Hajj, the Greater Pilgrimage, is one of the more well known tenets of Islam. The architecture of Mecca, the videos of crowds swirling in mesmerizing orbits, the sheer awe of seeing such millions acting out the same rituals in unison makes for a great proclamation of the power of Islam and the influence of its community. Given this visibility, and the understanding that Hajj is a mandatory ritual in the life of all able-bodied able-budgeted Muslims, I have been waiting to see what the Quran says about the meanings and importance of this ritual event. We’ve only seen the pilgrimage mentioned in Medinian suwar so far: Al-Baqara, Ali ʕimran, Al-Ma’ida, and At-Tawba. It has actually been a long time since we’ve heard about the Sacred Mosque directly, and even in those mentions there has been sparse prescription of the entailed rituals. So how important is the Hajj? And what does today’s surah have to add to our knowledge of the topic? And how did the Hajj factor into Muhammad’s ministry?
But don’t get your hopes up that too many questions will be answered. Remember that the title of this surah, Al-Hajj, “The Pilgrimage,” is not a topic thesis but just an index marker coming from distinctive material. There are 78 ayat in total, most of them short, and I’d encourage you to read them and get a sense of the proportion and representation of today’s themes.
Instatement of Hajj
The meat of all material regarding the Hajj is contained in ayat 25-37. God appoints for Abraham a house (the Kaʕba/Kaaba) around which to ṭawwaf, “circuit,” and in which to pray. Ayah 27 orders Abraham to proclaim Hajj to the people, and summon them from all regions and walks of life in order to sacrifice animals to eat and feed to the poor. There is a specified season for these animal sacrifices (“known days” in ayah 28), and in these days the people are expected to be clean and to fulfill vows. This is summarized as a sacred ordinance from God, and the best way to endear oneself to Him.
There is no story explaining what makes the house significant, or what defines the ritual practice of ṭawwaf (orbiting the Kaaba) and what meaning that ritual carries, or why sacrifice can only be done at the house (ayah 33, which acknowledges no other destinations for sacrificial animals to be taken to). In lieu of explaining why these rituals are to be practiced or what meaning is behind them, the surah instead declares the practical virtues of these practices and affirms (in ayah 67) that God has always given rites for His religions to perform. Ayah 28 hopes that the pilgrims will perceive personal benefits from the experience, and that their animal sacrifice will entail remembrance of God, personal enjoyment in eating, and charity towards to poor. Ayah 29 also expects the pilgrims to practice cleanliness and maintain vows, which presumably is seen as some exercise or fostering of character.
It’s worth noting that ritual, even mechanical ritual without assigned meaning, can still have significant benefits. The Hajj is a communal ritual, and the effects of seeing a community united in action are very encouraging to individual believers. Goodness, even practicing united rituals in non-religious contexts are heart-warming to their participants. Just look at how much people love getting together to engage in the lively rituals of watching “The Room.” It taps into happy places in our brains to see a group of people united by something, and to be an insider in that group. To get an academic view of rituals and their benefits to individuals and communities, I’d recommend these two videos from my beloved channel, Religion for Breakfast: “What is Ritual” and “Religious Practice Precedes Religious Belief?“
As for a testament to how rituals can affect believers, I’d recommend reading this letter by Malcolm X (who adopted the post-Hajj name “Al-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz”) which describes how the unity of the Hajj’s ritual dissuaded him from the fringe black-supremacy form of Islam he had previously striven for. I do think Hajj is an amazing experience for Muslims, and I even envy them somewhat. I have had experiences of community affirmation and warmth at events and in congregational settings before, but something that the Hajj boasts over all other communal rituals is scale. No other community really can offer such an experience on the same sheer scale, with such a visibly global community. I am going to return to that question of scale in a moment for further examination, as it raises some problems.
While this surah does feature Hajj, it does not communicate the complete ritual itinerary. There are things mentioned in other places —Safa and Marwa, ihram, Umrah– which are not even hinted at here. Instead, this surah focuses most of its attention on clarifying one element of the pilgrimage: animal sacrifice.
Given the frequency of animal sacrifice in religions, it is understandable why the Quran would feel the need to articulate its version of the practice. Ayah 37 makes absolutely clear that sacrifice is only for human benefit, and that neither the meat nor blood of the animal reaches or matters to God. The sacrificed animal is for human consumption, being eaten by the one who offered it and served to the poor for charity. It is the piety demonstrated that reaches God. The sacrificial animals are also secularized and made more mundane. Although an animal may be marked for sacrificial purpose, God permits people to take benefits from these animals up until the point they are sacrificed (ayah 33). The animals mentioned in the surah are camels and cattle, so such benefits to glean from them probably includes using them for labor or harvesting products such as hair and milk. Thus the ritual of sacrifice is considerably distanced from pagan practices like those we might see in Hinduism. The animals are neither sacred nor privileged and their deaths neither assuage nor please the deity. Instead, the Muslim sacrifice is merely made special and distinct from mundane slaughter by being performed in a specific location, at a specific time, with the included intention of charity.
How does Islamic animal sacrifice compare to that of Torah Law? Well, these two systems are hard to equate. Torah sacrifice is actually very diverse in materials, purposes, and formats. The patriarchs performed animal sacrifice in a commemorative fashion. The Levitical sacrifices served all kinds of functions and included grains and baked breads besides animals. And in a manner akin to this surah, the Torah rarely explains the symbolism or significance of its rituals. It’s possible that the Torah was assuming that the meanings and metaphysics of sacrifice were already generally known by its original audience and thus did not need explanation. This perhaps is the same reason that the Quran seems unconcerned with explaining its rituals. The rituals are being practiced by the culture and so the text assumes its audiences know their order and significance. The priority instead is to reject or validate the rituals and assign them a theologically appropriate function.
Note that the Quran’s animal sacrifice makes no mention of atonement. Given that sacrifice is an action done in obedience to God and that it contributes to charity, it does have a potential to compensate for misdeeds. What I’m going to articulate as the Islamic perspective here is not from this surah’s material but rather from past Quranic material ad broader readings on the internet. Last surah explained the Final Judgement as a weighing of deeds upon a scale. With this kind of concept, you can visualize that a bad deed on one side of the scale can be nullified by an equivalent good deed on the other side of the scale. Muslim contributions to charity are called zakat, “purifiers,” but in fact they aren’t seen as cleansing. Bad deeds continue to exist on the scale, it’s just that their effects on your judgement are nullified by good deeds on the opposite side of the scale. By the same logic, however, bad deeds are capable of nullifying the effects of your good deeds. The Quran has reassured the believers that as long as shirk isn’t counting against you, God may choose to forgo strict justice and tip the scales in your favor. It’s His choice, and He doesn’t need a mechanism like sacrifice to stipulate His ability to be merciful.
Problems of Scale
What we can see in this surah is that Hajj is something people are expected to perform, that has only one valid location, and happens in a specified time. This creates a problem for Islam: Hajj is becoming more and more impossible to perform. As world populations rise and social conditions improve, the amount of Muslims able to complete their mandatory, once-in-a-lifetime Hajj has increased to alarming rates. This is an ongoing logistical nightmare for Saudi Arabia and the city of Mecca. Imagine receiving a whole new metropolis’s worth of people every year for the span of a week? How are all these pilgrims going to arrive? Where are they going to stay? Who’s going to feed (and water) them? From where will their animal sacrifices come (and how will you feed and water them) and where are they going to be performed? Where will the sewage and litter go? How do you vet the process to make sure irreligious tourists do not join and taint the experience or waste the space? How to prevent the accidents that result from everyone rushing to get to the confined space for each ritual? How do you keep an anti-Islamicist from coming in to create terror or desecrate your sacred relics? So while it is easy to get mad at Saudi Arabia for bulldozing historical sites to build its next pilgrimage complex, or to be angry that they don’t grant more visas (I’m sure the passages about those evil ones who deny entry to the Sacred Mosque prickle the hairs on their neck every so often), there also is room for sympathy at their struggle to accomplish miracles for Islam. According to this article by the New York Times, it would take 581 years for Mecca at its current capacity to host just the current world population of Muslims.
The impossibility of this task calls into my mind the limits of the Quran. Is this really the vision of an omniscient God? Or does this demonstrate the inability of a man from a much smaller, sparser world to foresee how much future was ahead? How will the world of Islam adapt to accommodate this task? Will a class of elites appear as the percentage of completed pilgrimages dwindles in the face of a booming population and limited space? Will the experience of Hajj grow less and less unified as the ritual sites become more and more inaccessible to general participants? Will they have to come up with alternate rituals, much as how Jews have adapted to a lost temple and priesthood? Proximity in many ways already determines access to the Hajj, with Saudi Arabians still filling a quarter of the world’s attendance. Will the logistical fact of convenience undermine the message in ayah 25 that those within the vicinity of the Sacred Mosque are equal to those without? Will only those with money and friends be able to get approved entry? And does this new difficulty to Islamic practice undermine the declaration at the end of this surah that “God has not placed upon you in the religion any difficulty”?
Surrounding our material about the Hajj is continued portrayals of the Judgement and those who disbelieve. I cannot say that today’s portrayals are very different than past ones, but I need to pay attention to them because they are vivid, prevalent throughout the surah, and because they leave a strong, lingering impression behind.
The surah opens by declaring that the physical manifestations of Judgement Day upon the earth are going to be awful. It is described as an earthquake of such magnitude that it sends the people into severe emotional panick. In communicating the emotional trauma of the judgement’s advent, notice that two of the three reactions portrayed in ayah 2 are of mothers losing their motherliness, whether through distraction or physical shock. Distressing mothers is an easy device to distress an audience. Motherly love is generally recognized as one of the purest and strongest forms of human bond. Showing motherly love fail and dashing the future promised by an unborn child telegraphs shock and emotion into the audience. I wonder if people heard pictures like this and objected that it was going too far. Were these images shocking or were they normative fare in the storytelling contemporary to Muhammad?
At any rate, I don’t see the Quran being concerned with going too far in portraying judgement. Ayat 19-22 are graphic in describing the elaborate, sensory tortures that those who kafaruu (“disbelieve/cover”) will be subject to in Hell. Any of these physical descriptions could be construed as metaphorical, even the opulent robes of Paradise, but the surah doesn’t give any indication that it is speaking metaphorically. Punishment is a very active process, in which the disbelievers are not just passively or resignedly existing in a state of pain or regret, but rather their punishments are being administered and enforced by an agent or group of agents, maybe even God Himself. In my project for Disbelievers: Suwar 1-18, I elected not to record depictions of eternal punishment because I wanted to focus on how the first half of the Quran discourages empathy with disbelievers by defaming their character and intentions. That specific goal aside, depictions of eternal punishment do reflect upon the character of disbelievers. Consider the phrase in ayah 18 that precedes the depictions of Hell: “…But upon many the punishment is justified.” If this extreme amount torment is just, who must the disbelievers be to deserve such punishments?
The opening of this surah portrays disbelievers as quarrelsome and attracted to satans. They are not only being led to Hell but are also putting effort into misleading other people. There are fair-weather believers who lose faith and fall into polytheism whenever times get rough, showing a weakness of character. I’m going to save ayah 15 to talk about next week, but to say the least it portrays disbelievers as in denial over Muhammad’s divine blessing and simultaneously enraged by it. Disbelievers prevent people from obeying God, deny believers access to the Kaaba, evict believers from their homes, and do not recognize reciprocal action as justice but instead avenge it. They would destroy every God-fearing place of worship if God did not restrain them. They ignore signs and the examples of past civilizations. They mock the reality of the Judgement by demanding its advent. They strive against God’s signs. They doubt Muhammad’s and the Quran’s credibility. They worship lies and follow ignorance. They disapprove of the Quran to the point that they are ready to assault its reciter. This surah continues the pattern of portraying disbelievers at their worst, neglecting to portray any good emotion or element of their character, and failing to reckon with the existence of neutral disbelievers who are not hostile to Islam. Against these people, God is cited as protector and helper of Muslims.
Whether People of the Book are counted as disbelievers is not clear in this surah. Ayah 17 lists in categories the various peoples of the Earth. There are Believers, Christians, Jews, Sabeans, Zoroastrians (Magi), and those who shirk. God will sort out those groups at the Resurrection, but the surah does not commit to predicting who will go where. It is worth noting that Believers are their own category, and People of the Book are not assumed to be within the population of the Believers and must be listed separately. That doesn’t bode well for the status of People of the Book as future citizens of Paradise, but it doesn’t explicitly speak ill of them either. On the positive side, ayah 40 lists monasteries, churches, and synagogues alongside mosques as places that receive God’s protection, since His name is remembered there. God provides secular protection for these places/institutions, which implies that their practiced faith is valid on some level. This surah suggests to me that the status of People of the Book in the afterlife is probably not secure, but their earthly existence is sanctioned and even blessed by God.
My Remaining Questions
It struck me today that it was strange how little we have heard about the Hajj, given that it is a commanded ritual and that Muhammad was situated for so long within Mecca. I am now curious as to at what point worship at the Sacred Mosque started to factor into the Quran’s vision of Islam. None of the threats to Mecca calculated in the role of the Kaaba and how it would fare in a cataclysmic destruction. In all our descriptions of Islam, Hajj has not ranked as a defining ritual. The only Meccan mention of the Kaaba is Surah al-Israa’ 1, which praises God for transporting Muhammad from the Sacred Mosque to the Farthest Mosque. Other Meccan suwar have had nothing to say about Abraham’s connection to the Kaaba, pagan monopoly or desecration of the Kaaba, or which rituals the believers are allowed or expected to perform in relation to the Kaaba. If Muslims had been worshiping at the Kaaba while in Mecca, surely there would have been some need to clarify which rituals were valid and which were not, and how to understand or interpret those rituals differently than the pagans. You’d have thought that with the Meccans claiming a historical heritage for their polytheism, it would have been relevant for the Quran to undermine that claim by revealing an Islamic origin in their cult. We have a lot of suwar ahead to read, but of the ones we’ve seen already the Hajj and Kaaba only appear in a Medinian context.
The joined appearance of the Hajj and the dehumanization of unbelievers in this surah combined to instill in me a cynical thought: Why does the Kaaba and Hajj only appear in the Quran once Muhammad was exiled? Surely when Islam was a purely Meccan phenomenon there would have been conflicts over who had access to the Sacred Mosque, but the Meccan suwar have shown neither interest nor conflict in those areas. As of yet it has only been in Muhammad’s Medinian ministry –the point where it trended towards militancy– that the Kaaba and Hajj suddenly appear in the text, where they are presented as a Muslim site intended for Muslim ritual. Though Muslims have moved out from the Meccan thumb, Meccans are kept at the center of the Quran’s wrath by their newfound definition as those who deny Muslims access to the God-ordained symbols and rituals of the Sacred Mosque. The Kaaba thus serves Muhammad’s ministry in the same way Jerusalem would later serve the Roman Catholic Church: an excuse and a rallying call. Aggression towards the Meccans can be framed as measured actions of justice –of taking back Muslim rites and rights– and the Meccans are denied any right to chafe at the hostility.
I will be upfront that this is me expecting the worst of Muhammad. I’ve already stated that I find him a questionable leader, and in the future I’ll go further into what I mean by that. But without my cynical interpretation above, there still is the question about why the Kaaba and Hajj seem to only become relevant in Medina. You could explain that the topic only became relevant once the Muslims were removed from Mecca when the pagans were able to enforce a harder policy of denying entry, but that doesn’t account for the lack of interest in the Kaaba rituals or Abrahamic connection that still would have been relevant to Muslims within the context of Meccan residency. If yet unseen Meccan suwar do show an interest in the Kaaba as a Muslim entity, then my suspicion is void.
25 March 2019 – I did keep searching through past material and found mention of Mecca and the Kaaba present in a prayer of Abraham’s in Surah Ibrahim, which is traditionally dated late Meccan. So we do have on record one voiced connection of the Kaaba and Mecca as a city intended for monotheistic prayer.