Western scholars have noted that from the fourth to the 16th century, pilgrimage was the dominant mode of travel to the Middle East and the most common paradigm for travel writing. The Crusades were fed as much by religio-political aspirations of regents as by the desire of European ‘commoners’ to see the Holy Land. It was they who often formed the most vehement of crusaders, a rag-tag army trailing behind the knights and princes.
Again, from the 19th century onwards, there was a revival of the practice of pilgrimage to the Holy Land from Europe and the US. While this history of Western pilgrimage has been widely studied, the parallel history of Haj pilgrimages is only now being excavated and examined in English. In this context, the book under review—the first English translation of Amir Ahmad Alawi’s Journey to the Holy Land, and the excellent introduction by translators Mushirul Hasan and Rakhshanda Jalil—is a major contribution to a burgeoning branch of study.
All religions have pilgrimages. They are major socio-economic institutions, both sharing in mainstream economy and formulating its limits. This is perhaps best illustrated by a Southeast Asian saying, quoted in the Introduction: “If one of them had silver, he would buy gold, but if he prospered further, he would go to Mecca”.
The tradition of the Haj has been sustained, with variations, right from the genesis of Islam to the present day: historically speaking, traditions of a pilgrimage to Mecca predate Islam. But if in pre-Islamic times these involved some Arab tribes, today the Haj involves people from all the continents. Part of the success of the Haj as pilgrimage lies not just in its codification as one of the pillars of faith for a Muslim, but also in its simplicity and malleability: all able-bodied Muslims are supposed to perform the Haj, if they can afford it and if their health and responsibilities permit, and the act of worship is quite simple and highly egalitarian, at least in theory.
Haj pilgrimages contain both religious and secular elements, as demonstrated by Alawi’s depiction of the perils of travel, political issues etc. Historically speaking, some of the great Muslim travel narratives started off as Haj pilgrimages: Ibn Battuta set out on his famous travels in the 14th century with an initial Haj, as did Ibn Jubair, author of a major travel text, in the 12th century. Alawi’s account of his journey in 1929 seldom reaches the stature of such writing, but remains an interesting text, beautifully contextualised in the introduction.
The need to recover texts like this one and excavate the history of Haj pilgrimages—as well as Buddhist and Hindu ones—arises from a bid to challenge the dominant narratives of the formation of our world, which is seen as having been enabled primarily by the bridge of European colonisation. Postcolonialism makes the ‘empire’ write back, but at the same time reinforces the bridge of European centrality. However, the world contains other bridges too: that of Budhist pilgrimage, for instance, that brought the Chinese to India at least from the fourth century, or that of the Haj. Such transactions were not contingent on the European link. To trace them is to enable a fuller narration of the connections between peoples and cultures.
Oxford University Press should be congratulated for bringing out Amir Ahmad Alawi’s Journey to the Holy Land: A Pilgrim’s Diary, and Outlook for reviewing it. The authors have done a wonderful job of situating Haj within the historical context. Haj has always captured the popular imagination and many idioms were coined around it in Hindustani, Persian and other languages. Here’s one each from Hindustani and Persian: Sau sau chuhe kha ke billi haj ko chali, which I don’t need to translate; Man tora haji bagoyam tu mara haji bago (You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours, with a pun on Haj, and based on two pilgrims who had to come back with the Haj not done but called each other Haji to fool people in the neighbourhood.)
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