight falls on stone, according to Ibn 'Arabi's5 explanation the insight falls on the right hand, the stone's inner reality. It stands for the 'oil' of the 'blessed olive tree,' that is 'neither of the east nor of the west,' which sustains the divine light- 'God is the light of the heavens and the earth' (24:35). While the outward form of the Ka'ba expresses directionality and spatial deployment, its centrality conceals the secret of the directionless identity, the coincidentia oppositorum, from where the light of the world originates.
Furthermore, apart from its spatial symbolism the Ka'ba and the rites associated with it also have temporal significance. A popular imagery depicts the Ka'ba with the circumambulating pilgrims as an earthly miniature of the divine Throne and its encircling angels. The imagery seemed so vivid that questions were raised about the nature of space occupied by the angels, since the Throne was known to have occupied the entire vacuum. And Ibn 'Arabi's goes so far as to consider human glorifications of God in circumambulating the Ka'ba to be superior to those of the angels.
The ritual circumambulation of the Ka'ba is performed in seven continuous anticlockwise revolutions, starting from the corner of the black stone. A cycle is completed by the return to this same point, indicated by kissing, touching or facing the stone when out of reach. The black stone is seen to mark the starting point of the ritual revolution about the Ka'ba in the same way the position of the divine Feet on the Footstool regulates the cyclic revolution of the atlas sphere. Therefore the seven rounds performed about the Ka'ba correspond to the original cycles of the atlas sphere about the earth before the creation of the planetary spheres and the delineation of the seven cycles by reference to the black stone reflects the differentiation of the seven divine days by reference to the divine Feet. It is with reference to this correspondence that the completion of the seven rounds around the Ka'ba is known as completing one week.
The seven revolutions of the atlas sphere are as we have seen temporal expressions of the seven principal divine attributes and the ritual circumambulations are re-enactments of the heavenly cycles. Hence the seven cycles around the Ka'ba correspond to the seven divine qualities, while the Ka'ba stands for the Essence. In reflection in the significance of their act while sharing in the ritual circumambulation, the pilgrims are gifted with the features of the divine characteristics.
By circumambulating the Ka'ba the pilgrim not only re-enacts the ancient process of temporal expression that successively took place through the revolution of the atlas sphere, (s)he also qualifies space by differentiating its four different statements that correspond to the four corners of the Ka'ba. These expressions interrupt the continuity of the ritual cycle, marking four distinct points that correspond to the four directions of space determined by the four corners of the Ka'ba. This act imitates the way in that the four nodal points (the two solstices and the two equinoxes) of the ecliptic punctuate the suns annual journey whereby it measures out the limits of the space and defines the basic directions.
The act of Hajj
'When my grandfathers spoke to me as a child about their Hajj, they told me of the physical attraction they felt towards the Ka'ba, that they felt drawn to it by an almost magnetic pull.' — Ahmed Mater al-Ziad
'The idea is simple and, like its central element, forcefully attractive. Ahmed Mater gives a twist to the magnet and sets in motion tens of thousands of particles of iron that form a single swirling nimbus. Even if we have not taken part in it, we have all seen images of Hajj…Ahmed's black cuboid magnet is a small simulacrum of the black-draped Ka'bah, the “Cube”- that central element of the Meccan rites. His circumambulating whirl of metallic filings mirrors in miniature the concentric tawaf of pilgrims and their sevenfold circling of the Ka'bah…[his] magnets and that larger lodestone of pilgrimage can also draw us to things beyond the scale of human existence.'6
The response of artists today in the experience or the concept of Hajj is marked in many ways through photography and other media. Here, three artists are highlighted whose work encapsulates different perspectives of Hajj.
For mater, magnetism also conveys one of the essential elements of Hajj, that all Muslims are considered the same in the eyes of God whether rich, poor, young or old. As such the iron filings represent a unified body of pilgrims all of whom are similarly attracted to the Ka'ba as the centre of their world.
(Figure 1) Saudi artist and doctor Ahmed Mater al-Ziad created an early version of magnetism in 2007. This powerful and evocative installation has been developed into magnets and iron fillings and an accompanying series of photogravures.
(Figure 2) British artist Idris Khan created a sculptural installation called Seven Times. It is made up of hundred and forty-four steel blocks arranged in a formation that corresponds to the footprint of the Ka'ba (8x8m). 7 With prayers sandblasted in layers over the steel blocks, this work was inspired by his father's Hajj. 'He felt he had to do it, he wanted to do it. And he changed when he came back, the experience of being there, how overwhelming it was'.8
The Ka'ba inspires Kurdish-Iraqi artist Walid Siti in a different way. The work illustrated here (Figure 3) is from a series 'Precious Stones', in which he highlights the significance of stones to the Kurdish people. For the artist, stones represent the mountains, which Kurds regard as their only friends and the stone of Mecca is a focus of prayer and source of solace in a world of conflict and displacement.
The cultural landscape of Hajj is a blend of cross-cultural influences and identity. Unbound and fluid, cultural identity is hybrid and interstitial, moving between spaces of meaning. The notion of cultural hybridity has existed far before it was popularized in postcolonial theory as culture arising out of interactions between “colonizers” and the “colonized”. However, in this time after imperialism, globalization has both expanded the reach of Western culture, as well as allowed the process by which the West constantly interacts with the East, appropriating cultures for its own means and continually shifting its own signifiers of dominant culture.
Considered by some as the father of hybrid theory, Homi Bhabha argued that colonizers and the colonized are mutually dependent in constructing a shared culture. His text The Location of Culture (1994) suggested that there is a “Third Space of Enunciation” in which cultural systems are constructed. In this claim, he aimed to create a new language and mode of describing the identity of Selves and Others.
It becomes crucial to distinguish between the semblance and similitude of the symbols across diverse cultural experiences – literature, art, music, ritual, life, death – and the social specificity of each of these productions of meaning as they circulate as signs within specific contextual locations and social systems of value. The transnational dimension of cultural transformation – migration, diaspora, displacement, relocation – makes the process of cultural translation a complex form of signification. The natural(ized), unifying discourse of nation, peoples, or authentic folk tradition, those embedded myths of cultures' particularity, cannot be readily referenced. The great, though unsettling, advantage of this position is that it makes you increasingly aware of the construction of culture and the invention of tradition (1994: 247).
In using words like “diaspora, displacement, relocation,” Bhabha illustrates the dynamic nature of culture, and the flimsy consistency of the historical narratives that cultures rely upon to draw boundaries and define themselves. As a result, culture cannot be defined in and of itself, but rather must be seen within the context of its construction. More significantly, Bhabha draws attention to the reliance of cultural narratives upon the Other. In illuminating this mutual construction of culture, studies of hybridity can offer the opportunity for a counter-narrative, a means by which the dominated can reclaim shared ownership of a culture that relies upon them for meaning.
- Eliade 1958, p 19.Eliade, Mircea (trans.) WR Trask 1959, The Sacred and the Profane: The nature of religion, New York.
- Bamyeh 1999, p 36.Bamyah, MA 1999, The Social Origins of Islam: Mind, economy, discourse, Minneapolis.
- Wensinck 1916, p 15; Eliade 1958, pp 231, 376.Wensinck, AJ 1916, The Ideas of the Western Semites concerning the Navel of the Earth, Amsterdam.
- Qur'an 2:30-37; Bennett 1994, p 94. Bennett, C 1994, 'Islam', in Holm J with Bowker, J (eds), Sacred Place, New York.
- Ibn Arabi (Murcia July 28, 1165 Damascus November 10, 1240) was an Arab Andalusian Moorish Sufi mystic and philosopher. Ibn 'Arabi's writings remained unknown in the West until modern times, but they spread throughout the Islamic world within a century of his death. The early Orientalists, with one or two exceptions, paid little attention to him because he had no discernable influence in Europe. His works, moreover, are notoriously difficult, making it easy to dismiss him as a 'mystic' or a 'pantheist' without trying to read him.
- Mackintosh-Smith 2010, p 86. Mackintosh-Smith, T. 2010, in Booth-Clibborn, E (ed), Ahmed Mater, London.
- First shown at Victoria Miro Gallery, London, in 2010.Victoria Miro Gallery, 2010, London.
- Sinclair-Wilson 2011, p 9. Sinclair-Wilson, R 2011, 'Seven Times and Other Works by Idris Khan', MA dissertation, University of Cambridge.
SHELINA BEGUM is an independent researcher and curator. She has studied at the Royal College of Art and University of the Arts London where she gained an extensive knowledge on cultural identity, history of design, fashion and fine art.