Orientalists and their hajj adventures

Amira Noshokaty , Wednesday 14 Sep 2016

The hajj rituals have always fascinated orientalists, but few of them have gotten close enough to taste the real spiritual experience

hajj picture

The hajj rituals have always fascinated orientalists, but few of them have gotten close enough to the real taste of the spiritual experience. And Orientalists like Nahla Emam, the head of folk and tradition beliefs at the High Institute of Folk Arts, outlined that adventurous travelers were sometimes funded by governments to create comprehensive anthropological studies of the Middle East region and the orient in general at a time when the world was being dominated by mainly the British and the French empires.

 "The thing about the orientalist notes on the hajj is that they do not differentiate between the folk tradition and the religious one," explained Dr Emam to Ahram Online.

In a joint publication titled ‘The International Forum for Documenting Hajj Ceremonies,’ published by Alexandria Library in 2015, Emam focused on the accounts of orientalists on the topic.  

This mix between the official religion with the folk, led them to see things quite differently -- the official or state religion was one thing, but the practice was another. Practicing involved a lot of folk traditions that were so deeply rooted in society that they were easily mistaken for religious ones. 

"Take the hajj ritual of stoning the devil, for example, a ritual that is highly symbolic, yet many people take the chance to swear at Satan, blame him for all their sins as well as throw slippers at him," Emam added, referring to the hajj ritual of throwing pebbles at a stone figure representing the devil.

One can find in the accounts of orientalist travellers a wealth of anthropological information describing the hajj ritual.

According to records from as far back as the 17th century, pilgrims on route to the hajj – a difficult three-month journey (from Egypt and Levantine to Mecca) that required an experienced guide – people would be trained on how to sleep on the ground and how not to eat anything but bread and dates, Emam revealed.

Prior to the use of modern means of transportation, the two main routes to Mecca were Darb Misr (the Egypt route) and Darb Al-Sham (the Levantine route).

Emam says that because embarking on the hajj was such a difficult and costly endeavour, it was mostly undertaken by the elderly, who took the trip after putting their worldly affairs in order and ensuring their children’s future.

“Nowadays, younger people often go on the hajj, either due to the easiness of transport, increased piety or the prestige,” Emam says, adding that it has also become customary for children to arrange all-expense-paid hajj trips for their parents as a way of expressing gratitude.

The earliest known orientalist account on the hajj dates back to the 17th century, when a British 15-year-old by the name of Joseph Bates was kidnapped by Algerian pirates while on his way to America and sold to an Algerian merchant. The merchant, who was on his way to the hajj, took Bates on as an assistant.

Years later, after Bates managed to escape back to England, he published his account of the hajj, titled An honest description of the behaviours of Muhammadi followers. The book was written in English and then it was translated years later under the title Traveling in Arabian Desert by Sabri Mohamed Hassan.

Bates, one of the first Britons to visit Mecca and Madina, described witnessing the cleaning of the Kaaba with floral water and the way people would gather around to receive some the water as a form of blessing, Emam says.

"This is definitely a folk tradition and not a religious ritual,” Emam says, citing another example of such “folk traditions” in the pilgrims collecting pieces of wood from brooms used to clean the Kaaba to take home as souvenirs.

Bates also described how people would run to collect the water pouring down from the mizrab (small pipes siphoning off rain water from the top of the Kaaba), as they could not see the source of the water and believed it to be a blessing from the sky. Sometimes the water would be sold to pilgrims.

"Bates’ book explains that people believed that the pebbles used in the devil-stoning ritual would be carried by angels back to their original spots to be used the following year. They also believed that God usually brings rain after hajj to wash away the remains from the slaughtering sheep ritual, again, a folk belief." 

Also described in the book is the mahmal march where the kiswa (the cloth used to cover the Kaaba) is transported annually from Egypt, where it is manufactured, to Mecca. Bates describes the ritual as a “march of great happiness,” where onlookers would attempt to touch the camel carrying the kiswa, as the animal was perceived to hold a high status for being given the honour -- having had the great chance to travel to the holy land and visit the hometown of the prophet itself.

The camel is then spared from performing chores for the remainder of its life, and when it comes time for the kiswa to be replaced with a new one, it is divided into small pieces that are given to people of high status.

Along the same note, Sofia Linn, also an orientalistwho visited Egypt in 1830's, saw the mahmal march as quite the parade, with a show involving fencing, music and Sufi chanting.

In 1841, Swiss orientalist and traveller Paul Cart spent three years in the Levant disguised as a Turkish Muslim named Ibrahim Abdalla in order to master the Arabic language before coming to Egypt.

"I never saw anything more beautiful than the town of Mecca," explained Cart of the town.

“Cart joined the pilgrims on the hajj while undercover, and was among the few Christians to do so,” Emam said. “However, I believe he converted to Islam, because his writings were all in praise and love of Islam, and he asked to be buried in a Muslim graveyard upon his death. Also, most of his works were never found, and some claimed that his wife burnt them all."

AnotherEnglish traveller, Charles Doutti, also took the journey in 1876 while undercover, posing as an Arab Christian from Damascus named Khalil.

His work is also a great anthropological study. Doutti lived among the Bedouins for six months being going on the hajj disguised as a Muslim, as he was denied the pilgrimage as a Christian.

"It was a brave adventure, to be a Christian on the hajj Caravan  yet he went on hajj undercover, and once he heard them saying that a Christian is among them and he thought they knew about him and was very scared but it turned out to be someone else, the camel rider, which is very weird considering that all the fortress where they camp along the hajj route were built by Christians," explained Emam.  

"And so on the late afternoon of Thursday, 10 November, 1876 a few people gathered to bid farewell to a man dressed in Syrian clothes riding a donkey and heading off to Mecca for pilgrimage."

Dotti took on camel – they would ask him ya Khalil afandi, can you see the tents yet? He always described the trip and he noted the numbers of deaths, which occurred on a daily basis. They would then wash and bury him and put some rocks – and they were called martyrs. They used to bury them on their night stops.

One story was that there was one man who was thought to be dead, and so they buried him and then he gradually came back to consciousness only to find out that he missed the pilgrimage.

And finally famous orientalist Edward Linn, who never went to hajj, though managed to document hajj stories from those who did. One of the hajj stories was about that light that came out of the tomb of Prophet Mohamed every night and could be seen from far away -- and that's why it was called Al-Madina Al-Monawara (Lit up town).


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