Typically, the study of religion and of religious experience itself are two separate phenomena. The encounter with the sacred touches a person’s core being, while its assessment in secular terms seeks to define it without commitment. What happens, then, when a Princeton anthropologist undertakes one of the fundamental duties of Islam, a pilgrimage to Mecca? In this account of his own hajj, Abdellah Hammoudi breaks down the boundaries between a scholar and his subject. His A Season in Mecca is one of trial: overcoming bureaucratic hurdles; dealing with discomforting disagreements with fellow pilgrims; and yearning for a lost Islam now transformed into a brutish force-“devoid of compassion and merciless to God’s creatures”-by modern states eager to assume its authority for political purposes. It is a story of the hajj in its traditional understanding, but also the author’s personal account of what happened to him when he sought to reclaim his own tradition and rediscover “the tranquillity of belonging.”

A Season in Mecca records the hajj of a particularly erudite person, even as it offers an inquiry into the nature of religion in an age of political and intellectual conformism. Abjuring neutral scholarship, Hammoudi makes his experience the object of his study, charting a horizon that moves him profoundly and yet still discloses knowledge for scholarly consumption. Does academic activity, rightly pursued, affect the soul? In performing the rites of pilgrimage, Hammoudi begins “a new apprenticeship, learning about a part of being that subordinates knowledge to will.” The subplot of Hammoudi’s pilgrimage, then, is our understanding of knowledge. But does knowledge that demands no personal response on the part of the scholar miss the very point of knowledge?

In Hammoudi’s account, the traditional hajj is a means for believers to wash away sin and return as if “new born”; a way to deepen faith in “truths of absolute knowledge” and not theorize about them. In seeking a reward for a religious duty properly performed, the pilgrim looks for a promise of perfection in the next life against the imperfection of this one. Hammoudi, though, is not interested in ontological claims, but rather in how to live life here on earth, and in how religion can help. His witness is not so much to a sacred presence as to the integration of a fragmented soul, an integration made possible by religious experience in the presence of other pilgrims. To that purpose, he recounts his own past-a childhood in Morocco, a French education, an American professorship-and his own dilemma of freedom sought and attachment felt.

Hammoudi is most eloquent when seeking to understand the impact of tradition. His disgruntled quips about the ravaging effects of modernity make one wonder about the limitations of a pilgrimage that seeks not the face of God but existential meaning. Has the author succeeded in uniting his fragmented self without ontological commitment? It is, after all, a lost wholeness that is sought through ritual, the reenactment of a narrative long affirmed and sanctified by others: “I would be following the track of my tradition, a tradition that knew where it was going, had given itself a beginning and end, and had already thus defined my life-a story within history, giving me a future that had already taken place, brilliantly illustrated by the prophets’ example.” To be sure, this is no restoration of the past, no enthronement of tradition as a blueprint for life; but it is a return all the same to a basic human aspiration that one’s own individual rational processes can never provide. It is not religion that Hammoudi seeks, but rather what religion can lead one to discover of oneself-ritual action begetting knowledge of one’s world.

The hajj, as we come to see it through Hammoudi’s eyes, is big business. It is also big politics. Nations negotiate pilgrim quotas, travel agencies, and merchants reap profits, and the Saudi state controls the flow of crowds and ideas alike. Still, Hammoudi demonstrates that religion eludes mechanisms that would render it ineffective. A countervailing force exists in the bodies of pilgrims themselves, clinging to a moment beyond the ordinary world, a struggle toward a salvation granted by God alone. From the moment they don the simple pilgrim’s garb, they assume a certain defiance of the world. A body freed from “the clear configuration bestowed on it by tailored clothing,” Hammoudi observes, “projects itself into a transforming time and space.” Amid such shared transformations, he writes, “I could feel the sacramental territory even before arriving at the limits of Mecca’s sacred-forbidden spaces.”

In pronouncing the hajj sacramental and life-changing, Hammoudi, both pilgrim and scholar, underscores the ultimate autonomy of religion as individual experience, one possessing an authority beyond secular definition. Other approaches to interpreting the hajj may see it symbolizing a simple choice by the believer to obey the command of God, or cast it as a modern-day political phenomenon, a staging ground for Muslim exploitation of communal unity (and sometimes disunity). For Muslims of a fundamentalist bent, the hajj is above all a display of doctrinal uniformity, epitomized by gender segregation. Hammoudi resists and even subverts such definitions of religion, viewing the pilgrimage as a question of existence-individual and yet common-that addresses us amidst threats to our own survival and a violence endemic to the human condition. “In this wrought context,” he writes, “with its anxiety about having to master a difficult transformation, religion appeared to me in a new light: as the sanctification of responses that human beings make to the risks associated with their own vital impulses, impulses that are a source of continuity but also of merciless danger and conflicts.” Meaningful words for believers and scholars alike.

Paul Heck

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Published in the 2006-03-10 issue: View Contents
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