Pilgrimage narratives

View of the Ka'ba, Mecca, by Muhammad Sadiq Bey, c.1880Pilgrimage narratives are an invaluable and, on some levels, a relatively accessible corpus of sources from which to study Asia's interconnections in modern history. While this piece will focus on pilgrimage narratives that deal with the Hajj – hajj safar namas – there are many others which cover pilgrimage to Shi'a holy sites, visits to the tombs and shrines of Muslim saints and holy men - ziyara, and those from other religious traditions, such as Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, and Hinduism.

Several of these are available, sometimes in old editions, on the excellent web resource www.archive.org. There are substantial collections of pilgrimage narratives in major libraries such as the British Library in London, the University Library in Cambridge, and the Bodleian Library in Oxford. In local university and private libraries across Asia, a wider variety of material can be found. Nevertheless, this requires patience in terms of gaining access to these repositories, and also in tapping the knowledge of the librarian. But once the resources of these local libraries have been utilised, it is usually possible to photocopy the whole work relatively cheaply.

For historians, the great value of pilgrimage narratives - where the pilgrimage site is far away from the author's home - are that they give an entirely different perspective on the pilgrimage itself, and the surrounding area, in contrast to works that are more local. These pilgrimage narratives also highlight a dense web of what we might call 'pilgrimage networks' that criss-crossed Asia in the modern period, which in many cases stretched back centuries. Examining a Hajj narrative from India, for example, we can uncover a wealth of information about India, the Indian Ocean world, and the Hijaz - a trans-regional smorgasbord of evidence that encompasses areas of historical enquiry such as religion, social relations, economics, politics, and technology.

While there are several well-known Hajj narratives, such as the medieval Moroccan traveller Ibn Battuta, whose Hajj formed only part of a monumental decades-long sojourn across the Muslim world, and the Victorian explorer Sir Richard Burton, who performed the Hajj disguised as an Afghan doctor in 1853, I'm going to focus on a lesser-known narrative. Pilgrimage to Mecca, by Mirza Irfan Ali Beg, Deputy Collector in Manipur, on Burma's border, was published in Benares in 1896. Its original publication in Urdu was swiftly followed by an English translation, which was Beg's intention, as he stated in the preface that one of the main objectives of his book was to 'inform the governing power…of the real circumstances of the pilgrimage and thus to seek their help'.

Ali Beg travelled to Mecca to perform the Hajj from April to June 1894 – his colonial employers had given him 'privilege leave' for this purpose. He took the train to Bombay via short stays with a magistrate in Lucknow and the Prime Minister of the Princely State of Bhopal. His stay at a friend's pilgrim hostel in Bombay was soured by harassment from various mutawwifin – pilgrim guides – whose job was to escort pilgrims through the Hajj rituals. They had a bad reputation; Ali Beg wrote that 'I would not rely on any one of them'. Ali Beg was critical of the government's Pilgrim Department that had been set up in Bombay to deal with the annual influx of pilgrims to and from the port. Its activities in assisting pilgrims were hampered by a lack of information about the timings of ships' departures, which caused much anxiety among the pilgrims who were keen to get to the Hijaz. Ali Beg himself was forced to wait for a week. Ali Beg says little of the sea voyage except the presence of pilgrims from Bokhara in Central Asia: 'they are rather demons than human beings'. When his ship was quarantined at Kameran Island in the Red Sea, and then this quarantine was extended, he sought solace in writing poetry to alleviate the boredom of the situation. Upon arrival in Jidda, the main port near to Mecca, he was unimpressed by the 'scuffles' that attended sorting out hiring camels for the journey to Mecca. However, when he entered the Holy City and saw the Ka'ba in the Holy Mosque, 'various emotions of my heart found vent in a copious burst of tears'. His observations of Mecca included the slave market, destitute pilgrims, and the local souq where cutlery from Sheffield and Birmingham was sold. He even gives us the prices for various products, goods and services in Mecca. Ali Beg noted the prevalence of Indians who had settled in Mecca and worked as pilgrim guides or shopkeepers. He recorded the arrival of pilgrims from across the Muslim world such as the Egyptian pilgrimage caravan, the mahmal, and the Shi'a Iranian pilgrims, who did not join the general congregation in Mecca's Holy Mosque for prayers. His description of the Hajj rituals is suffused with intense spiritual feeling, combined with irritation at the Bedouins who harassed pilgrims on the road to Mount Arafat, site of one of the rituals.

There are three themes running through the narrative. The first is a practical 'how-to' guide for Indians who want to go on Hajj. Ali Beg sets out in rich detail the problems and pitfalls that pilgrims can expect to encounter, and offers suggestions on how to overcome them. In this sense, then, it is a precursor of modern-day travel guides. The second is to present a case to the British colonial government in India, by a loyal Muslim employee, for greater British involvement in regulating and ameliorating some of the difficulties that Indian pilgrims faced. Ali Beg's fundamental assumption is that the pilgrims themselves have no capability or capacity to exercise their own agency in this regard. Finally, and most important, is a more universal theme – the intense power of the Hajj on the spiritual lives of Muslims. It is this theme that most powerfully connects Ali Beg's narrative to a long tradition of Hajj pilgrimage accounts that stretch back to the first centuries of Islam. This is one of the reasons why pilgrimage narratives offer such a great example of both continuity and change.

Using pilgrimage narratives alongside official records, historians can go a long way in re-constructing a rich picture of interconnections in Asia that were formed through religious impetus, which in doing so led to an efflorescence of other connections in turn. The pilgrimage account of Ali Beg is but a small snapshot into the huge phenomenon of the Hajj, a ritual that connected the Indian sub-continent to the Arabian peninsula, one which continues to do so today.


John Slight
Research Fellow, St. John's College, University of Cambridge

Added February 2014