Non-Hajj Pilgrimage in Islam: A Neglected Dimension of Religious Circulation

By Bhardwaj, Surinder M. | Journal of Cultural Geography, Spring-Summer 1998 | Go to article overview

Non-Hajj Pilgrimage in Islam: A Neglected Dimension of Religious Circulation


Bhardwaj, Surinder M., Journal of Cultural Geography


Abstract. Emphasis by geographers on the study of the hajj to Mecca has resulted in the neglect of ziarat, or non-hajj pilgrimages to other Islamic holy places. Associated with saints, many of the Sufi order, and martyrs, these holy places attract a vast number of pilgrims. Non-hajj pilgrimages may also be considered symbolic of the regional cultural expressions of Islam, especially in the non-Arab countries. This preliminary study situates ziarat within a typology of Islamic religious circulation. It shows that ziarat is part of the dynamic tradition of religious circulation in Islam in various regions: North Africa, Shia areas of Southwestern Asia, Central Asia, and South Asia.

Pilgrimage studies in Islam, at least those done by geographers, have been primarily focused upon the hajj to Mecca because of its pivotal importance in keeping with one of the five pillars of the faith. One of the earliest detailed studies of the hajj from the religious viewpoint was done by C. Snouck Hurgronje in 1880 (Bousquet and Schacht 1957, 171-213). Eldon Rutter (1929) may be credited with perhaps the first explicitly geographic study of hajj, in which he brings out the locational importance of Malaya compared to other Islamic countries, in generating the largest number of hajj pilgrims. Jean-Paul Roux (1958, 175-179) sets the hajj in the context of non-Arab countries with substantial Muslim populations. These early studies on the hajj were followed by Kamal (1961), Al-Naqar (1972), King (1972), Isaac (1973), Sardar and Badawi (1978), Makky (1978, 1981), Rowley and Hamdan (1978), Long (1979), and Shair and Karan (1979), to name a few.

The establishment of the Hajj Research Centre in 1975 by the government of Saudi Arabia highlights the great importance of hajj-related studies to address the many planning problems of accommodation, health, and transportation. Indeed the large volume of hajj pilgrims, due to the increased ability of more and more Muslims to undertake the once arduous journey, ensures continued emphasis on hajj studies. Central as is the significance of the hajj to Muslims, cultural geographers have neglected to study other Muslim religious journeys, such as visits to sacred shrines of holy men, the graves of saints and Imams, and the tombs of martyrs of the faith. Journey to these places is often termed a ziarat, to distinguish it from the hajj. These ziarats, undertaken throughout the Islamic realm, are by no means a substitute for the hajj. Some Muslims may even consider them un-Islamic. Nevertheless, the places of ziarat attract millions of people, who travel substantial distances to these centers, and, therefore, they must be considered an integral but neglected part of Islamic religious circulation.

Focus on the hajj as the preeminent, and the most spectacular, annual event in the Islamic religious calendar has overshadowed the widespread practice of the ziarat to a great number of Muslim shrines. Such scholarly neglect helps to perpetuate a monolithic view of Islam, especially in the West, contrary to the vibrant cultural variety of Islamic societies in the world. Xavier de Planhol (1959) is virtually the only geographer to draw attention to the practice of ziarat. He devoted a section specifically to "the geography of pilgrimages in Islam" in which the hajj is emphasized, but non-hajj pilgrimages are mentioned also. It is surprising that even very recent studies of Islamic religious circulation (Coleman and Elsner 1995; Din and Hadi 1997; Rowley 1997) downplay the significance of the ziarat.

The main purpose of this paper is to draw attention to religious travel undertaken by a large number of Muslims to places other than to Mecca. This research shows that the study of ziarat, as part of the dynamic tradition of Islamic religious circulation, is necessary to understand Islam's variegated cultural manifestations. Numerous khankahs, shrines, mosques, tombs and mausoleums of the Muslim saints, martyrs, Sufis, and other holy personages attest to the popularity of ziarat in most of the Muslim countries. …

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