hajj literature mekka pilgrim
Photo: Léon Belly, Public Domain

Longing for Mecca. The Hajj in literature

The hajj fascinated travellers and authors all over the world for centuries. This was also reflected in books.

“We sped through Mecca in Japanese taxis. We made international long-distance calls. (…) At the same time, the essential rites remained unchanged. We turned in the tawaf in exactly the same way as was done in 1050. At such moments, we resembled modern vessels into which timeless emotions are poured.” (Michael Wolfe, American author)

Mecca as a place of longing

For centuries, there were unattainable places that stimulated the imagination of many – Timbuktu, Karakorum, Beijing, Mecca, or Medina. In modern times, one after the other was “discovered” and robbed of its mystery. For a long time, the two holiest places in Islam were an exception, as was the experience of the journey.

This did not stop adventurers, explorers, and spies from the West from trying their luck. If they succeeded in getting there and returning home, they gained fame through the publication of travel records. Between the 15th and the early 20th century, brave people from the West came to Mecca; among them non-Muslims and some Muslims.

Photo: Arif Azhar, Shutterstock

The first European pilgrim to enter Mecca without disguise was the English Muslim Herman Bicknell. Dressed in trousers and a pressed shirt, he must have had some interesting encounters until – like everyone else – he donned his ihram. Bicknell was the representative of a growing number of Europeans who embraced Islam from the mid-19th century onwards.

Travel books and descriptions from the Hijjz

Descriptions of the hajj and its waymarks are nothing new. From the earliest Muslims to the present day, records of their experiences, impressions and insights can be found. For scholars such as Al-Ghazali, Al-Bukhari, Ibn Al-’Arabi and many others, Mecca and Medina were not only waymarks where they fulfilled their ritual duties, but also stations on their quest for knowledge. And important travellers such as Ibn Battuta, Ibn Khaldun or Evliya Çelebi visited these places and recorded their impressions in writing.

In April 1853, the British explorer and orientalist Richard Burton travelled to the Hijaz in disguise. He left detailed descriptions of the Hajj and the towns he visited. The Dutchman Snouck Hugronje followed suit in 1884, when he spent six months in Mecca in the disguise of a scholar. The result was the two-volume book Mecca, which is still available in paperback.

One of the most significant and poetic documents in German today is the book Zu den heiligen Quellen des Islam (To the Holy Sources of Islam) by the writer Ilya Trojanov, published in 2004. The title was the fruit of a pilgrimage the author undertook in 2003. “So great were the differences, one could have thought at some moments that the people had nothing in common with each other except for the two white cloths in which they were wrapped,” he said, describing the pilgrims in their garb.

But also, that Mecca has become part of global modernity: “McDonalds, Kentucky Fried Chicken and Wimpys are as firmly established in Mecca as Gucci and Cardin, Longines and Swatch.” Trojanow’s book is in the tradition of great Hajj accounts.

Ilja Trojanow, Mumbai to Mecca: A Pilgrimage to the Holy Sites of Islam, 224 pages, hardcover, 2014

Foto: Dženita Karić, Twitter

Bosnian Descriptions

Dr. Dženita Karić, who teaches at the Institute of Islamic Theology in Berlin, has recently published a comprehensive anthology of Bosnian hajj literature spanning five centuries. In the anthology, published in English, she documents the diverse paths of Bosniaks on their way to Mecca and Medina.

The book shows, for example, how the Hajj often took place against the backdrop of a changing political environment: from the communist era, when the pilgrimage was used by the former Yugoslavia to build soft-power relations with Muslim countries, to the war years of the 1990s, when it helped the nascent Bosnian state present itself and its cause to the world.

In the last hundred years, ordinary Bosniaks would have written about their Hajj experiences and recorded them in travel diaries. After returning home, many would make copies and distribute them among their friends. According to Karić, there are at least two or three such texts in an average household. This literature, she says, is a rich source of information about how ordinary people are connected to their faith and what contexts influence them.

“I started with my family’s collection and their networks. That led me to the libraries. When people found out I was writing about Hajj literature, they contacted me and said, ‘My grandfather wrote this. Do you want to have a look at it?’  I studied in the manuscript libraries in Sarajevo and Istanbul. And I also consulted manuscripts in Cairo.

You can also find many modern travelogues and writings about the Hajj on the internet,” the author described her research in an interview.

Denita Karić, Bosnian Hajj Literature: Multiple Paths to the Holy (English edition), Edinburgh University Press, 2022, hardback, 243 pages, ISBN 978-1474494106, Price: EUR 76.34

Foto: CBN Polona, via Wikimedia Commons | Lizenz: Public Domain

The Hajj as a subject

There are not many examples of Western fiction in which the pilgrimage to Mecca has found its way into at all. One of the exceptions is the novel Lord Jim by the British-Polish writer Joseph Conrad (author of the seminal Heart of Darkness), published in 1900.

Interwoven into the text, which was highly praised by the German Nobel Prize winner Thomas Mann, are fascinating facts about Muslim travellers and their pilgrimage. Lord Jim tells also a story of pilgrims and their simple lives.

In it, Conrad describes them as “unconscious pilgrims of a demanding faith.” It can be said that “unconscious pilgrims” is an accurate description of Hajj pilgrims, especially those who travelled with unsafe facilities years ago.

There is a portrait of these Muslims in the novel. “Eight hundred men and women had gathered there with faith and hopes, with affections and memories, who had come from the north and the south and from the outskirts of the east, having trodden the paths of the jungle, descended the rivers, sailed across the shoals in praus, cruised from island to island in small canoes, endured sufferings, encountered strange sights, been afflicted by strange fears, and been sustained by a single desire. (… )

They came dust-covered, sweat-covered, dirt-covered, wrapped in rags – the strong men at the head of family groups, the gaunt old men who pressed forward with no hope of return; young boys with fearless, curious-looking eyes, shy little girls with tousled long hair; the anxious women, muffled and hugged to their chests, wrapped in loose ends of soiled headscarves, their sleeping babies, the unconscious pilgrims of a demanding faith,” Conrad has his narrator report.

In examining Conrad’s work, we can see how he appeals to the distinction between tourists and hajjis. The author emphasises this in the following account of the pilgrims: “They poured in, driven by faith and the hope of paradise.” Faith, then, is the main difference between these two groups. From these descriptions, we can assume that the pilgrims’ goal was greater than that of the tourists.

Lord Jim was inspired by an actual scandal surrounding the Hajj in 1880, and the central episode of leaving the images behind on a ship in the Red Sea relates to Conrad’s own experiences as a sailor in 1882, as well as his knowledge of the scandal.

Joseph Conrad, Lord Jim: A Tale, Penguin (January 2000), 384 pages, ISBN 978-0141183541

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