The Hajj has always been a source of wonder to me. At first, I must confess out of sheer travel wanderlust. For central Arabia, like the mountains of Tibet, is one of those historical testing grounds for heroic British scholar travellers. That roll call includes Burkhardt, Burton, Doughty, Palgrave, St John-Philby, Lawrence, Thesiger – not to mention women of such remarkable character as Lady Cobbold and Rosita Forbes. Later I became fascinated by its vital, lodestone-like role for the Maghreb; how for the last fourteen hundred years, generation upon generation of North African scholars would be drawn to Mecca and Medina, as an act of piety – but would often return as little incubi of revolution in their homeland. The founder-preachers of the Almoravide and Almohad Empires for example, were both returning Hajjis. Whilst the Fatimid Caliphate, the Ommayad Caliphate of Cordoba, Idrissid Morocco, and such later dynasties as the Saadian and the current ruling Alauoite dynasty were all established by exiles and refugees from Mecca – a sort of reverse Hajj. The rapidity of connections within Islam was always hinged on this annual meeting of minds at Mecca.
So much so, that I knew the broad outline of what happened: the seven circles of the Kaaba, the running between the two hills (again seven times) the camp at Mina, the march out to Arafat, the stoning of three Satans (again in units of seven), leading to the sacrifice and the joyful return to the Kaaba. I never looked in detail at the origin of the Hajj rituals. It was one of those subjects you put to one side, presuming that your understanding of what exactly is happening to whom will eventually ripen once you get hold of the right book or the right teacher. In the meantime I listened to a lot of fascinating tales about Adam and Eve, Abraham, his Arabian concubine Hagar, (the five cuts of vengeance performed on her by vengeful Sarah) and their son Ishmael, the half-brother of Isaac. A rich and ever expanding store of oral tales, such as Abraham, performing that first circumcision on himself with an axe – but then he appears to have been a mountain of a man, and perhaps acquired fine skill with a blade working beside his sculptor father. At the back of my mind, was the expectation that sooner or later, I would understand how all this also fitted into the details of the Prophet Muhammad’s life and most importantly, the revelation of the Qur’an. For that surely was the point of a Hajj pilgrimage? Like the Buddhist pilgrims going to see where the Lord Buddha received his revelation, or the Christians looking to find spots of Jesus’s teaching, death and resurrection, or Jews looking for some fabric of the Temple of Solomon at Jerusalem in which to lodge their prayers – that was the point of the Hajj, surely? It took a long, long time, for the penny to drop.