The Earthly Perils of the Modern Pilgrim

A humorous meditation on the present-day pilgrimage to Mecca, from Algeria’s Yassine Temlali.

The MERS Coronavirus is killing people by the dozens in Saudi Arabia. It is threatening the Omra pilgrimage and perhaps even the Hajj season. This latest manifestation of ‘modern life’ in the sacred places of Islam is a reminder that the pilgrimage is the most dangerous of all the rituals in the Islamic religion, perhaps of any known religion. Murderous stampedes, gas explosions, hotel collapses, attacks, hostage seizures, epidemics…

Once upon a time, the real peril for the pilgrim was to get to Mecca at all, after a heroic odyssey that lasted months or even years. He had to confront wild beasts and the bandits who plagued the roads along the way before he could hope to set up his campsite on the outskirts of the Holy City. These days, the peril for a Haaji is to get home alive and well after he gets through ‘washing his bones’ and cursing the devil to eternal damnation.

Plenty of things have changed since the days long past when the pilgrimage was perhaps truly seen as a kind of reenactment of the soul’s ‘long voyage toward eternity.’ In any case, the road toward divine Redemption remains an authentic Calvary, and only the nature of the dangers that the pilgrims face has changed.

One no longer perishes along the caravan routes, but much closer to God, in Mecca itself, surrounded by millions of one’s coreligionists. One no longer dies of thirst after being stripped by brigands. Nowadays, if one safely makes it through a hostage seizure (1979) or the violent suppression of a Shi’ite demonstration (1987) one might still die in a gas explosion (1997) or a gigantic stampede (1994, 1998, 2004 and 2006), and more recently, expire in a hospital bed, flattened by MERS.

The pilgrims have modernized along with the dangers they face. Pure products of the modern world and its adulterated spirituality, they certainly do not understand the pilgrimage as some kind of replication of the final voyage toward the next world. They are nothing like their brothers of yore, whom the old tales describe for us: wretched ascetics traversing the endless Sahara on the backs of camels, or bobbing through the Atlantic in flimsy boats, their only hope that they might one day gather at the Tomb of the Prophet.

Mecca nowadays is never more than a few hours’ flight from even the most distant Islamic capitals, and no hijacker with half a brain would try to turn around a planeload of pilgrims. The Haajis of yore, probably because they were far less numerous, did not appear nearly as eager to stone Satan and hurry back to their earthly occupations. They knew very well that Satan would be there waiting for them, petrified in the form of three columns, for all of eternity.

The Earthly Perils of the Modern Pilgrim02Hajj 2010. Photo CC: Al Jazeera English.

The Haajis of the twenty-first century are however practical men and women, people for whom every minute counts, and who are in a hurry to ‘finish up’ these twenty-some rituals so they can buy their knickknacks and get back home, with hearts made happy and consciences at rest.

It would not have even occurred to the haajis of earlier eras to get into shoving matches at Mina in the hope that the stones they threw would be the ones to strike the devil right in the heart. The haajis of today, by contrast, seem to love being packed in together. How else to explain Jan. 12, 2006, among other catastrophic days, when – ignoring fatwas extending the time limits for the ritual stoning of the devil – they gathered in staggering numbers at Mina, with the result that we all recall: a gigantic stampede that killed some 400 people?

It is true that with a little bit of philosophizing, we might discern in this figure a certain amount of divine mercy: after all, in 1990, an even more enormous stamped had killed 1,426, and was not due to some irrational suicidal impulse, but a rather banal breakdown in the ventilation system.

Hundreds of thousands of people in the same place at the same time: how could we even imagine that this could be done without some incident?

The answer probably is that unlike their ancestors, the modern haajis are too literal-minded to be satisfied with expiring during journey; for them, it is actually the destination, rather than the figurative journey, that counts. It is as if everything predestined them to a violent death, the MERS virus being the most…peaceful way to go. Satan, the Enemy, must grin behind his beard after every match that he wins against the faithful.


Yassine Temlali Translated from French by International Boulevard