National Museum of Australia

Home > Audio on demand > ‘So That You Might Know Each Other’: Faith and Culture in Islam > The Hajj: Pilgrimage, prestige, and the religious imagination > transcript

The Hajj: Pilgrimage, prestige, and the religious imagination

Professor James Piscatori, Deputy Director and scholar, Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies, Australian National University, 22 May 2018

LUKE CUMMINS: Today we’re going to be talking about the Hajj and how this annual pilgrimage to Mecca represents the oneness of the Islamic community and is viewed as an affirmation of the equality of all believers. It carries immense symbolic significance, and exercises a profound hold on the Muslim imagination. So help me welcome Professor Piscatori for his lecture today, ‘The Hajj Pilgrimage Prestige and the Religious Imagination’.


JAMES PISCATORI: Thank you very much, Luke, and thank Penny and thank all of you for coming. I’m very pleased to be able to contribute to this discussion around this excellent exhibition on Islam, and as Luke has mentioned what I’d like to do is to focus on one of the pillars of the faith. I think you may know that Islam says there are five pillars of the faith. This is one of them.

[Points to slide] Okay, so the Hajj is one of the central tenets of the faith. As has been mentioned, every year this is one of the great rituals of Islam, where literally millions of people go to Mecca on pilgrimage and in commemoration of various Islamic traditions, which I’ll mention. It’s the fulfilling of an obligation which is enjoined by the Qur’an but it has become more than that. It’s become sort of a spiritual moment where there’s solace and even sort of a heightening of religious feelings and imagination. It’s also the case that it’s kind of a social occasion. As a result of that there are all kinds of economic, social, and even political implications to this pilgrimage which I’d like to point out. It has really quite a central part of the Muslim experience and it has been throughout the centuries.

First, the symbolism. The symbolism, as has already been mentioned, is quite intense. The Qur’an says that the Muslims constitute one community. This concept of the community, the Ummah, is one which has been very influential and has exercised a great pull on the Muslim imagination everywhere across all paths of the Muslim world, and so this ritual in a way is kind of a physical representation of that oneness of the community. Geographically, it brings people together from all paths of the Muslim world, including those that are in the minority, so from Australasia, from North America, from Europe as well, but it also is meant to sort of temporally link people from this life to the next life. It has really a lot of symbolic significance to it. More than that, and again, something I’d point out in a moment with the ritual, it gives a sense of the equality of the believers. Here, there are to be no representations of rank or prestige or power or influence. Everyone is meant to be equal. I think that is true in a spiritual sense but as I’ll point out in a moment, it doesn’t stop people from manipulating it in various ways to increase their sense of prestige.

What I’d like to do is sort of focus on three parts of this in the comments to follow which will give us what I hope is a kind of a broad view of the Hajj. The first is to look at the ritual itself. The second is to look at cultural representations of the Hajj. The third is to talk about the various social meanings that have been attached to the Hajj, both today and throughout history.

Firstly, ritual performance. This occurs in the last month of the Islamic calendar, a month called Dhu’l-Hijjah. It is to be the primary pilgrimage in Islam, no other pilgrimage should take precedence over it, but in fact there are other pilgrimages in the Islamic traditions, most of them, many of them, having to do with sufi or mystical pilgrimages to saint shrines, etc. But this, of course, is the most important of them all and has that kind of both religious and social significance to it. There is, as well to Mecca, a minor pilgrimage called the Umrah which can be done at any time. The Hajj, as I’ve suggested, occurs at a particular time in the Islamic calendar, but if you are not able to go at that time, you could do the minor pilgrimage which is the Umrah and that would essentially count as very similar.

The pilgrimage follows the form which essentially meant to replicate what the Prophet himself did at what is called the farewell pilgrimage. This is at the end of his life. So in 632, which is the year he died, the Prophet performed this final farewell pilgrimage, and he delivered a farewell sermon which is quite important and is used by, in many ways, invoked over and over again by leaders, religious leaders, political leaders, etc. A lot of it has to do what’s kind of technical matters: the advising that Muslim should follow the lunar calendar; the feuds which were based on blood and sort of tribal-type feuding should stop; that their women should be treated well and that there should be no false claims to paternity, etc. And that he ended by saying, ‘Today I have perfected your religion and completed My favour for you and chosen Islam as a religion for you.’ It has quite an evocation for to it, and you can see as I mentioned, that it is commented on by people throughout time. You’ll see this kind of representation here in the image, which would be a typical representation without the face of the Prophet being shown.

Who performs the Hajj? Again, it should be once in a lifetime that this should be done. It’s one of the primary injunctions as I mentioned. If you are capable of doing so, you should do so. But of course, there are all kinds of jurisprudential debates which unfolded over time about whether or not you’re capable to do so, or what happens if you’re not capable of doing so. Disability is often considered a valid reason not to undertake it. In some forms of the jurisprudence on this subject and some of the legal rulings on this, someone could do it perhaps on your behalf. You perform the Hajj for someone else. Some conservatives, however, say that this is not allowed. Now women of course are allowed to attend the Hajj, but on various points there are differences. Can it be done during menstruation? Should they be accompanied by their male guardian, the mahram? How closely can they mix with men? Can they stand next to them in terms of the prayers? Must their face be covered? There are different interpretations of this, and of course some will argue that their interpretation is the only one or the valid one, but in fact if you looked at the range of writings on the subject and the practices, you could see that there are differences.

Another one is whether a child can perform the Hajj. There’s no clear ruling on this but it’s generally assumed that a prepubescent child shouldn’t or wouldn’t, and so generally would be assumed that I suppose no one younger than the age of seven but again, there’s a sort of ambiguity here about the actual age that would be required to do it. During the ritual itself, the pilgrims wear a special cloth, this white cloth that you will see it over and over and over again, and this is meant to be, of course, something that all Hajjis, all pilgrims would wear, and therefore clearly symbolises the equality of all believers. Many think that this is so important that they actually retain it as their burial shroud. So it has a real kind of social significance to it. Men are bareheaded, women have a head covering, again symbolising, kind of, the humility before God. The Qur’an has many injunctions about the Hajj. It is meant that at the Hajj, there is not to be any form of dispute, no form of violence. The Qur’an proscribes, in fact, it says that, ‘No obscenity, no inequity, no disputes.’ It says that, ‘Even the killing of a gnat, even the killing of a fly is impermissible during the Hajj, so important is this.’

The sort of, early in the beginning and at the end of the Hajj, and you’ve seen I’m sure pictures of this of the circumambulation, the going around of the central cube called the Kaaba which I’m going to talk about. That this is performed at least twice immediately upon arrival and then leaving, and it involves going around in counter-clockwise for seven times. I’m sure you may have seen photos of this movement around the central area. This is, of course, great emotion is attached to this. That what they go around, is the, in many ways perhaps the central symbol and image of Islam. That’s the Kaaba. Kaaba means cube and I’m sure you’ve seen many, many, many photos of this. This is the focal point of the Hajj and in some ways therefore the focal point of all of Islam. Many, many, many representations of it, as I’ll show you a few in a moment. It’s believed to be originally built by Abraham and his son, Ishmael. Some say it was originally built by Adam. It’s got, of course, a perhaps slightly mythologised lineage to it, but clearly a lineage which is accepted. It goes all the way back into the myths of time. Of course, Abraham, the figure of Abraham or Ibrahim is a major figure in not only Christianity, but Judaism and of course Islam, is meant to be the preeminent monotheistic figure.

All these great religions would in some way claim some form of connection to Abraham, and here’s a tangible one. It contained all of these idols in pre-Islamic time. This is what occurred, Mecca was a trading entrepot. It was quite a successful place. It had sort of wealth attached to it, but it was built on a religious sort of ideology which was polytheistic. In other words, there were many Gods. This therefore becomes the great, great oppositional point for Islam. The Qur’an, the Prophet, etc., constantly argues against polytheism and even today, when you want to use a kind of a delegitimising term for the sort of enemy, you would refer to them as a polytheist, those who would accept there is more than one God. I think that you know that the central principle of Islam is the absolute oneness of God. There are no other Gods and therefore the trinity of course is not accepted. So this Kaaba contained idols to these many other Gods and therefore needed to be cleaned out, cleared out, when there is the Muslim conquest. It contains the Black Stone, which is in this bottom image here, perhaps a meteorite which is believed by Muslims to date back to the time of Adam. It’s located in the eastern corner in this silver frame. Some people believe that you should kiss it as the Prophet did. Some conservative interpretations say that you shouldn’t kiss it. Some try, some don’t, etc.

It again is meant to be a focal point within it. You’ll see there’s a cloth covering on it which used to be done by the Egyptians and presented by Egypt but is now made by the Saudi government. That covering, which I want to spend just a little bit of time talking about cause there are representations in the exhibition here, that covering is called the kiswah and as I say traditionally it was made in Egypt. It was delivered in a ceremonial procession, this mahmal, the ceremonial procession occurred from roughly the 13th century to the 20th century. These two representations are indications that the palanquin where the covering was put in and it was then transported from Egypt to Mecca and there was a grand procession, a great celebration, symbolism that was attached to it. So quite powerful and as you can see in the bottom one, I mean this occurred as late as the sort of 1920s etc. In fact there was an interruption between the ’20s and the 1960s, but it more or less occurred until about 1962 when it all shifted to the Saudis when Saudi Arabia, in control of Mecca, decided that they could do it, they could make the kiswah and it didn’t require the Egyptians to do it. The Egyptians wanted to do it historically because it was a tangible attachment to this very holy moment, this ceremony.

It’s traditionally black and downstairs you’ll see in the exhibition, you’ll see some from the Prophet’s mosque in Medina which are red. That’s a different tradition, but here I’m talking just about the Meccan one and they’re traditionally black, made from something like 47 pieces stitched together, about 15 kilos of gold thread. The design has invocations to God and the profession of the faith. The Kaaba’s never left without a covering. It’s changed every year, and it again is a big sort of ceremony around that, but it’s always to be covered and as I said, the Saudis are now the creators of it. Here are some examples. The latter two are in London. Again, there aren’t many from very old versions of it that would go back into medieval times. That’s largely I think because of the deterioration of the tapestry of the cloth but we have from certainly the 17th century, 18th, 19th century, we have representations. Those two, one in the British Museum and one in the Victorian and Albert Museum are particularly nice versions of it. You can imagine how this is all hand-done, etc. The picture on the right is an image of the current factory which is in Mecca, done by, owned and promoted by the Saudi state and so these are people who are sewing it etc. for the changeover every year during the Hajj season.

It has quite a particular kind of resonance to it and this picture will kind of give you an idea of the individual parts to it. The parts that I want to mention, of course, is the door – the golden door cover is special – and then you’ll see what is sort of a belt above that, that goes across it. Those are all component parts of all of this and are really quite beautifully done and mean a lot to people who see it and who later might get parts of it. When the Hajj is over, the tradition is that the old one is cut up and the rulers generally give it out as gifts. So it might be given to ambassadors, or as I said, this is a tradition which is throughout the centuries, not just today. So you can find pieces of it all over the world. I mean I used to teach at Durham University and I can tell you that at Durham Cathedral, there is a small segment of the kiswah in Durham Cathedral which had been given by someone. So these can found all over the world, parts of earlier ones. In the exhibition downstairs, you will find these two, and the one on the left is somewhere, 17th–18th century. If you look at the inscriptions is really the repetition of the profession of faith, but it also refers to God or Allah and it refers to the majesty of God.

This would be a typical kind of early version of it. On the right is a part of the kiswah and this called the qindil after ‘lamp’ and you can see the lamp-type version of it. This would be just below the belt that I showed you, just below there. This would be a modern one which was made by the factory in Mecca. The reference points here in the calligraphy are to two of the names of God. So as you know God has 99 beautiful names, so these are two of them, the Everlasting, and the Sustainer and the Protector. Quite clearly then the kind of reference points are pretty clearly referring to the profession of faith and to God. The Hajj itself is a series of re-enactments. It’s basically re-enacting events that occurred in early history, and so the running back and forth at one point, and if you kind of follow that image, you can see that there’s a lot of movement that goes across several days. People are moving all the time and part of it is the commemoration of the searching of water by Hagar, I’ll say a little bit more of that in a moment, Hagar the servant wife of Abraham.

Then the procession that goes on to Mount Arafat – this is where the Prophet gave his farewell pilgrimage. The points that are in red are indicating the kind of symbolic events that are being re-enacted as a result of the Hajj. Even at one point there is the rejection – Abraham rejected the interjection of Satan – and that occurs in a particular area called Mina, and the animal sacrifice is commemorating – this is the animal sacrifice as you know that becomes part of the Eid or the celebration at the end of the Hajj. This commemorates the sheep that God accepted in place of Ishmael, and then the commemoration at the end. Basically, pilgrims are moving back and forth in this period. They’re doing commemoration of a stoning of Satan, etc.

So all of these have kind of a particular purposes behind them. Just to give one example, I’d mentioned this running back and forth, this is meant to commemorate Hagar’s search for water. What was the point here, that Abraham’s wife was searching for water in the desert, she runs back and forth between these two hills trying to find the water and finally she’s rewarded by the fact that she gets this water which springs up at the feet of her son, Ishmael or [alternate pronunciation of Ishmael]. That well, that water spring is called Zamzam and is still producing water which is regarded as quite holy.

The entire event is meant to be a commemoration that one shouldn’t give up hope. That even in an apparently hopeless situation, in this desert, no water, that God provides. It clearly has a real resonance for the modern period, and the picture on the top is an indication of the people going back and forth. One of the points I’m gonna make in a moment is how the Saudis have so transformed it in various ways and this is one example of it. So these two hills are now incorporated within buildings. So you have this running back and forth in air-conditioned conditions, and it is completely different of course from what it would have been in earlier times. The bottom is just sort of a cheeky reference to the fact that Zamzam has a larger kind of a popular attraction to it, and so even the Iranian revolution – in Iran you used to have Pepsi, and then when the Iranian revolution came ‘Pepsi’ went out the window and it was changed to Zamzam and so the invocation of that name. This is the stoning of the devil. This is where people in commemoration again of Abraham rejecting the intervention of Satan.

This will occur and I think you, because you can see the density of the crowds, one of the problems is that in the modern period, people have been hurt and killed as a result of these stones flying all around. It’s become quite difficult, and the Saudis have tried to control it by building larger stone pillars against which you would then throw these stones, in an attempt to kind of control it. It’s been somewhat successful but not entirely. This is Mount Arafat. This is again where Muhammad gave, the Prophet gave his final sermon, and so this is a quite important event and what you will get here is that every year the Saudi King, as the controllers of Mecca, will give a kind of speech to the world, where to the Islamic world where he’s trying to invoke the spirit of the Prophet’s final message. Again, it’s quite an emotional moment during all of this. It ends with the festival of sacrifice, this is the Eid al-Adha. This is one of the two Eids during the year. This falls on the 10th day of the month, this last month of the calendar. This is when they descend from that Mount Arafat that I just showed you. This is where the sacrifice of animals occurs and the giving it away, etc. – you know, sheep, goats, camels, etc.

This is considered a particularly important moment that food should be given to the poor, and so in a way you attain a certain spiritual grace as a result of being generous, as a result of these great moments of the ritual. That gives you some sense, I think, of what the ritual itself is. As you can see, it’s a series of enactments, re-enactments, of events which occurred earlier in Islamic and even pre-Islamic history meant to in effect be heightening of one’s religious attachment or spiritual connections. So important has the Hajj become that it has become part of the cultural representations of the Muslim world, and it’s been involved in any number of media. It has – the Kaaba in particular – has served as this very obvious focal point. So you’ve had pious representations. These are two examples of more pious representations of it.

The first is, there’s a very famous story in the Muslim world of Majnun and Layla. It’s a love story, the famous story of Majnun and Layla, and here’s an example of two lovers, and here’s an example of where Majnun is taken by his father to the Kaaba again to get kind of spiritual growth. This is an example of a manuscript, which is in Herat in Afghanistan. The bottom is a 16th-century one at one of the biographies of the Prophet. Again, you can see where it becomes the clearest representation in many ways. But all of these meant to be instructive. They’re meant to be appealing to the pious and to encouraging them to be more devout. This is what is in the exhibition downstairs. This is taken from a particular 19th-century copy of a 15th-century original which is a book about religious practice etc. On the left is Medina, which is the Prophet’s mosque, where he’s buried. On the right is the Kaaba and the grand mosque or the central mosque of Islam. You can see that this is repeated over and over and over again in manuscripts.

These are just two modern depictions of the Kaaba. The one on the left is just a particularly attractive – if you were to see it, it’s quite innovative, quite charming in many ways. This is – the black cube in the middle is a magnet and these are all iron filings. This is done by a young Saudi artist which is meant to be this, again, the representation of the people doing the circumambulation, the movement around the Kaaba. It’s a very, I think quite clever sort of sign of how this has an enduring relevance to people, even fairly young people. The one on the right is done by a Moroccan French artist who, as you can see, is not coming from a religious background and is much more secular and sceptical. His work is a based on the kind of representations of incompatibilities and how one shouldn’t try to reconcile those thing which are incompatible. Here he’s essentially saying the Kaaba and in effect humanity or thinking man are incompatible. As implausible as it is that the Kaaba could rest on the head of a man, it would be implausible to think that the religious traditions of Islam could be reconciled with the modern world. You can see it has appeal but in different ways, even in popular culture.

The two on the left here are houses in Egypt. There’s quite a distinct tradition of people returning from the Hajj, who therefore I refer to as Hajjis, and acquire a certain social procedure – at least in earlier times – they would have required a very distinct because of the difficulty of getting to Mecca and returning with the diseases, the travel, etc. So they would come back and paint on their homes the representations of Mecca itself. Some of them now, the more modern ones have even 747s, airplanes, etc. painted on the wall as indication of how they got there and how they got back. Comic books, there are all kinds of representations of the Hajj, etc. Then finally even a cyber-Hajj. There is something called Second Life and Second Life, there’s a virtual Hajj. You can find, in effect through cyber-technology, you can have representations of the Hajj. These are them, which would suggest how important it is, so much so that even in terms of the Second Life cyber-world, you would have access to it. It clearly is, over and over again it’s represented, and as one could just go on and on about how there’s a devout sort of interpretation of it which you’ve seen, but there’s also an increasing sort of popular incorporation into popular culture. And a lot of it’s sceptical, not necessarily devout, but it does indicate that people see it as of central symbolic importance.

The third part of my presentation is to talk about the social meanings of the Hajj. The first I want to point out is the pre-eminently this is a spiritual matter. As I said at the outset, it signifies unity, it signifies equality, this is, again, it’s whether this is perceived or aspired to, it’s definitely part of it. Not everyone regards the Hajj as a physical journey. Sufis, or these mystics, in fact many times have said that you basically can do it your own home. It’s kind of a spiritual journey such that you don’t actually need to go to Mecca, but of course that view is a minority view. The travel part of it is considered essential and the act of travel in many ways is seen as transformative. Over time an entire genre of literature has developed; it’s called Hajj accounts. You can find all kinds of them. There’s even ones by several European converts. There’s a famous one called ‘From Charing Cross to Mecca’ where a British convert to Islam leaves from Charing Cross and ends up in Mecca on the Hajj and then writes it how this brought him to Islam and brought him closer to Islam and changed his whole view of it in some way. It is intended to give this sort of sense of the transformative power of it.

The clearest example of this is Malcolm X, and this is a photo of Malcolm X with, who wants to become King Faisal, probably the most famous and the most devout of the Saudi Kings. He goes on the Hajj, Malcolm X goes on the Hajj and the pilgrimage and it clearly changes him. This has become quite a famous sort of conversion as it were. If you remember Malcolm X was a member of the Nation of Islam, the Black Nationalist movement which was inherently racist, arguing that the whites were the devil, that blacks were superior, etc. So very clearly racialist in form. So he goes off to the Hajj, and so I just want to read you this part of it because this is the core of what he says in his autobiography. ‘During the past 11 days here in the Muslim world, I have eaten from the same plate, drunk from the same glass and slept in the same bed while praying to the same God with fellow Muslims whose eyes were the bluest of blue, whose hair was the blondest of blond and whose skin was the whitest of white. We are truly all the same brothers.’ This becomes a catalytic moment for Malcolm X. He returns to America and renounces the racialism of the nation of Islam and says, ‘My eyes have been opened by this great occasion where I saw community and equality. We are all equal.’

It’s quite a profound moment, and that’s why I would emphasise that if we’re looking for the social meaning of it, that it has something to do with one’s sense of identity and spiritual associations. It also has an economic side to it, and from the very beginning Mecca had been this trading centre and so revenues which derived from the pilgrims over the centuries were very important. By the time we get to a more modern period, the Ottoman period, clearly trade is very important and you will have known about the Hejaz railway if only by seeing Lawrence of Arabia. This is what Lawrence blew up. The rail line, the Hejaz railway, etc. This was built by the Ottomans to transport pilgrims from Istanbul, from the Ottoman lands, from Turkey to the area; the Hejaz is the area where Mecca and Medina are. This was extremely important in terms of the transport of the pilgrims but it also of course had something to say about trade as well. It enhanced the trade routes that occurred between the Ottoman lands and the Arab land, or this area of what we know call Saudi Arabia, but it was also the case from the other side, from Cairo to this area, Mecca. There were also important trade routes. So all of those were occurring.

In one particular area, the trade routes were very important for the Ottomans because coffee became an important staple. It became something which was extremely popular from the 16th century on. This in many ways was transported through these trade routes which were connected to the pilgrimage routes. So lots of historical connections. In other words, the practical side of it. The advent of oil of course has lessened the dependence on it but still today, lots of money is being brought in in terms of visas, rental of accommodations, restaurants, etc. The Saudis project that they’re going to get something like $150 billion by 2020 just from the Hajj, just from the pilgrimage. Sorry, I should have put that up. That is the indication of the current state of it.

Okay and the final part that I wanted to mention is that it has something to do with political legitimacy. Very quickly, rulers have used it over time as a way of affirming their support for Islam. So you’ve seen that in the case of the Abbasids, the medieval period of Islam where a key was transported as a symbolic connection, etc. You even see this is President Nasser and I think you probably know that Nasser was a kind of a secularist and so it seems a little bit jarring to see Nasser in his white robe, but he himself saw the great importance of the Hajj, in fact, thought it should be turned into a kind of parliament of Islam.

This is downstairs and this is an example of the key bag. I’ve just mentioned that the medieval rulers gave the key. It’s usually given to a particular tribe and these reference points on here basically say to put your trust in those that you should trust; and on the back, if you go down and look at it, look at the back as well, because the calligraphy on the back basically says who gave it, the key, this time, and who gave it was the King of Saudi Arabia. But the King of Saudi Arabia is referred to as the Guardian of the Holy Places; which, I also note here, that from the Ottoman period on, the Ottoman Sultans refer to themselves as the Guardians of the Holy Places or even more accurately translated, the Servants of the Holy Places.

I’m just gonna quickly go through this point, to say that over time of course, more and more people have done it, and so in the eighth century, the 10th century, the 16th, 17th century, basically repairs and extensions and expansions are made. It becomes bigger and bigger over time. There’s an example, maybe the late Ottoman period. When the Saudis took over, that’s roughly what it would look like on the top, and they then decided that of course they need to extend it as well. By the time they become the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, it was something like 48,000 people could get into the mosque – now it’s about well over a million. This is what it roughly looks like now. So the Saudis have, you can see this vast expansion, but if you’re looking, you can see all the housing etc. around it are gone. That’s become hugely controversial. The Saudis have spent all this money extending it etc., something like over a million. They still have something like two million people actually do it altogether. So the control is now meant to be something like one per cent of the total Muslim population – it should be limited to this. But that’s controversial because the Qur’an says everyone should do it, if they can. The limitation has made it difficult for them.

The current king has said, ‘We’re going to expand it even more’. [Points to slide] There’s the plan on the top and as you can see, these are quite extensive. I think you can get the point that all the rest of the city is gone, and that has become hugely controversial. Something like six [inaudible]. The new one, the new changes are to incorporate something like 1.85 million people at once. I mean we are talking huge, huge matter. As a result of this, of course, it’s been highly politicised where people have questioned it. So the dates that I’ve given you there are just a few of the deaths that have occurred during the Hajj. The Saudis say ‘What can we do? There are so many people. They’re crushed to death, stonings, they get in the way, etc. How do we do it?’ All kinds of problems but this has been used by the critics of the Saudis to say that they don’t manage it very well. So very controversial, and the final point is about the expansion of the mosque. Is it destroying the whole heritage of Mecca?

[Ayatollah] Khomeini is just one of the critics. Khomeini said, there, ‘To keep the sacred house and the mosque simple as they were at the time of Ibrahim and the advent of Islam is a thousand times better than decorating it and surrounding it with the high rise buildings.’ There’s the Hilton, etc. So the transformations in the city are quite controversial. Just summing up, what I’ve tried to do is to give you an overview of the Hajj as a ritual and also to show you how it has different representations and then how meaning is on several levels. I think it’s clear that it’s had these profound significances over time and as it is a highly emotional moment, but because it is this great convocation of Muslims, it has had this meaning on several levels. One is that people have acquired prestige as a result of going to it. Some have even felt they’ve been transformed by, converted in ways, and various patrons have used it to legitimise their authority and even to make money out of it. It’s got profane and religious significance to it. Above all, I want to leave you with the fact that I think all of these artistic and literary expressions, some of which you have in the exhibition here pretty much attest to the fact that it has consistently spoken to and uplifted the human spirit. Thank you.


LUKE CUMMINS: Well, ladies and gentleman, I think we can all agree that that’s given us a new perspective on the Hajj and particularly the volume of people involved and going each year. I actually had a quick question in terms of – How do you nominate to go to the Hajj? Because the sheer volume of people going, is there some kind of ballot system?

JAMES PISCATORI: Yeah, yeah. That’s increasingly become the case. In some of those earlier images would have just shown you people going and it would be basically those that could afford it and they would go. But yes, today you have to have a visa and so therefore it’s controlled by the Saudis etc. But the interesting thing is the Saudis have encouraged, because they’re trying to control these numbers, they’ve controlled national delegations. So in countries like Malaysia and Tunisia, Turkey, etc., you would have to have the permission of your national pilgrimage board in order to be able to go. In places like London, there are Hajj – there are tour organisers all over the place and they’ll sell packages, Hajj package tours. They will have been told that the aggregate number for Britain was so many thousand and then that would be broken up in various ways to the different groups. So yes, it is controlled in terms of the numbers now. What’s not controlled is the number of Hajjis who come, who are already in Saudi Arabia.


JAMES PISCATORI: So essentially any Saudi citizen can go. So that inflates the numbers quite dramatically.

LUKE CUMMINS: And we got a question in the back with Carol, just give me one moment.

CAROL COOPER: Thank you so much, that was just a fascinating talk. I learned a great deal. I wondered about the kiswah fragment that we have here at the National Museum, just how rare it is to have a fragment of that age and beauty here in Australia and whether you know. I’ve never thought about it before, whether other fragments have come to Australia and have been on display at other museums or galleries?

JAMES PISCATORI: Thank you for that. I think it’s special. I think that’s lovely that you’ve got a – I mentioned that the tradition is to cut it up and to give it out but the pieces are quite small, you know, really small, smaller than an A4 size. To have something that big is impressive and also it’s an earlier version. Most of them, for example, I showed you the British Museum and the VNA, I mean theirs date to the 19th century. The one downstairs, I noticed it has an inscription for 17th, 18th century. So I mean, you know, you can’t be terribly precise but it’s clear that it’s older than others.

CAROL COOPER: Yes. Well, we believe that that fragment actually was given to the family of the current ruler of Shajah and that’s why – and it’s very special there and it has been on display in other countries – but we did know that it was very large. It’s a very large fragment. I think it is pretty amazing that it is here at the National Museum but also, so do you think there have been other examples that have come to Australia that you might know of?

JAMES PISCATORI: No. There might be, no, there might be in private possessions. But not that I know of. No, so this is where I think it’s quite special and that’s interesting, I didn’t know that it was given to the ruler of Shajah. That would make sense.

CAROL COOPER: Not to him but to his family.



JAMES PISCATORI: That would make sense.

CAROL COOPER: Because he’s only been the ruler since 1974.


CAROL COOPER: My other question sort of, I don’t want hog the microphone but connected to this, is really about how the difference in places like the Middle East, I’ll just say, or in a lot of Islamic countries of the concept of a museum, it seems to me that you were saying that a lot of the fragments, the earlier fragments have probably been destroyed just because they’re so, they’re textiles and they’re very fragile. Would it be the case that mostly these pieces have in fact been preserved by families rather than by institutions?

JAMES PISCATORI: Yes. Yes. I think that’s exactly right. They would also have been preserved by mosques in some places. So I think that’s right. I mean, there are now, of course all over the Muslim world, there are now all these modern museums which are scrambling to get this stuff but I can tell you, I was in Saudi Arabia in December – I went to Medina and so the Prophet’s mosque is in Medina, we didn’t talk about it, but where the Prophet is buried is in Medina, the second holy city. I can tell you, they were scrambling to preserve things like fragments of the kiswah or coverings, early Qur’ans, etc. that were given by rulers or something as a kind of spiritual, getting kind of points for a spiritual points for it by giving it to the mosque etc. But they were just literally thrown in the corner of the Prophet’s mosque, and these people were literally, the new museum-type people were literally trying to grapple the stuff and preserve it. I think you would find it there, in corners of mosques, but you would probably find it mostly in family collections.

CAROL COOPER: Thank you.

QUESTION: Thank you for the presentation. I just wanted to ask you, in Cairo, in the Islamic Museum they still promote the making of the kiswah by the men of Egypt and I think they do it as a point of national pride. Do you know if they actually are still making them there and what happens to them? The kiswah that they used –

JAMES PISCATORI: You say that they’re still making them?

QUESTION: Well, they still promote the fact that they were made in Egypt and probably still are, and I’m wondering, are they still made there? And what happens to them?

JAMES PISCATORI: No, I don’t know. That’s interesting.

QUESTION: In Cairo, in the Islamic Museum. It’s a point of national pride I think that they were made there. I didn’t realise that they weren’t still made there.

JAMES PISCATORI: Okay. You know, you’re gonna have Sam Bowker here as a speaker you should ask them.

The reason is, is that was the question that I originally got interested in. I wanted to know were they still doing that. I was not able to find it. What Sam Bowker generally had found is that in that one street or that one quarter of medieval Cairo, they’re making all these other forms of tapestries. So, but I did not find, these are not the people who said they were making the kiswah. They were related to it. But I didn’t find any, so I would find it very hard to believe that or it just doesn’t seem to make sense that they would still do it. That they claim that it’s part of their great tradition, I think that’s true. They’re extremely proud of it historically.

That’s interesting. I didn’t know that they still say that in the museum.

QUESTION: Thank you, Professor Piscatori, for a most informative talk. I have two quick questions. You talked about Abraham’s wife, Hagar, going seven times between two hills and that the pilgrims do this. Is there a significance to the number seven in the Islamic faith? Secondly, in the walking around the Kaaba with the galleries, is that just to accommodate numbers or are the women put on a separate gallery from the men pilgrims?

JAMES PISCATORI: The significance of seven, I think, is just broad, it’s transcultural, so I wouldn’t say there’s a particular relevance to it in this tradition. It’s just that that was mentioned from [inaudible]. I think weirdly seven does appear in various editions. I don’t have a clear answer on that. The positioning of women is controversial. So yes in some places, there are some dedicated galleries. More or less, it should be, and that’s one of the arguments that against the Saudis, it should be that there would be standing next, one could stand next to them. So all kinds of different interpretations of how that should be done.

LUKE CUMMINS: I think we’ve got time for one more question.

QUESTION: Thank you Professor, that was a fascinating talk. I really enjoyed it and learned quite a bit. My question is of an ideological sort. Given the Qur’an’s clear that no one, nothing is worth your worship but God, doesn’t that seem, what goes on at the Kaaba seen as another form of worship, like worship of objects?

JAMES PISCATORI: So the question is that there should be no worship except for God but is this another form of worship?


JAMES PISCATORI: Yeah, interesting. No, because it’s meant to be symbolically representative of worship of God but you’ve got a point. You hit a point here, why is it considered acceptable, the point here is that the Saudis of the Wahhabis, the religious tradition of Saudi Arabia are particularly antagonistic towards other kinds of worship. We know that they have destroyed saint shrines, etc. This is just a fact. They have consistently argued that these are other forms of worship or other Gods and that’s unacceptable. So why do they accept the Hajj? Yeah, that’s a good one. Because the Prophet did it. So I think that’s it. And that also because they feel that it’s attached to Ibrahim, Abraham. Abraham is a person, as you know, the Qur’an says that Abraham is musliman hanifa. The Qur’an calls Abraham an upright, you could say Muslim but here it really means an upright monotheist, an upright believer in the one God. That connection allows it. But there are among the most radical extreme of Wahhabi religious class opposition to the Prophet’s mosque. The Saudi state wants to protect the Prophet’s mosque in Medina because it’s obviously the second city of Islam and that gets a lot of money, a lot of people go to it. It’s important.

It’s important but the most conservative of the Wahhabi religious people say why should you worship – He was just a man. Why should you worship him? Some of them have wanted to destroy the Prophet’s tomb which is astonishing. I have to tell my students this. I actually looked at this in the British archives. When they took over in 1925, the Saudis, when they were taking over Mecca and Medina – they destroyed saint shrines – hundreds, thousands of representations came from British India to London, saying that Britain was the great Muslim empire and it had an obligation to protect Medina. ‘These crazy Saudis, Wahhabis, are going to destroy the Prophet’s tomb, and you, Britain, must preserve the Prophet’s tomb.’ It’s extraordinary. Britain sent off a warship off Jeddah to remind the Saudis that they shouldn’t do these sort of things. What you’re arguing is that over time, the Saudi state gets political legitimacy and money out of controlling the Hajj, so they’re quite happy for it continue.

LUKE CUMMINS: Well, unfortunately we are out of time for today. If everyone wants to put their hands together and thank Professor Piscatori for a wonderful lecture.

Date published: 6 June 2018