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Interpreting the Hajj

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            Circle the Ka’bah seven times in an anti-clockwise direction, hasten between the hills seven times, and toss pebbles at pillars.  The activities involved in the Muslim pilgrimage, or Hajj, appear to be symbolic of something, yet some Muslim authorities vehemently deny the attribution of meaning (Katz, 2004).  Despite this claim, some other Muslim scholars do believe the actions are more than “blind obedience” to the wishes of their god, Allah, and with the interpretive theory, each aspect of the Hajj will be examined for its importance in the Islamic tradition.

            As a note of intention, any time words are transcribed from one language to another, there are likely to be alternative spellings, especially when the languages do not share the same written forms.  As such, this paper will use the spellings used by IslamiCity to maintain continuity throughout the paper.  The reasoning behind this decision is that the other resources used are generally written by non-Muslims, so IslamiCity is most likely to have words spelled in what amounts to an “official English translation,” and thus closer to the studied culture’s “own words.”

            While Structuralists and Functionalists are content to compare cultures to bodies, find patterns, and measure the world, interpretive theory sees culture more like a work of art, searching for hidden meanings.  Evans-Pritchard is thought to be the forerunner for interpretivism, setting up the ideas, but not completely clarifying them, particularly by rejecting the idea of anthropology as science (Barnard, 2000).  Clifford Geertz was the first to explain how interpretivism should work, with his explanations of “thick description” instead of large-scale comparison (Barnard, 2000).  Many anthropologists including Ruth Benedict and Margaret Mead also believed that the study of culture involves a search for meaning in unique cultures that cannot be quantified, only “translated” into ideas that readers may be able to understand (Perry, 2003).  In this way, cultures are studied not as steps in an evolutionary path or cause and effect, but as artwork, a great tapestry that encapsulates the past, present, and future of a group of people.

            The first step of analyzing a ritual such as the Hajj is to place it in context.  The Hajj is a pilgrimage made by all adult Muslims who are physically and financially able (Renard, 2012).  Islam itself is a branch off Judaism, much as Christianity is.  Both of these offshoots trace their beginnings to the patriarch Abraham, or Ibrahim.  Allah promised Ibrahim a son, but since his wife, Sarah, was barren due to advanced age, he assumed the son would be born of a slave, as was common practice at the time (Renard, 2012).  He had a son through Hajar (Hagar) named Ismail (Ishmael).  Sarah also had a son named Ishaq (Isaac), and cast Hajar and the first born Ismail out (Renard, 2012).  Since Ismail was born before Ishaq, Muslims believe the blessed blood runs through him, but Christians believe that the son born to Ibrahim’s wife was the one ordained by Allah.  Thus Muslims identify with the sons of Ismail and Christians with the sons of Ishaq (Renard, 2012).  The Hajj is a recreation of both Ibrahim’s establishment of Hajar and Ismail at Makkah (Mecca) as well as the acts of Muhammad, the Muslim prophet (Renard, 2012).  Some interpretations of the Muslim narratives claim the Hajj to be solely to imitate the prophet Muhammad, some for Muhammad, Ibrahim and his son Ismail, and some even believe it is in remembrance of Muhammad, Ibrahim, Ismail, and Adam (Katz, 2004). 

            The Hajj is a particular ritual performed on particular days in the twelfth month of the lunar year, Thul-Hajjah (Katz, 2004).  The lunar year does not match with the calendar year, and as a result, the pilgrimage moves up eleven days each year (Renard, 2012).  A lesser version, called Umra can be performed as well, at any time of year, but it is optional and does not fulfill the requirements of the Hajj as stated by the Quran (Renard, 2012).  After announcing the intent to perform the Hajj, the Niyyah, and a saying a prayer requesting an easy Hajj and Allah’s acceptance of the pilgrim’s Hajj, the first step occurs once the pilgrim reaches the boundary of Miqat (IslamiCity, n.d.).  Miqat is an imaginary boundary line that surrounds the holy city, and all pilgrims must put on the Ihram, both a physical set of plain white pieces of cloth to wear and a set of rules to follow during the Hajj (IslamiCity, n.d.; Katz, 2004).  The purpose of the clothing is such that all people, rich or poor, Syrian or Turkish, king or beggar, are equal, symbolizing the way Allah sees all people (Katz, 2004).  The rules include no cutting of the hair, clipping nails, shaving, wearing perfume or cologne, killing or hunting animals, sexual intercourse, marriage proposals or marriage contracts (IslamiCity, n.d.).  More prayers are said before approaching the Ka’bah.

            The Ka’bah, said to have been built by Ibrahim and Ismail, is the central focus of Muslim life.  Five times a day, Muslims pray in the direction of Makkah, the Ka’bah in particular, making it the physical center of Islam.  The Muslim theologist Sayyid Abul A’la Mawdudi states that it was from the Ka’bah that the message of Islam radiated outwards (Mawdudi, 1982).  Some Muslim accounts take the Ka’bah all the way back to Adam, saying that he witnessed the angels circling the throne of Allah, and so too should men circle the earthly throne, the Ka’bah (Katz, 2004).  Each circuit is a shawt, plural ashwat, and seven ashwat constitute the Tawaf, or circumambulation of the Ka’bah (IslamiCity, n.d.). 

            The cornerstone of the Ka’bah is the Black Stone, a rock said to have fallen from Heaven and turned black from humanity’s sins (Katz, 2004).  It is also a large part of the Hajj as pilgrims are expected to circumambulate, or walk around, the Ka’bah seven times while reciting prayers and supplications, kissing, touching, or pointing to the Black Stone on each passage (IslamiCity, n.d.).  Some have protested that this constitutes idolatry, which is something Ibrahim and Muhammad were both vehemently against, but the rock is not said to hold any power, it is simply an act of imitation and obedience, as Umar ibn al-Khattab said, because the prophet Muhammad kissed the stone himself (Mawdudi, 1982).  There is another telling of this quote that claims Allah took the covenant between He and Ibrahim and fed it to the stone so that it may bear witness to the fidelity of the believer and the denial of the unbeliever (Katz, 2004).

            The next ritual for Hajj pilgrimages is the Sa’ee, walking between the hills of Safa and Marwah seven times (IslamiCity, n.d.).  In the most popular and most complete version of the establishment at Makkah, as told by Ibn Abbas, Ibrahim personally takes Hajar and Ismail to Makkah, leaving them under the protection of Allah (Firestone, 1992).  Her water skin runs dry, and Ismail starts writhing or suffering from a seizure, so Hajar runs to the hill of al-Safa, then to al-Marwa, running back and forth seven times looking for water before she hears the voice of “an angel” or Gabriel (Firestone, 1992).  Either the angel, Gabriel, or Ismail scratch the ground, and Zamzam springs up from the ground, full of freshwater, which Hajar quickly dams up so that it does not overtake the world (Firestone, 1992).  She is told not to worry, that Allah will not allow them to perish, because Ibrahim and Ismail will build Allah’s house there, foreshadowing Ibrahim’s return to build the Ka’bah (Firestone, 1992).  However, Mawdudi claims a different reason, completely eliminating Hajar and Ismail from the act, claiming it is simply to show that the pilgrim should be ceaselessly endeavoring to serve Allah (1982). 

            Pilgrims will spend the first night at Mina before heading to Arafah (Mount Arafat) after sunrise (IslamiCity, n.d.).  Heading back to Adam, Mina is where he wished for forgiveness and mercy after being expelled from Eden (Katz, 2004).  It is also the mountain, also called Mount of Mercy, where Ibrahim was set to sacrifice his son, Ishmail on Allah’s command (Katz, 2004, IslamiCity, n.d.).  When Allah saw that Ibrahim was willing, he substituted a lamb for the sacrifice which will make an appearance on the third day of the pilgrimage (IslamiCity, n.d.).  Allah then taught Ibrahim the rites of the Hajj and the knowledge which provides the basis of Islamic culture (Katz, 2004).  Finally, Arafah is also where Muhammad delivered his Farewell Sermon (Katz, 2004).  For any or all of these reasons, pilgrims will stand for most of the day on the Plain of Arafat, “reading the Quran, reciting the Talbiyah, offering supplications, and repenting to Allah” (IslamiCity, n.d., “Day 2 > Staying in Arafah”). 

            After sunset, pilgrims can depart Arafah and move to Muzdalifah (IslamiCity, n.d.).  Muzdalifa is believed to be the place where Adam first “knew” Eve, and was thus the birthplace of all of humanity (Katz, 2004).  It is here that the pilgrim will search for small pebbles to be used the next day.  Traveling to Mina again in the early morning, before sunrise, the pilgrim will throw pebbles at the Jamrat al-Kubra, a stone pillar (IslamiCity, n.d.).  Most accounts state that the stoning is a symbolic repudiation of Satan’s temptations, specifically those that tempted Ibrahim while he was preparing to sacrifice Ismail (IslamiCity, n.d.; Renard, 2012).  Mawdudi again has a different reason for the stoning.  He states that Abraha, a Christian king of Yemen leading an army of elephants, was en route to Makkah to destroy the Ka’bah when birds dropped pebbles on his army, turning them back and proving Allah’s will (Mawdudi, 1982).  He goes on to state that no authentic Hadith, or Muhammad’s post-Quran revelations, claims that the rocks are to represent Ibrahim (Mawdudi, 1982).  There are three pillars, of which only the smallest is stoned on the third day, but the remainder of the pebbles will be thrown at all three pillars on the fourth (IslamiCity, n.d.).

            As stated above, Allah substituted a lamb for Ismail on the Mount of Mercy, and Muslims celebrate the Feast of Sacrifice in remembrance (Renard, 2012).  All pilgrims sacrifice an animal, although one can have another perform the actual sacrifice in his stead (IslamiCity, n.d.).  The typical sacrifice is a sheep or one seventh of a cow or camel, shared with others (IslamiCity, n.d.).  The meat is typically packaged and distributed to the poor (IslamiCity, n.d.).  

            After the sacrifice, Ihram is partially lifted, including all rules except those involving sexual intercourse and the requirement to wear the white garb (IslamiCity, n.d.).  Pilgrims return to Makkah to circle the Ka’bah in Tawaf al-Ifadah and to Sa’ee at the hills once more (IslamiCity, n.d.).  Some pilgrims will also drink from Zamzam, the spring that opened to save the infant Ismail, and all will return to Mina (IslamiCity, n.d.).  Day four and five are spent in Mina, stoning the pillars before finally returning to Makkah for one last circumambulation, the Tawaf al-Wada.  The pilgrimage is complete, but many will also travel to Medina, the city where Muhammad is buried (IslamiCity, n.d.).  Prayers will also be said at Maqam Ibrahim, the Station of Abraham, where Ibrahim stood while building the Ka’bah (IslamiCity, n.d.; Renard, 2012).  The Maqam Ibrahim contains a rock with the imprint of Ibrahim’s feet, Allah’s proof of Ibrahim’s prophethood (Renard, 2012).

            Beyond the imitation and symbolism of the individual rites as discussed, and the reenactment of important accomplishments of Adam, Ibrahim, and Muhammad, there are also two overall themes that have been suggested for interpretive study.  The pilgrimage itself is said to parallel death and rebirth (Katz, 2004).  At the boundary, the pilgrim relinquishes all earthly possessions and titles, donning an unhemmed shroud, not unlike a burial shroud.  He or she spends days in introspection and prayer, completely focused on his or her relationship with Allah.  Upon completion of the Hajj, the pilgrim becomes like a newborn again, free of sin (Renard, 2012).  The second theme is that of subservience.  Like a subordinate begging for the charity of a powerful lord, pilgrims willingly submit to any activity that will prove their devotion, asking for favor in the future, specifically that of Paradise (Katz, 2004).  This is especially pertinent among the scholars who believe that the rites are arbitrary and solely created to ensure complete obedience (Katz, 2004).  In fact, it has been stated that if the pilgrim rationalizes his activities by attributing meaning to them, the intellectual or spiritual affinity for that rationalization diminishes the complete obedience and blind faith (Katz, 2004). 

            While some scholars are eager to point out that the Hajj is purely an act of obedience, and intellectual rationalization of the rites is a detriment to pure obedience, it is undeniable that several parts of the Hajj have basis in at least reenacting the pilgrimages of Ibrahim and Muhammad.  Adam is linked to the Ka’bah, even if only tenuously, Arafah, Muzdalifah, and Mina, and was the original patriarch of humanity.  Ibrahim, the last common ancestor of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, built the Ka’bah, nearly sacrificed his son, Ismail, on Arafah, and resisted the temptations of Satan by stoning him.  Muhammad, the last Muslim prophet, cleaned the Ka’bah of idols, gave his Farewell Sermon atop Arafah, and established the rules of the Hajj that are followed to this day. 



Barnard, A.  (2000, June).  Visions of Anthropology in History and Theory in Anthropology.  Porchester, NY: Cambridge University Press.  Retrieved from ebrary.

Firestone, R. (1992).  Abraham’s Journey to Mecca in Islamic Exegesis: A Form-Critical Study of a Tradition.  Studia Islamica, 76, pp. 5-24.  Retrieved from JSTOR.

IslamiCity.  (n.d.).  Hajj: Step by Step Guide [Website presentation].  Retrieved from http://www.islamicity.com

Katz, M.  (2004).  The Hajj and the Study of Islamic Ritual.  Studia Islamica, 98/99, pp. 95-129.  Retrieved from JSTOR.

Mawdudi, S. (1982).  Let Us Be Muslims.  The Islamic Foundation.  Retrieved from http://www.islamicity.com

Perry, R. (2003).  Five Key Concepts in Anthropological Thinking.  Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Renard, J.  (2012).  The Handy Religion Answer Book (Second edition).  Canton, MI: Visible Ink Press.


12/12/2012 - Posted by | College Papers | , , , ,

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