How the Hajj Changed the World

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The Saudi Arabian government recently announced that the Hajj — the pilgrimage Mecca that every Muslim with sufficient means is obligated to make once in their lifetime — will not occur this year (except in an extremely limited form for people already in the country). This is not quite an unprecedented event. Wars, plagues, and famines have disrupted travel to Mecca before. But it is a very rare event. This announcement sent shockwaves through the Muslim communities of the world.

I’m not saying that it was the wrong call. The traditional pilgrimage planned for July would have been the ultimate superspreader event of the year: two million people from nearly every nation in the world would be in close contact with each other for prolonged periods of time. Then they would have gotten on airplanes and flown back to their countries. It would be difficult to imagine an event more likely to spread COVID-19 throughout the world.

But that doesn’t mean it is not sad that this majestic event has been canceled. Sad and significant. Millions of people had been planning to go. Some of them, and their families, have been saving much of their lives to experience this crowning spiritual event. I believe that there are such things as spiritual tragedies, and this is exactly what they look like.

And at this time of spiritual tragedy, it is worth reflecting on what the world owes to the 1400-year-old sacred tradition of the Hajj. The debt is significant. In many ways, the Hajj created the medieval Muslim world, and it continues to shape our world today in ways that most Europeans and Americans have never really considered.

Let’s start at the beginning. In the 7th century CE, Islam expanded with astounding speed. Muhammad and his followers seized control of Mecca in 630. By 633, the entire Arabian Peninsula had been united under Islam. In 651, Muslim forces conquered the Persian Empire. And by 750, the Muslim Umayyad Caliphate stretched across three continents from Northern Spain to the borders of China and India.

Why was the Hajj important in all of this? It created a world whose organizing principle required open borders — more than five million square miles of them, an area larger than the Roman Empire at the height of its glory. The pilgrimage to Mecca was a religious duty for nearly everybody in the Muslim world. People could, and did travel to the holy city every year — and with them came tradable goods, new technologies, scientific and medical inventions, books, ideas, and stories. The purpose of the Hajj was not to diffuse ideas and inventions across the largest empire the world had ever seen. That was just a side-effect. But it happened, and it mattered.

The free-flow of ideas and cultures allowed the capitals of the Medieval Islamic world — Baghdad, Cairo, and Cordoba — to become great, cosmopolitan cities where science and learning flourished in a way that would not happen in Europe for centuries. For a very minor example of this phenomenon, just look at the 1001 Nights — the great, framed collection of folk tales drawn from throughout the Medieval world and assembled in Baghdad. The number of cultures represented in this collection is stunning. Tales come from China, India, the Byzantine Empire, Persia, Arabia, North Africa, and just about anywhere else that had contact with Muslim pilgrims and scholars.

That is a minor example. For the major example, look at the works of Aristotle, which had become all but lost in Europe by the start of the 12th century. However, some of the greatest Muslim scholars the Middle Ages — Al-Farabi, Avicenna, Averroes, and many others — translated Aristotle’s works and wrote extensive commentaries on them in Arabic, which could then be translated into Hebrew and Latin. The re-discovery of Aristotle and many other Greek works had profound consequences in the West, including the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, the Reformation, and, for that matter, you and me.

But let’s stay focused on the Hajj. I am not saying that scholars carried their copies of Aristotle’s books to Mecca every year and shared passages with their fellow pilgrims. But I am saying that the existence of the Hajj placed a set of non-negotiable material constraints on the societies and governments of a significant portion of the Medieval world. Borders had to remain open, and both people and information had to be allowed to travel from Samarkand to Cordoba with a reasonable expectation of safety. This meant good roads, effective security, travel subsidies, and travel-friendly immigration policies. Even when the Umayyad Caliphate fractured into different states and empires, these conditions had to hold true for the entire Islamic world.

And they still hold true today. Imperfectly, of course, with all of the standard disclaimers and qualifications in place. The existence of the Hajj still matters to the way that people and information flow throughout the world. And it often makes things better. Consider the way that Malcolm X explained the effect of the Hajj on his view of the world:

There were tens of thousands of pilgrims, from all over the world… We were all participating in the same ritual, displaying a spirit of unity and brotherhood that my experiences in America had led me to believe never could exist between the white and non-white… [W]hat I have seen, and experienced, has forced me to rearrange much of my thought-patterns previously held, and to toss aside some of my previous conclusions.

This is a beautiful description of how access to travel can fundamentally change a person. Until traveling to Mecca, Malcolm experienced both Islam and race through a particular set of cultural filters. With these filters removed, he understood both concepts very differently. All it took was an encounter with a few million people from nearly every country on earth.

This is what the Hajj represents. And it is why I am so saddened today by the announcement that it will not occur this year. Along with the spiritual tragedy that comes from the loss of a singular spiritual experience, the loss of the Hajj — and the effective closing of other borders all over the world in response to the COVID-19 threat —risks re-enlarging a world that has just recently become small. This, too, will have profound consequences for the future.

Let us all pray this year that the Hajj, and many other Hajj-like things, return to us soon

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