Pilgrimage in Islam

Traditional and Modern Practices

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Sophia Rose Arjana
  • London, England: 
    One World Publications
    , July
     288 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Sophia Rose Arjana’s book Pilgrimage in Islam: Traditional and Modern Practices explores several aspects of Muslim pilgrimages that are often unattended to by other scholars. Aiming at the “inclusion of differences,” as Shahab Ahmed puts it, Arjana’s focus is on localized Muslim pilgrimages—Sunni, Shia, and Sufi—and shared nature of these practices. By not focusing on the Hajj to Mecca, Arjana is able to view pilgrimage as a more fluid category. For Arjana, pilgrimages are connected in some ways, such as dream, vision, and so on, but are adapted into localized narratives, which may confuse the observers. Discussing new methods of Hajj and local pilgrimages in a technologically advanced era, Arjana delves into the negotiation between pilgrimage and technology.

Reconsidering existing ideas regarding the concept of pilgrimage in chapter 1, Arjana uses theorists of space to discuss how pilgrimage sites are distinct from other spaces. She takes cues from the theorists such as Henri Lefebvre, and his assumption that space is the product of interactions among the physical, mental, and social fields. Arjana also draws on Edward Soja’s “third space,” in which pilgrimage sites become more than just a ritual space but also a space with history, memory, and imagination co-mingled.

At the end of the first chapter, Arjana’s primary concern is with sectarian debates regarding the idea of Ziyarat (pilgrimages to sites associated with important Muslim figures, from Muhammad’s family to Sufi saints). Ziyarat centered on the dead are particularly interesting, and this chapter shows how political histories play an important role in the construction of Islamic sacred spaces. This chapter looks at the numerous factors in pilgrimage including politics, theology, ritual, and concerns surrounding gendered and sexual identities. Critiquing the political forces behind the Salafi ideology that seeks a stringent form of Islam, Arjana exposes Wahabi opposition to the Ziyarat and their stigmatizing of “others” in the name of Bida’ah (religious innovation) and Shirk (idolatry). As Arjana continues to describe questions of legality that emanate from issues of gender and sexuality, she explores the problems posited by the orthodox sects concerning the free mixing of the sexual bodies as part of a pilgrimage, which is prohibited in Islam. But in recent times, feminists and supporters of LGBT people are arguing for the free mixing of differently sexed bodies, which gives an agency and strength to the female pilgrims and undermines heteronormativity.

The second chapter deals with sacred spaces such as Mecca, Jerusalem, and Medina, which are the most important and famous pilgrimage sites in the history of Islam. Arjana places Jerusalem first, explaining the connectedness spaces there to Islam because of their historical precedence and their rootedness and relationship with the history of Christians and Jews. She then takes up Mecca and places it in the history of the Prophet Muhammad, and its literary traces to Abraham and Hagar. Medina is discussed by Arjana in relation to its prominence in the life of the Prophet and his grave, from which the debates over visitation of graves arise.

In the third chapter, Arjana traces the trajectory of Shia pilgrimage and its genealogy to the Prophet’s household. She repeatedly describes Karbala, as the primary political symbol in Shiism that has inaugurated the sanctification of places according to their exclusive historical memories. Dealing with the concept of bodies in the Shia pilgrimage, Arjana explores the emergence of Ziyarat in various Shia communities such as the Ismailis and Zayidis.

In the chapter entitled “Sufism and Shared Pilgrimages: Contestation of Identities,” Arjana’s primary concern is the development of the idea of Sufism and how it can be used as a device to analyze practices regardless of community affiliation. As Arjana herself concedes, she is using Sufism is an arbitrary category, a tool to analyze the complex nature of the pilgrimages. By describing the histories and narratives of the Awliyas (Friends of God) and their tombs, she argues that Sufi pilgrimages have posed a challenge to the scholarly typologies and categories regarding Islamic pilgrimage. One issue Arjana engages repeatedly in this chapter are pilgrimages that accommodate people from other religions too.

The final chapter, “Modern Muslim Pilgrimages: Tourism, Space, and Technology,” covers the negotiation of sacred space to accommodate it under new categories from the perspective of modernity. Finally, Arjana looks at how capitalism, modernity, and technology help us to understand how Islamic pilgrimage is changing in the modern world. The chapter’s focus is on the notion of center and decentering, and the commodification of the sacred objects and holy spaces in the materialized world, and how pilgrimage sites are treated as tourist locales with the assistance of modern technology. Two different ways of performing pilgrimage are discussed at the end of this chapter. These methods are virtual pilgrimage, where an individual interacts with a sacred place or person remotely, and cyber-pilgrimage, through applications and electronic devices using internet services.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Muhamed Riyaz Chenganankkattil is a doctoral fellow in the department of humanities and social sciences at the Indian Institute of Technology Delhi.

Date of Review: 
October 23, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Sophia Rose Arjana is assistant professor of religious studies at Western Kentucky University.


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