Controlling Unity

[An essay originally written for]

And the Pilgrimage to the Temple (the hajj) is an obligation to God for those who are able to journey there.

-- Quran. Sura 3: 90-91.

Last month the Governor of the Mecca region, Prince Khalid Al-Faisal bin Abdulaziz, congratulated[i] all involved for the smoothing running of this year’s hajj. Thankfully, there was no repetition of last year’s tragedy, when 364 people were killed in a huge crush at the stoning ceremony, in part because of an extension to the Jamarat bridge that alleviated the flow of people. However, the invitation of Ahmedinejad to perform hajj – a hand extended by King Abdullah – reminds one that such a central event in Islam is never free of controversy.

Every day begins facing Mecca. It is the birthplace of Muhammad, where he first heard God’s call, and where he first proclaimed his message. It is the centre of the world; even if, for most Muslims, it is a centre out there; something to which one orientates oneself. The centrality of the hajj to Islam can scarcely be overemphasised: it is one of the five basic duties incumbent upon every Muslim.

When we remember that Mohammed believed the message he received was not a new message, but a return to the one true faith already given to Abraham, we see that within Islam there is already a return, a recursiveness. The hajj is a return journey to that home – to the foundations of the religion; to the centre, even if, for most Muslims, it is a centre out there.

Such a return brings with it a corresponding emphasis on the unity of the ummahover all; this is, after all, a place non-Muslims cannot go: it is a sphere that should be purely religious.

Such a display of unity is not an easy thing to bring about: gathered together are almost two million people from a host of different cultures, many of whom do not speak the same language. The cultural estrangement brought about by the pilgrimage can be difficult for many: one is among fellow believers, and yet one discovers, here, at the centre of Islam, that one does not even share a similar language, and that, for each, what constitutes belief varies significantly.

Delaney[ii], in her work on the Turkish experience of the hajj, notes the bewilderment with which the Turkish pilgrims greeted this mix of culture and belief. Indeed, one can note that what should be an experience of great unity can also be one of great self-doubt, as beliefs and practices one believed to be an essential part of Islam are revealed as local concerns not shared by one’s fellow pilgrims from across the globe.

Such divisions are not so much overcome in Mecca as they are organised: during their stay in Saudi Arabia, pilgrims live in tent cities organised according to nation-state. Such an arrangement, necessary in an age where the numbers of pilgrims have exploded, reflects the domination of the state in the organisation of the hajj.

Ninety years ago, when there were only an estimated 300 to 350,000 attending the hajj – with only 150,000 hailing from outside the kingdom[iii] - people arrived at Mecca on foot, or on camel, after long journeys that could include extended stays for work along the way. But such a route was already being closed down by the end of the nineteenth century: with the firming of national and state boundaries in the area, territories were delineated, and pilgrims’ movements were controlled no less than migrant workers and the flows of goods.

Fast forward nearly a hundred years, and it is illegal to go to Mecca by land. It is the plane that is now the key. Saudia (the national Saudi airline) carried 893,702 Hajjis on 1,754 flights from 70 international destinations. At Jeddah, they are awaited by two special Hajj airport terminals, the largest such structures in the world.

Even before entering these terminals however, the budding hajji, searching for unity under Islam, will have been marked and classified by the nation-state. For a start, not everyone can go. Quota systems have been imposed to lessen the considerable administrative strain on the Saudi government. And even then, to be registered requires being organised according to one’s classification of residence and place of origin – just as later in Saudi Arabia one lives in areas arranged by nationality.

One should not be too nostalgic for an era of free travel however. The sheer scale of the modern hajj, itself a reflection of changes in technology and travel, require it. According to the official Saudi figures, a total of 2,454,235 pilgrims from 181 nations performed last year’s hajj, 1,707,814 from outside the kingdom[iv]. To provide housing, food, water, sanitation and transport for all these people is a considerable challenge.

One of the many problems that the Saudi government faces is public health. In 1956, the Saudi Ministry of Health assumed responsibility for health and sanitation during the hajj, and now has extensive sanitation and health facilities across all the sites of the pilgrimage. In doing so, they are unwittingly following in colonial footsteps.

Modern public health services were instituted at the hajj in the nineteenth century due to fears in Europe over the spread of cholera: it was alleged that Asian hajjis brought the cholera to Mecca, and it returned to Europe with North African pilgrims. Europe then pressures the Ottoman sultanate to establish an international organisation to oversee public health at the hajj.

The politics of unity

There are other colonial echoes in the contemporary organisation of the hajj. In the late nineteenth century, the hajj was perceived as a serious political threat by the colonial authorities; people were brought together from all over the Muslim world, and could exchange dangerous ideas about nationalism or Muslim politics. In order to avoid such contact, the Dutch government, anxious about the Netherlands East Indies (today’s Indonesia) established a vice-consulate in Mecca[v].

Today the Saudi government is perhaps less concerned with the spreading of anti-colonial ideas, but controlling not just the people, but also the religious discourse surrounding the hajj, remains crucial. As the central symbolic event of Islam, political dissent at the hajj sends out wider reverberations than a corresponding action at any other time.

In his fascinating account of the Hajj, Abdellah Hammoudi[vi] sets out some of the political and symbolic clashes that occur over the smallest actions at the pilgrimage. At each stop for prayer he details disputes: over where the women should stand, which text should be recited, and over who should lead the prayer; at such a central time, each act takes on a decisive importance, and, given the mixture of people and types of Islam involved, the clashes and debates should not be surprising.

Neither should the Saudi government’s reaction: which is to rigidly attempt to control, not just the people, but the ideas disseminated on the pilgrimage.

They have vested reasons to do so. The official title of the Saudi king is “the Guardian of the Two Holy Places” and much of their legitimacy is derived from their claim to look after these sites, the holiest in Islam. Indeed, the justification for the conquering of the Hijaz was to save Islam from those who would engage inshirk (deviation), and to restore a properly pure Islam. As Okruhlik[vii], among others, has noted, the religious authority of the king, in the absence of a properly nationalist project of forming citizens, has been one of the few means of keeping together Saudi Arabia’s fragile social contract.

When Ibn Saud conquered the Hijaz, and the Holy Places within it, in the 1920’s, controlling and organising the hajj became one of his most important tasks. Initially, controversies over religious interpretation (and correspondingly, who had the political power to enforce their interpretation) marred the hajj. In Mecca the cupola over the house of Khadija, wife of the Prophet Muhammad, was destroyed, and the Nadji who came with Ibn Saud condemned the veneration of sites associated with saints and earlier Islamic leaders[viii].

The Al-Saud was also careful to ensure that not only was there religious interpretation to be followed, but that no political dissent was to occur. In 1928[ix], an Indian Sunni pilgrim denounced the Wahhabis as infidels, and was promptly sent to jail. This incident inspired a tightening of the laws governing religious preaching at Mecca.

Such tension has continued up to the present day. During Nasserism and Arab nationalism, people sought to use the attention given to the hajj as a platform for political protest. The Saudis response was predictable, and, to a degree, understandable: the hajj is a time for religion and unity, not division and political dissent.

However, such a claim should be treated with suspicion. For the Saudi claim, that the hajj is not political, is the basis for a very political claim: that the Al-Saud family are the legitimate guardians of the two sites. Such a logic means, essentially, that when one questions the right of the Al-Saud family, and the degree to which they accord to their own religious justification, one is told that this is religious, and when one tries to enter politics into religion, then one is told this is no place for politics. Such a slippery exclusion is permanently in tension during the hajj.

Perhaps the paradigmatic example of this is the storming of the Mecca mosque by Juhayman al-Utaybi in 1979, recently the subject of an excellent article by Thomas Hegghammer and Stéphane Lacroix[x]. Part of al-Utaybi’s justification for the event was the criticism of the Saudi leaders, whose behaviour contradicted the word of God, and equally their claim to be living in accordance with it. Turning the claims of the Saudi leadership to represent Islam in Saudi Arabia, and using them to show the Al-Saud as corrupt, has been a theme of Islamist criticism in Saudi Arabia up until the present. By preventing political criticism through religious justifications, the Saudi regime invariably create an opposition that creates a political movement through religion; through events like the hajj.

The Al-Saud, in any event, have no qualms in using the hajj for political purposes, provided they control the politics. Witness the very public invitation extended to Ahmedinejad this year by King Abdullah, a step in a political program that saw the two leaders meet earlier last year to discuss Iraq and Lebanon.

Furthermore, one could also note the political implications of the raids that took place during the hajj. Al-Arabiya television reported that an unnamed security official claimed that the “al-Qaeda” militants aimed to make attacks during the hajj[xi]. Given the instant condemnation with which such attacks would be greeted around the Muslim world, it seems highly unlikely any Islamist militants would consider such a plan. Instead, it seems more probably the Saudi government used the excuse of the hajj to round up suspects, and create a feeling of public anger towards the Islamist opposition by suggesting that they would make an attack during hajj. We are Muslims, such a statement claims: they are outside.

To ensure the sanctity of the religious sphere is always difficult. Politics, everyday life, cultural differences – all of them threaten to intrude on an event that should be the moment of Islam at its purest for every hajji. The Al-Saud claim they want to ensure this purity. In reality, the unity they want to ensure, first and foremost, is the unity of the Al-Saud. This means, inevitably, using religion for political ends. It means controlling unity.



[ii] Carol Delaney. (1990) The “hajj”: Sacred and Secular. American Ethnologist, Vol. 17, No. 3. 513-530.



[v] Michael Gilsenan. (2006). And you, what are you doing here? London Review of Books. 19/10/2006.

[vi] Abdellah Hammoudi. (2004) Une saison à la Mecque. Récit de pèlerinage.Paris: Seuil. A short extract is also published by OpenDemocracy:

[vii] Okruhlik, G. 2005: The Irony of Islah (Reform). The Washington Quarterly. 28:4. pp. 153-170.

[viii] For more information on these issues, see my earlier article: Joshua Craze, On Wahhabism. SaudiDebate. 24/1/2007.

[ix] See William Ochsenwald (2007) Islam and Loyalty in the Saudi Hijaz, 1926-1939. Die Welt des Islams. 47(1).

[x] Thomas Hegghammer and Stéphane Lacroix. (2007) Rejectionist Islam in Saudi Arabia: The story of Juhayman al-Utaybi revisited. International Journal of Middle East Studies. 39: 103-122.