Makkah: Where Duty and Dream Meet
Makkah: Where Duty and Dream Meet
By Richard Scheinin
Michael Wolfe is a poet who lives at the end of a tucked-away cul-de-sac in Santa Cruz. He is also a Muslim scholar with a national profile that comes from writing and editing two books on one of the world's great religious spectacles: The Annual Muslim pilgrimage to Makkah, the Haj. It is Islam's "greatest public rite," Wolfe writes in the introduction to his recent anthology on the Haj. "Over two million Muslims from 125 countries perform the haj every year, forming the largest single gathering in one place at one time for one purpose on Earth." Wolfe, 52, is a convert to Islam whose mother was Christian and father Jewish. He made his first haj in 1991 and wrote The Hadj: An American's pilgrimage to Mecca. In 1997, Wolfe reported on the haj from Makkah on ABC's Nightline. Now in "One Thousand Roads to Mecca: Ten Centuries of Travellers writing about the Muslim Pilgrimage," Wolfe conveys the almost breathtaking risk involved for centuries in going to Makkah. Caravans risked death from illness, heat and marauding tribes. To modern readers, the decision to set out for Makkah seems to have been an almost inconceivable act of faith. But the pilgrimage remains an inescapable "Journey to the heart," he writes. We spoke to Wolfe about the Haj.
Q. You've written "nothing in my travels prepared me for Makkah." What weren't you prepared for?
A. The numbers of people and their variety, by which I mean several million people from 125 countries speaking many languages and many more dialects. The first impression you have is of being in a real human ocean. And then it takes a while to realise that this is actually a retreat, because my own western sense of "retreat" is that one leaves the complex and crowded world behind and vanishes into the purity of nature. But with the haj, the feeling is not really one of retreating at all, but of joining a new community, a very huge community of people.
Yet the haj is a retreat in the sense that you leave Saudi Arabia proper and come into what they call the haram territory, the sacred territory -- 20 square miles of it surrounding the city of Makkah. And once you've crossed that line, coming from north, south, west or east, you change your clothes. Everyone takes vows. You vow to not injure anything, to be gentle with each other, to try to spiritualise the atmosphere. It's really a kind of societal formation process.
Q. Makkah's a city of over a million people and if you're not a Muslim you can't step inside it. What do you think of that exclusiveness?
A. Well, our attitudes about private space are very much conditioned by where we come from. And it's also conditioned by European hegemony, power over the world. In the 19th century there may be a dozen very secret cities; the "forbidden" cities. Timbuktu in West Africa. Chouen and Samara in Morocco. And a few other cities in the world, including Makkah, which were impenetrable for various reasons. Makkah is the only one that was never penetrated and politically controlled by non-Muslims.
Does it bother me that non-Muslims can't enter it? No. Makkah is only visited by people who want to perform a specific set of religious rites which are particular to Islam. You really wouldn't have any business there otherwise. People don't just come to Makkah. They come for a religious purpose. And the feeling among Muslims is that in a Muslim world, which has fallen under the political thumb of Europe and the United States in many ways in the last 200 years, to have one place where they can go where they are pre-eminent is an attractive thing.
Q. So Makkah's a kind of safety zone?
A. What you find in Makkah is a kind of preservation of the heart land of Islam. It's where Islam was first activated in 610 A.D. and from where it spread out and across the world.
Muhammad (Pbuh) that this was an expansive faith and he realized that anything that expands reaches an edge. If it can't come back to a centre, it's going to diffuse, it will no longer have its root. The pilgrimage is a means of calling people back to a central spot.
Q. One of the things that interests me about the hajj is the simple stone house, the Ka'bah, which sits at the center of the great mosque in Makkah. The Qur'an teaches the Ka'bah was the first house of worship on Earth, built on God's instructions by Abraham and his son Ishmael on foundations laid by Adam. Muhammad touched it and some pilgrims kiss it as they circle it.
A. Islam has an orderliness about it: It has a direction of prayer, a time to pray, a way to pray, a way to clean yourself before you pray. The Ka'bah is an orientation point, just as Delphi for the Greeks marked the center of their world. The Ka'bah marks the centre of the Muslim world. And the notion that Adam and Abraham have something to do with this shrine links the religion of Islam to a much older, even primordial tradition... and to the monotheistic traditions of Asia. These religions are all part of the same spiritual substrate. That's how Islam sees itself.
Q. What did it feel like to be at arm's length from the Ka'bah as you and crowds of pilgrims circled it together?
A. The tawaff itself, the circling, is a very high experience, a very elevating experience. Physically, it requires some energy. And like any physical exercise, if you put out some energy you get energy back. You get energy from the crowd around you. So it's very elevating. And it's very stately. People are not racing, but they're not crawling either. There's a pace to it and the pace changes. It's faster in the first three rounds and then you move to the outside and go a little more slowly. The pilgrimage is the place where duty and dream converge for a Muslim. You have to go, and all you really want to do is go. You're performing something that you're required to fulfill and there's nothing that you'd rather be doing.
Q. People have told me they experienced ecstasy while circling the Ka'bah.
A. When you first see the Ka'bah, if you're a Muslim, you've been praying toward it for years. It's very sweet. And it's very exciting. And people are routinely crying at the first sight of this -- this nothing, this simple square building. When you perform these rites, there's a strong sense of spiritual elevation, but there's also a sense of "gatheredness," of collectedness. Physically, you feel more defined.... Your borders don't disappear and you don't float off into nirvana.
Q. The book gives a vivid sense of how religious passion, adventurism, risk-taking, and all these sweeping forces of life and death -- are all gathered into this journey to Makkah, especially in the old days.
A. Historically, the pilgrimage has always been hard; it's still hard. Hard in the sense that it demands time, it demands travel, it demands separation from your family. Part of the purpose... is to detach people from their usual surroundings, take them to a place where it's like a spiritual .... hot house.
Q. I'd like to hear about some of the non-Muslims -- the "pretenders" and "masqueraders" who sneaked into Makkah. Who in the book is an example of that?
A. Richard Burton, a born adventurer who was raised all over Europe by a kind of vagabonding, middle-class family. Very well educated, very brilliant linguist, who spent his early adulthood in India as a mercenary guarding opium fields. And when he finally left the mercenary army he needed a career. Most of his biographers think his major career move was to disguise himself as a dervish, then as a middle-class gentleman in Egypt, and then to sneak into Makkah. Burton's career and his sense of curiosity merge in Makkah. Although he was only there for 11 days, he defined Makkah for three generations of people in England. His entry into Makkah was viewed as similar to landing on the moon. There were - I don't want to say ticker-tape parades - but his news returned quickly, by steamship. And within 13 or 14 days there were headlines in London....
Q. You say the haj is a journey through time as well as space: a "journey to the heart," you call it.
A. The difficulties of the pilgrimage are a kind of challenge. The modern problem is not blood thirsty raiders, it's how to have a spiritual experience in the middle of a grid-locked city. It's not any simpler; it's just a different kind of difficulty that people are faced with. But that's the way Islam is; It asks us to wrest a spiritual experience from the present circumstances of our lives.
The haj offers people who are ready to work a little bit at it the opportunity to reclaim some pure space in their life. To have that as a centre piece in the religion is a very valuable thing, because all of us get lost, all of us get involved in the social-commercial world, in raising a family, and all the quandaries of living.
For Muslims there's this way around, where you can go to Makkah, you can perform the haj, and you can reclaim some of that lost ground In a Muslim's mind, that is getting back to who you are. If you want to define the spirit of pilgrimage in terms of a direction, the movement of it is back. It has the spirit of a great return. You're going out to Makkah, but you're really returning to your source, to your roots, to the beginnings of things.