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Muslim Pilgrimage, Borderlands, and Barriers since the 1600s

Panel XIII-9, 2023 Annual Meeting

On Sunday, November 5 at 1:30 pm

Panel Description
Since the seventeenth century, infrastructural improvements to pilgrimage routes have led to an increase in the number of hajj pilgrims fulfilling their religious obligations in Mecca and other significant religious pilgrimage sites. This growth intensified during the nineteenth century following the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 and the development of railway routes in the Caucasus and between Alexandria and Port Said, Egypt. This expanded opportunities for pilgrims from Iran, Syria, Central Asia, and Europe to undertake the pilgrimage to Mecca and the holy Shi’a shrine. The increasing accessibility of the pilgrimage ritual was also a significant source of socio-political and economic challenges and transformations. This panel will discuss the significance of analyzing the geographical and geopolitical dynamics of pilgrims through the lens of religious mobility and rituals. It will also shed light on the challenges associated with pilgrimage, the role of shrines’ accessibility in sacred geography, and the extent intellectuals played a role in alleviating infrastructural limitations in tandem with their religiopolitical identities. The papers presented collectively discuss the ritual of pilgrimage and the overlooked geopolitical aspects of this Islamic requirement, including infrastructural challenges, pilgrims’ restrictions in the face of non-Muslim authorities, and the role of elites in the expansion of local shrines. The first paper focuses on the struggles of Ottoman scholars to resolve the shortcomings of hajj infrastructure through the assistance of guidebooks and the journey of the hajj throughout the early modern period. The second paper brings the panel into the late nineteenth century with a description of Bosnian pilgrims’ experiences during the hajj and imperial and state controls and restrictions of their movements and travel. By looking into travelogues and journal writings, we explore how Muslims interacted with the non-Muslim authorities who regulated the journey, both during their Balkan route and beyond. The third paper explores the development of and expansion of pilgrimage to the Syeda Zaynab shrine in Damascus in the mid-20th century as clerical authorities and national elites sought to expand the shrine and emphasize its importance in sacred geography, as well as the concerns of everyday pilgrims reflected back in debates about conditions at the shrine.
  • By the end of the sixteenth century, more and more men and women from the lands of Rum (Anatolia and the Balkans) were able to perform the Hajj. This was in large part due to Ottoman efforts toward improving the infrastructure of the pilgrimage road via Damascus, efforts which had intensified following the incorporation of the Mamluk lands, including the Hejaz, into the Empire in 1516-17. As existing scholarship has shown, the Ottoman administration tried to solve recurring challenges such as water shortages, unscrupulous camelmen, and desert bandits by constructing fortresses on hajj routes and installing water sources within them, giving subsidies to potentially hostile Bedouin tribes, and enacting policy designed to improve the quality and supply of camels. The focus of this paper, however, is an alternative set of actors: those who recognised the limitations of hajj infrastructure and sought to resolve this through the authorship of guides to the ritual (menasik) and the journey (menazil, ‘way-stations’) of the Hajj. Composed in Ottoman Turkish by a variety of Rumi ulama, Sufis, preachers, and bureaucrats (‘hajj writers’), the guides offer a vital insight into the practice of hajj in the early modern Ottoman Empire, beginning especially in the late sixteenth century. Perhaps seeing the potential offered by the hajj to strengthen Sunni identity, hajj writers in the Empire encouraged their male and female coreligionists to avail themselves of this newly developed infrastructure, insisting that all obstacles could be overcome through their textual instruction. Some writers took care to provide medicinal remedies for the most common ailments accessible by all pilgrims, from the wealthy to the poor. Others asked pilgrims to take individual responsibility in ensuring that the hajj continued to be practiced safely and securely, for example by taking an active role in defending against bedouin attacks, thereby allowing for the continuing fulfilment of an important confessional obligation. They emphasised that it was not enough for pilgrims to simply rely on state measures and that even in the absence of security, which hajj officials could not always guarantee, pilgrims were still obliged to undertake the hajj. At the same time, hajj writers could also place pressure on hajj officials by pointing out administrative failings or areas where infrastructure and organisation could be improved. Taking a more bottom-up approach, the paper shines a light on an important yet frequently overlooked dimension of pre-modern hajj practice.
  • With new transport technologies of the 19th century, hitherto unprecedented numbers of people were able to go on a pilgrimage using steamships and trains. This trend continued into the early 20th century as well. Hajj journey of Bosnian pilgrims, who previously travelled under the Ottoman organization, fell firstly under the Austro-Hungarian colonial control after the occupation in 1878, and was later (after WWI) regulated by the succession of nation-state formations. The Hajj increasingly became a matter of interest not only of the Empire and state's Muslims, but also of non-Muslim administrators, officials, journalists and general public. This paper will focus on the experiences of the journey by Bosnian Muslims in the period 1878-1945, when a large number of pilgrims was faced with imperial and state controls and restrictions of movement. By looking into travelogues and journalistic accounts, as well as reportages and essays, I will point to the ways Muslims interacted with the non-Muslim authorities who regulated the journey, both during their Balkan route and beyond. The paper will also look at how Hajj journey was perceived by the non-Muslim audiences and what forms of stereotyping of Muslim pilgrims occured in the popular print. By analysing the interactions of administrators and the public with Bosnian Muslim pilgrims, the paper aims to show how Hajj journey increasingly became a matter of wider political and state interest, as well as to point to the ways in which this affected the formation of Muslim and non-Muslim discourses on the pilgrimage.
  • This paper explores the growth of pilgrimage to the Sayeda Zaynab shrine in Damascus, Syria, from the 1950s-1970s, tracing its transformation from a modest brick and mortar structure to a site of transnational importance. Efforts to expand the shrine would begin in the 1930s during the Mandate era, reflecting debates over modernity and sectarianism. Though historiography on the Syrian nationalist movement has long privileged the role of a Sunni urban elite in the Mandate era, the shrine provided a space for local Shi’a elites to engage in the nationalist enterprise – including eminent religious clerics such as Syed Muhsin al-Amīn al-Amili and the Murtadha family, administrators of the waqf. Yet it was in the aftermath of Syrian independence that a shrine committee was formed in 1952 to administer and promote ziyārat to the shrine. From the 1950s onwards, a transnational network of scholars and bureaucrats worked to assertively promote ziyārat to the shrine. The politics of Shi’a personal leadership and charismatic authority was critical at the Sayyeda Zaynab, and the Murtadha family was central to propelling the growth of the Sayyeda Zaynab shrine in the 1950s-60s, as they called on the support of ‘marja and individual pilgrims to donate to the shrine as a modern and nationalist expression of devotion. In the letters and correspondence of clerics and officials, however, we can read the challenges of pilgrims as the experienced a growing and still largely unestablished pilgrimage terrain. From sanitation to boarding and electricity, pilgrims register their participation and expectations in the creation and administration of sacred space. The Ba’athist coup in Syria would have a significant impact on the Sayyeda Zaynab, changing perceptions of the government’s relationship with the Islam. While Muhsin al-Amīn had first emphasized the Arab heritage of the shrine, by the end of the 1970s rhetoric about Zaynab had framed her as a Shi’a revolutionary and her shrine became a distinctly sectarian space. It also became marked more aesthetically as ‘Iranian’ influenced – a departure from its mid-century national heritage – and a commercial space. Syria has often been discussed in Shi’i studies in the aftermath of 1979 and the Assad family’s political ties to Iran. Yet exploring the Sayyeda Zaynab shrine allows us to read a community being made in an explicitly nationalist context, and the role of ordinary pilgrims who seek accommodations for themselves as they undertake a spiritual journey.