Islam is a religion organized around one man, Mohammed, who lived from 570 to 632 CE, and centered in the ancient city of Mecca in present day Saudi Arabia. Mohammed's teachings were unveiled to him through God, and his recommendations to humanity include five essential pillars. Every Muslim, or follower of Islam, is told to follow these five pillars to best achieve success in the afterlife. One of the crucial elements of these five pillars is the Hajj, or the pilgrimage to Mecca, to be undertaken by every Muslim once in his or her life.[footnoteRef:1] The Hajj has been integral to the sharing of knowledge and custom between the various Muslims around the world, and has indeed been a key factor to the development of the Arab people themselves. This paper will discuss the Hajj, or the Pilgrimage to Mecca, and will describe its evolution, as well as present day ramifications. [1: "PBS - Islam: Empire of Faith." PBS: Public Broadcasting Service. Web. 04 Dec. 2011. . ]
Brief Description of Pilgrimage
The Hajj is not simply the collection of Muslims in the city of Mecca, but rather a series of ritualistic events re-enacting the steps Mohammed took on his way to Mecca in the year 631, the first and only time Mohammed completed the Hajj. The difficult journey to Mecca has been made much easier with modern transportation; however, some pilgrims still take the ancient desert routes that the Bedouin tribes took in Mohammed's time. The Hajj culminates with the arrival at the Kaaba of the Muslim people, the Cube-building that is at the center of Muslim prayer. Each person is to walk counter-clockwise seven times around the Kaaba, and then head over to Mount Arafat to throw stones at a representation of the devil. The result is an animal sacrifice, and the celebration of Eid al-Adha for three days. This process may seem extremely strange to a non-Muslim, but following in the ancestral path of Mohammed holds special significance to the Muslim people who follow in his teachings.[footnoteRef:2] [2: Denny Matthewson. A Reader on Classical Islam. Domes 4(2) (Apr 30, 1995): p71. ]
Importance of the Hajj
Another important aspect of the Hajj is its expense for the individual. For most of history, the average peasant Muslim could never afford the dangerous voyage to Mecca, as it demanded guides, protection, supplies, and camels, not an easily acquired collection. The pilgrimage was for many centuries seen as an activity intended for the Merchant and Upper classes of Muslims in their respective societies. This aspect of the Hajj meant that Muslim leaders and influential people could meet on a yearly basis to conduct business and conduct diplomacy in a neutral atmosphere. Merchants and artists were able to reach many types of clientele through the Pilgrimage process as well, perhaps staying in Mecca, or perhaps just passing through to conduct business. Even though Islam has spread all through North Africa, into Europe, and east to Central Asia, the Koran and the religion is centered on the Arabic language. This ensures the long-term success of the Arab people, as they are at the center of the Islamic world.
The early empires of the Muslim people in Baghdad and Turkey were happy to accept an inherently Arab religion as the religion of their empires, as it was able to instantly bring together a strong historical foundation for their empire, as well as all of the knowledge of the Arab people. Even the conquering British and French Empires, Christian in their own belief, were happy to maintain the Muslim status quo in the Middle East, as the economic benefits of empire were possible without trying to interfere with Islam. Therefore, one can see how the religion helps empower the people, and the people empower the religion, due to a thousand years of historical bonds that are well recorded and academically understood.[footnoteRef:3] [3: Nancy Haught. Hajj by the numbers: Islam's pilgrimage Hajj by the numbers.Oregonian, The (Portland, OR). 2011. ]
Ethnic and Religious Strife
The Hajj is not without its own religious and ethnic strife, as the Muslim world is split between two political groups, yet the requirement for Pilgrimage exists for both groups. The source of this split in Islam dates from the succession of Mohammed, and whether power should remain within his family and tribe, or within a merit-based group of religious elders. The group which controls Mecca, the Sunni Muslims, does not claim direct lineage to Mohammed, and believe that the power derived from religious practice under Islam should be shared amongst those best able to wield the power. Sunni Islam exists through North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula up to Turkey, with Shiite Islam being most prominent in Iran and Lebanon. The Shiite not only believe in different uses of power in Islam, but also in different events and teachings of Mohammed, as well as celebrating other religious leaders who were prominent Shiites in history.[footnoteRef:4] [4: Anthony Shadid. Across Arab World, a Widening Rift; Sunni-Shiite Tension Called Region's 'Most Dangerous Problem'. The Washington Post. 2007. .]
The divide between the Sunni and the Shiites dates back a millennium, and often access to Mecca was restricted even to Shiite elite. This resulted in the Muslim Pilgrimage practice to change to not necessarily always end in Mecca. Several sites in Iran and Iraq now receive Pilgrims, such as those for the Imam Hussein, grandson of Mohammed and early Shiite cleric.
The differences between Sunni and Shiite are not easy to characterize, nor can they be done in a mere paragraph in a paper on pilgrimage. However, it is important to expand upon these differences, as they are the root of many conflicts as well as many different natures of Islam, and its pilgrimage aspects. One important article that makes light of this difference was written as recently as 2006 in the New York Times. This article examines exactly the difference between a Sunni and a Shiite. It also asks who is on what side, and how does it work and why? Yet these are complex explanations, and they not only touch upon vital differences within Islam but also examine the ramifications of the theology. But these questions are important, especially the "who is on what side and what does each want?" This question should have been asked by all of us in the beginning of the Iraq war.[footnoteRef:5] [5: Stein, Jeff. "Can You Tell a Sunni From a Shiite? - NYTimes.com." The New York Times - Breaking News, World News & Multimedia. 17 Oct. 2006. Web. 04 Dec. 2011. . ]
The article examines just how clueless most people are as to the difference, and how incredibly difficult it is to tell apart. According to the author, at the time, "most American officials […] interviewed don't have a clue [as to the difference]. That includes not just intelligence and law enforcement officials, but also members of Congress who have important roles overseeing our spy agencies."[footnoteRef:6] Given this description it is important to ask why and how if it is really true, is this difference so difficult to ascertain. According to this narrative, "The basics goes back to their beliefs and who they were following […] And the conflicts between the Sunnis and the Shia and the difference between who they were following."[footnoteRef:7] [6: Stein, 2006. ] [7: Stein, 2006. ]
Differences between Two Cities
Yet the Sunni vs. Shia is not the only difference that must be examined with regards to Islam and pilgrimage. Another difference is between the two cities that are related to this pilgrimage. Mecca and Medina, these two cities, are not political cities by nature. Even the state of Saudi Arabia, within which both cities are contained, has its capital in Riyadh out of respect for the ancient cities. This does not mean that the Pilgrimage is without its politics, however. The large roaming tribes of ancient Arabia, called the Bedouin, often communed in Mecca and Medina at the bazaar. It is here that all of the rumors and messengers from across the world traded information at the heart of their religion. In essence, the Pilgrimage existed before Mohammed ever lived, as roaming tribes had always existed. What changed in Mohammed's time, however, was his ability to understand the importance of movement in desert societies, and therefore Islam was the first Monotheist religion that was able to capture the lifestyle and important aspects of the tribal peoples of the Arabian Peninsula.
The Saudi royal family, who hold absolute power over all matters in the country, now manages Saudi Arabia. This means that the family manages all aspects of the Pilgrimage as well, including hotels, airlines, residences, auto transportation, and more. As an oil-rich nation, Saudi Arabia has few options for alternative revenue sources, and as such the Hajj is an important financial boon for the royal family. There is a very small middle class in Saudi Arabia, and therefore tax revenue from citizens alone…