Shap Journal 2001/2002 Living Community

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Shap Journal 2001/2002
Living Community
The Ummah.

the HBJJ' and

Sean McLoughlin
Muslim constructions of 'community' have to

be defined in terms of the ummah. Today

this international collective of Muslims is

around 1 billion strong, drawing members

from virtually every country of the world. Ever since the

death of the Prophet Muhammad in 632 CE, and the

spread of his message beyond the Arabian Peninsula,

Islam has had the potential to articulate a universal

identity that periodically transcends the local

particularities of a given people or place.

Perhaps the most concrete expression of this ummah, for

both Muslims and non-Muslims alike, remains the hajj,

or pilgrimage to Makkah and its environs. As one of the

five pillars of Islam, it is the hajj that brings believers

together at the site of their faith's genesis. The rites of

this sacred journey not only purify the individual

believer of his or her sins, but also attest to, and

reaffirm, the diachronic and synchronic continuity of

the ummah. So while pilgrims follow in the footsteps of

the Prophet Muhammad, who is said to have established

the prescribed rituals before his death, the hajj is now

'the largest and most culturally diverse assembly of

humanity to gather in one place at one time' (Esposito,

1995: 88). Indeed, as many as 2.5 million Muslims,

including 20,000 British-Muslims, make their way to

Makkah every year.

For scholars of religion, the functionalist understanding

of rituals such as the hajj, has long been that they

integrate communities, suspending - if only temporarily

- the complexities and contradictions of social life

'outside' sacred time and space. Thus, in the liminal

context of the hajj, people can be divested of their

profane worldly statuses, including hierarchies of class,

gender, nation and race. This can create a more

egalitarian relationship between pilgrims, something

that Victor Turner (1969), of course, called

'communitas'. However, the integrative function of

ritual does not impose uniformity of meaning upon

participants. Rather, it is perhaps better seen as

providing a common symbolic form, which enables the

aggregation of a community, while at the same time

allowing for the expression of multi-vocal individual

interpretations of an event or experience (Cohen, 1985).
Certainly, such perspectives were apparent in the

recollections of hajj that I have been involved in

recording recently. In their reflections, my Pakistani and

Kashmir! heritage respondents from Greater

Manchester, stressed a range of constructions of

community, emphasising the following: the common

origins and destiny of Muslims; the importance of the

pilgrim's ritual attire; and encounters with other

believers from around the world.
When I just walked into the mosque and I saw the ka'ba

[the cube-shaped central shrine that Muslims

circumambulate within Makkah's Great Mosquel, the

only thing I could do was cry. I was completely taken

over by the event. It is as though you have come back

home. I felt as though the ka'ba is the very source of our

beginning. Hajj drives the message into you, how

dependent we are on God. You see the whole sea of

humanity around you. You only know a very few people

but you are able to link yourself to all the others and say,

' Alhamdulillah [thanks be to God], I am actually part and

parcel of this sea that is before me, the sea of humanity'.

(Iftikhar, male, 50s, retired textiles worker)
I think what Zindapir [a Sufi saint from Pakistan] said

about the concept of ihram [the white clothing worn

during the hajj] is pretty much how I felt. He said it was

a rehearsal for the hereafter. When you're in the divine

presence that's how you will be. A Muslim dies with only

two sheets of cloth [a shroud]. Likewise when he

performs hajj he wears these two white cloths. No matter

if he is a king or a beggar, there is no difference between

them in the sight of God. (Majid, male, 50s retired

textiles worker)

In Makkah sharif [noble Mecca] you're sitting around the

ka'ba, you see lots of people from all walks of life, old,

young, little boys, little girls from all corners of the

world, which amazed me. I remember talking about

multi-culturalism and pluralism, even writing essays

about such things in Britain, and trying to understand

other people. At that time all these things came to mind.

Everyone tries to communicate with one another, even

smiles or letting one person pass before you, letting them

go in front or apologising, even sharing dates that you've

got, or fruit, with the next person. I couldn't speak their

language, they couldn't speak mine, but the smiles on

each others' faces made you feel really, really happy.

(Khalid, male, 20s, teacher)

Pilgrimage to Makkah has always been, even in pre-

Islamic times, an important site for the ritual re-

affirmation of community. However, in the pre-modern

period, the time and effort needed to travel to Makkah

generally meant that the numbers of Muslims attending

the hajj were relatively small (Eickelman and Piscatori,

1990). Only in an age of globalisation, with the advent

of rapid communications systems such as international

air travel, has the hajj become accessible and affordable

to a larger number of ordinary believers. As Fischer and

Abedi (1990: 170) report, numbers participating have

mushroomed in the modern period: 1850 (40,000);

1902 (200,000); 1964 (1,000,000); 1984 (2,500,000).

However, not surprisingly, overcrowding has brought its

own problems for those charged with managing the hajj.
Globalisation can be understood primarily in terms of

the increased and accelerated flows of people, capital,

goods and ideas which cut across and relativise the

boundaries of contemporary nation-states (Hall, 1991).

The resulting compression of time and space allows the

world to be experienced as more of a single place. This

has impacted not just on multi-national businesses

('McWorld') but also the way in which people imagine

communities. For example, one of the effects of the

increased flow of pilgrims on the hajj has been a

heightened sense of the ummah as a genuinely

international community (Bryan S. Turner, 1994). An

often-quoted example of this is the pilgrimage account of

Malcolm X (1968), the African-American-Muslim civil

rights leader, who explains his wonder at the 'colour-

blind' brotherhood he witnessed during the hajj.

Moreover, some scholars have argued that globalisation

is also gradually homogenising contemporary Muslim

identities. The suggestion is that as knowledge of 'high'

or 'orthodox' Islam becomes virtually universal - be

that through transnational flows of pilgrimage,

preaching movements or the media / internet - there is

a shift away from the widespread forms of folk Islam,

most often associated with ziyarah (visitation) at local

Sufi shrines (Gardner, 1995).

In general terms, such trends are undoubtedly

significant, and would seem to be especially marked

amongst some segments of newly urbanised,

aspirational, groups such as international labour

migrants. One way of marking the perceived higher

status associated with a newly acquired commitment to

'scripturalist' or 'purist' Islam, is the decision to

undertake the expense of pilgrimage to Makkah.

However, amongst my respondents, British-Muslim Sufis

with a traditional devotionalist orientation, there was

little evidence of this reforming zeal despite their relative

prosperity. Thus, despite the homogenising tendencies of

globalisation, diversity is still alive and well in the

Islamic ummah. Indeed, even though it annoyed some of

my respondents that sectarianism should be aired

during the hajj, others found that aspects of their

journey underlined their difference from, as well as

commonalities with, other Muslims. For example, the

Saudis' own 'Wahhabi' brand of Islam is known for

being especially puritanical. By far the greatest

complaint made against them by my respondents was

that, in their drive to erase the bid'a (religious

innovation) that compromises the absolute unity and

sovereignty of God, they have destroyed places of ziyarah.

While not part of the formal ha]] rituals, such minor

sites of pilgrimage are still sought out by many pious

pilgrims as places that offer great continuity with their

past and certain barakah (blessing) in the present.
You think, 'I'll go to such and such a sahabi's

[Companion of the Prophet] grave', and there aren't

even names there and it is so sad. They've wiped all the

past memories of the pious people. I was in Madinah

sharif [the city where the Prophet is buried] and there

was a person in the graveyard and he was trying to take

some of the dust from one of the graves and the guards

caught him. Seeing this guard really laying into this

man, it makes you think what is the difference between

'us' and 'them'. At each graveyard and other ziyarats

they have these massive posters or signs saying, 'It's

forbidden in Islam to touch the graves or to believe that

there's any blessing or to take stones or dust'. They try

to push their beliefs onto others, they're publishing

books, and pamphlets, giving them out to all the hajjis

who come. Then there are some simple brothers and

sisters who aren't very educated and they get these

leaflets and they think, 'Oh, this must wrong'.

(Munawar. male, 30s, housing worker)

What such debates make clear is that while the sacred

journey to Makkah is often imagined as constructing a

community set apart from the profanities of social

division, the whole event does, inevitably, take place

within another construction of community - the

particular nation-state of Saudi Arabia. As Fischer and

Abedi (1990) maintain, contested inferences from

various social, economic and political, as well as

religious, contexts always impact on the hajj. Indeed, in

bringing Muslims together in close proximity, the hajj

can magnify the fact that the ummah is a community of

very differently positioned communities, just as much as

it emphasises the irrelevance of social status before God.

Notably, some of my respondents were confronted with

experiences that prompted a realisation of the economic

privileges and political freedoms that their own Muslim

communities benefit from by living in the West. Clearly,

some members of the ummah are more exposed than

others to the stark inequalities and injustices that

remain within a globalising world. Nevertheless, in the

secular context of Britain, where many Muslims feel a

general absence of God, the annual pilgrimage to the

House of God in Makkah remains a great source of

spiritual connection, strength and renewal. Perhaps

these observations should alert us to the contextuality of

all constructions of community and the fact that we all

manage and maintain membership of multiple,

overlapping and competing belongings.
I think we're lucky being in Europe. Alhamdulillah, we

have work, a job that financially pays us quite well. It's

far too easy for us. Because we have the money, we want

luxuries even when we go there. We still want the best

accommodation, the best food. We'll travel on the

coaches, but those people who come from poorer

countries, they'll sleep rough, they'll eat little and they'll

even walk from one place to another. Yeah, so I value

those people's hajj more than ours and I think that their

hajj is more valuable to Allah too, because they're having

to make more sacrifices. (Nasreen, female, 30s,


I definitely need something like this because I need to be

kept strong in some way and we can't live in Saudi

Arabia, we can't live in Makkah or Madinah. Our life is

in England and, as I say, we need to be reminded of Islam

and this has helped me a lot because, if not, I'll be back

to square one, not knowing my religion very well and

not practising it. (Asma, female, 20s, women's group


Cohen, A. The Symbolic Construction of Community,

London, Routledge, 1985.

Eickelman, D.F. andI.P. Piscatori (eds.) Muslim Travellers:
Pilgrimage, Migration and the Religious Imagination,

Berkeley, University of California Press, 1990.

Esposito, I. (Editor in Chief), 'Hajj', The Oxford

Encyclopaedia of the Modern Islamic World, Oxford, Oxford

University Press, 1995.
Fischer, M.J. and Abedi, M. Debating Muslims: Cultural

Dialogues in Postmodernity and Tradition, Wisconsin, The

University of Wisconsin Press, 1990.
Gardner, K. Global Migrants, Local Lives, Oxford,

Clarendon Press, 1995.

Hall, S. 'Old and New Identities, Old and New

Ethnicities', in King, A.D. (ed.) Culture, Globalization and

the World System, Basingstoke, Macmillan, 1991.
Malcolm X with the assistance of Alex Haley, The

Autobiography of Malcolm X, London, Penguin, 1968.

Turner, B.S. Orientalism, Postmodernism and Globalism,

London, Routledge, 1994.

Turner, V. The Ritual Process, Chicago, Aldine, 1969.

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