To mark the Hajj season, we invited six CSSH authors to discuss their work on pilgrimage. Their conversation, which unfolded over a period of four months, moves deep into the space/time of shrines, becoming itself a kind of parallel pilgrimage. Along with the blessings that come from proximity to saints, prophets, goddesses, ancestors, and sacred objects, these scholars offer us special perspective and insight.
Meet them, in order of appearance:
Grant, Bruce. 2011. Shrines and Sovereigns: Life, Death, and Religion in Rural Azerbaijan. Comparative Studies in Society and History 53(3): 654-681.
Moin, A. Azfar. 2015. Sovereign Violence: Temple Destruction in India and Shrine Desecration in Iran and Central Asia. Comparative Studies in Society and History 57(2): 467-496.
Wanner, Catherine. 2020. An Affective Atmosphere of Religiosity: Animated Places, Public Spaces, and the Politics of Attachment in Ukraine and Beyond. Comparative Studies in Society and History 62(1): 68-105.
Lin, Wei-ping. 2014. Virtual Recentralization: Pilgrimage as Social Imaginary in the Demilitarized Islands between China and Taiwan. Comparative Studies in Society and History 56(1): 131-154.
Alatas, Ismail Fajrie. 2016. The Poetics of Pilgrimage: Assembling Contemporary Indonesian Pilgrimage to Hadramawt, Yemen. Comparative Studies in Society and History 58(3): 607-635.
Low, Michael Christopher. 2015. Ottoman Infrastructures of the Saudi Hydro-State: The Technopolitics of Pilgrimage and Potable Water in the Hijaz. Comparative Studies in Society and History 57(4): 942-974.
The commentaries that follow are a model for thinking comparatively about what pilgrimage is and where it might take us. They are based on movement (from text to text) and arrival (in the space/time of shrines). Without pre-empting other readings, we should highlight several lines of interpretation that seem especially promising.
Grant and Moin begin by considering the tremendous powers that accumulate in shrines. These powers attract, repel, heal, invigorate, and punish. They cannot be ignored. Heterodox rulers (and unbelievers, too) must contend with the immense capacity of the shrine – and the saint’s body within it – to connect and reorganize divergent forms of sovereignty. Shrines are enduring, they argue, and at risk. They are repeatedly desecrated because they are touchpoints between different orders of being: human and divine; present and ancestral; local and transcendent. The shrine’s gravity warps time and space, making its boundaries impossible to fix.
Wanner, Lin, and Alatas sense the concentrating force of shrines, but they are also alert to how pilgrims redistribute and shift these powers through acts of imagination. Pilgrimage, they argue, is shaped by preconceptions and motivations, which animate devotional acts. Holy places live in the minds of their visitors, who fuel and siphon off a site’s potential to bless, who articulate transregional economies in the ongoing creation of shrine space. The imagined shrine can also be new, as travel technologies produce alternative pilgrimage routes and mass-market tourism blends with the obligations of piety.
By the time we reach Mecca, escorted by Low, the shrine is strong enough to generate its own patterns of climate change and political transformation. Pilgrimage is a planetary force, Low argues, spinning out infrastructures, replenishing and exhausting resources (from oil and water to baraka, revelation, and secular authority). Shrine force rivals and runs parallel to other global forces. What will survive this epochal collision of earthly and cosmic powers? The shrine itself? The hot, dry world around it? Some unimaginable (and probably dystopian) assemblage of eco-techno-spiritual forces?
One could travel far on these insights. We will leave the next steps to you. Keep reading. Ideas for new essays will soon be swirling in your heads. Send the best to CSSH.
As for our six travelers, welcome home. You have prepared an amazing intellectual feast, at which you are now hosts and guests. Hajj Mabroor!
Shrines at the Border
New York University
Some ten years ago, I began work on an essay, “Shrines and Sovereigns,” as a response to the ubiquity and command of religious sites across the Caucasus region where I do research. In Azerbaijan, their longstanding popularity among both metropolitan Muslim actors and their rural counterparts seemed to belie Soviet-era stories about their demise under communism as well as increasingly purist readings of Islam in an age of rising nationalism. I took as my main example a modest, regionally famous, one-room stone structure in the foothills of the Caucasus mountains as seen through the eyes of five generations of a sheikh-ly family, beginning with a famous ancestor who was believed to have come “from Arabia” in the early 1800s and is said to have used powers of transubstantiation—the ability to pass through prison walls and to move across time and space—in ways that rendered him to many as an övliyyə, someone close to God. I followed the trail two generations later to a grandson who led a rebellion against Soviet power in 1930 and then disappeared under mysterious circumstances. Some ninety years after that, I met the grandson of that rebel, a quiet molla who tends the family shrine today.
While I first intended to rethink histories of religion under Soviet atheism, it became clear that broader claims were at stake. To its many supplicants, this small regional shrine was not only a portal to other worlds; it instantiated an entire register of claims to transnational and shared religious spaces, linking the men and women of the Caucasus to the divine, but also to former Ottoman and Persian imperial worlds. In what were ready vocabularies of flow beyond borders—across very worldly political realms and across very otherworldly thresholds of the divine—I made the case for a localized understanding of “open sovereignty” in this world area: one that held doors open to one’s foes, ensured the continuance of trade and marriage after battle, and put local saintly actors in rivalry with state governments.
Not long after my article appeared, it was moving to find in the pages of CSSH the extraordinary essay by A. Azfar Moin, “Sovereign Violence.” Tracing a complex path across Asia, Moin uses elusive sources from the fifth century CE to demonstrate the rise of new political and cultural geographies of Hinduism and, later, Islam. By the time the Mongols had come and gone from Iran and South Asia, he argues, we could identify “a new style of Muslim sovereignty that was anchored to sainthood” (480). For Iran and Central Asia in particular, “it became widely accepted that enshrined saints were the ‘real’ sovereigns who granted authority to earthly rulers” (486). What I would not give to have begun thinking with a genealogy just like this! Whether one looks at saint sovereignty in West Asia or image sovereignty in South Asia, Moin contends, at stake, in the end, is “cosmic power” (496).
Building on the essays in this CSSH collection, I would make the case again for considering how shrines press at the limits and borders of more established systems of rule, even when, as Low and Moin show us from Mecca, Mashhad, and elsewhere, shrines are fully ensconced in systems of power. Shrines can be “good to think,” it seems to me, because people use the transformational potential of shrine spaces and practices to make new worlds. Borders are at play in all the essays at hand: in anxieties over contagion from the traffic in and out of Mecca (Low), when Mazu Islanders take pride in their bridging role between China and Taiwan (Lin), when Indonesians explore diaspora across the Indian Ocean (Alatas), and perhaps most painfully in the blurred and increasingly violent lines dividing Russia from Ukraine (Wanner). Low, Lin, and Alatas keenly elucidate the economic dimensions at stake, recalling the practiced Azerbaijani phrase, həm ziyarət, həm ticarət, “pilgrimage and trade.” No wonder governments monitor the flow of finances around shrines, when the client pool is so large and so very much on the move. Even if she doesn’t take us into economic discussions, Wanner’s subjects are not distant from this topic, either, summoning “energy” from prayer in the very eastern reaches of Ukraine where governments have gone to war over oil reserves. Cosmic power, indeed.
Shrines and Sovereignty
A. Azfar Moin
The University of Texas at Austin
When the Timurid prince Babur (d. 1530) took over as a ruler of Kabul, he went on a tour of local shrines and sacred sites. At one shrine, he discovered that pilgrims were being tricked by fake miracles produced by mechanical means. Even though he chastised the shrine’s caretakers and removed the offending contraption, Babur let the sacred site be. There were limits to his skepticism. He expressed chagrin in his memoir at not being able to find a miraculous spring that, according to an old chronicle he had read, could be used to conjure up severe weather, a particularly useful trick to use against one’s military foes. The discerning Timurid prince was only interested in the genuine article.
For a saint shrine to become the genuine article, it had to develop an unimpeachable reputation as a place where heaven was reliably joined to earth, opening a two-way conduit between humanity and the cosmos, to send gifts and prayers above and receive blessings and favors below. This reputation rested on the fact—more accurately, on a congealed memory of the fact—of a grand violence wrought upon cosmos and nature, that is, a miracle that collapsed ordinary existence and eternity. To use an analogy from modern physics, bona fide shrines were akin to black holes that distort ordinary space-time with deep wells of gravity. Time grows still. Light bends on itself. Infinitude becomes tangible.
No wonder kings were drawn to such sites and the ritual-mythical complexes they sustained. These were the places to replenish the sacredness of their bodies, to recharge their charisma, to anchor themselves in the great chain of being. Those who cared for and drew their identity from such sites carried with them the ritual powers of king-making—that is, cosmic powers.
Bruce Grant’s evocative ethnography brings to life the efficacy of such cosmic power in Soviet-era Azerbaijan at the unassuming one-room shrine of Sheykh Baba of Shahbalid. This shrine and its saintly associates sustained numerous rebellions—in historical fact and, perhaps more significantly, in imaginative fictions—against the Soviet state. In the face of the totalitarian ambitions of the Soviets, the saint’s followers and devotees kept in circulation the memories of the failure of the communist state’s coercive powers. As Haci Leyla observed, a government built on fear was itself afraid of the descendants of the saint (672). The shrine and its mythical apparatus were a means to counter the state’s very real monopoly of the legitimate use of violence. In this way, the saint’s miraculous presence kept ajar the door of sovereignty, allowing both friend and foe to traffic in and through it.
But wasn’t all this mere idol worship, as the young Muslim skeptic had put it to Grant (664)? In response, one can point to the shrine at the very center of Islam, the Ka‘ba. Even though it became taboo early on to replicate, in content or form, the Meccan sacred sanctuary, as the missionary religion spread across the globe, so did its adherents’ resourcefulness in carrying sacredness to new lands. Thus, Muslim kings found alternative loci to enact their sovereignty, first at biblical sites such as the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, and then via more portable bodies of the Prophet’s heirs in the form of Abbasid caliphs and Alid imams, and eventually at the shrines of Sufi saints. It is no accident that the Prophet’s first cousin and son-in-law, Ali, eventually crowned the first saint (wali) of Islam, was buried in at least five locations across Asia. Sovereignty and sacredness inevitably travel together, idol worship or not.
Yet this travel must end somewhere. Here, Catherine Wanner’s observations about Orthodox Christianity in contemporary Ukraine can be aptly applied to medieval saintly Islam. Eventually, as a missionary religion embeds in a locality, taking over its public spaces and aligning itself with its political authority, the process “gives it an ethnic cast and impedes its portability” (73). The result seems to generate a three-way tension between individuals, religious authorities, and the state. Individual pilgrims come to sacred sites to heal and flourish. Religious authorities attempt to recruit the votary by means of formal liturgy and doctrine. And the state tries to adorn itself in the ambient atmosphere of sacredness. The engine driving this dynamic is the urge to pray at a sacred place: “Attachments to places animated with prayer, and to the experiences that occur there, spill over into allegiance to the state that offers its own protective powers to the people whose prayers have animated the place” (101).
Surely, Babur, who seemed equally at ease with the shrines of Iran and Central Asia as he was with the temples of India, would have agreed.
Making and Breaking Borders
The Pennsylvania State University
Adversarial states covet each other’s sacred sites for the transformative cosmic powers they offer, especially when their peoples share a faith tradition and readily revere the same saints at the same shrines. When tensions erupt into war, as they have in Ukraine since February 24, 2022, sacred sites take on new meaning, especially when they succumb to destruction. One of the five most important monasteries for Eastern Slavs, Sviatohirsk Lavra in the Donbas, was shelled, along with at least 70 temples. Some were used as arsenals to house and protect weapons. Others served as distribution centers of vital humanitarian aid. Such are the new forms of sustaining empowerment temples offer to the pious and skeptics alike, who now flock to them for reasons other than devotion.
The sacred sites desecrated and destroyed by Russian Armed Forces, while on Ukrainian territory, are “in communion” with the Russian Orthodox Church. In a parallel effort to the Russian state’s quest to impede Ukrainian sovereignty, the Russian Orthodox Church seeks to prevent the newly created independent Orthodox Church of Ukraine from absorbing its properties. The Moscow Patriarch’s every pronouncement since the invasion concerning Ukraine parrots Russian president Vladimir Putin’s claim to a common faith tradition having made “one people” who share one spiritual land that has historically been ruled from Russia. To obstruct Ukrainian state and ecclesiastical sovereignty and Ukraine’s drift toward European civilizational paradigms and political structures, the Russian political-clerical partnership fashioned the “Russian World.” This religio-political concept posits that the integration of Russians, Ukrainians, and Belarussians into a single Moscow-led, spiritual-political domain is organic and eternal. The need to impose its realization justifies unleashing cosmic and military forces to subdue alternative aspirations. The Moscow Patriarch claims to be committed to heavenly salvation for his people by saving them from Western impurities, such as Gay Pride parades and excess consumption. Crushing resistance to this sacralized vision of colonial politico-religious order has entailed desecrating the Russian Church’s own sacred sites and killing their own believers as collateral damage in a display of imperial force.
This political-religious alliance echoes the Mongol campaigns through Inner Asia. The Mongols also used organized religion as “an instrument of this world,” as A. Azfar Moin writes, to establish political authority and domination over a region (484). By the early modern period their imperial dynasties spanned from northern India in the east through Persia and Central Asia into Anatolia in the west. While perfecting practices of “political patronage and antagonistic pillage” (493), they fortified their own sovereignty and imperial dynastic rule by syncretically blending devotional acts to saints at shrines with established worship practices in mosques and madrassas. Along the way, they desecrated the shrines preferred by defeated rulers as an expression of their cosmic and worldly power. Rarely consumed by worries over salvation, their integrationist and selectively destructive policies were consistent regardless of whether they encountered Muslim, Buddhist, or Christian peoples. Much like contemporary political leaders and even individual believers in Eastern Europe, these dynastic rulers “bent religious customs to their will” to secure their own borders.
Even when political authorities seek to express their domination over territory by pillaging or expropriating the sacred powers of shrines and other sites of devotional acts in their midst, they still must contend with individual agency and the allure of mercantilism and competing forms of power that can be accrued through trade. If the exchange of goods also connotes a flow of peoples and ideas, religiously inspired movement also points to the porosity of state borders and its ability to pry open set apart, sacred spaces.
Prior to the war, many Orthodox pilgrims were “Just Orthodox,” meaning they had no preference for a preferred religious leader. They disregarded state borders and traveled freely to multiple shared sites throughout the former Soviet Union, many of which, especially monasteries, doubled as centers of commerce, trading in everything from agricultural products harvested from land “animated by prayer” to religious objects blessed by monks with their erudite piety. Recent and growing ideological divides over the allure or rejection of a shared communist past have rerouted pilgrims and reoriented religious devotion to sites within the borders of their respective states. Two peoples, Russians and Ukrainians, it seems, are separated by a common past and the communist order that characterized it, which they now interpret differently.
Wei-Ping Lin’s study of pilgrimage from the Mazu islands, a demilitarized zone in the Taiwan Straits between Taiwan and China, illustrates similar dynamics of religiously-inspired movement and the making and breaking of borders. Although Chiang Kai-shek’s forces retreated to Taiwan in 1949, where an alternative form of political authority established itself predicated on an emphatic rejection of Mao’s communism, decades passed before renewed pilgrimage practices could revive the connections between Mainland China, Taiwan, and the Mazu islands. These peoples continued to share similar vernacular devotional practices albeit under dramatically different economic and state regimes. The ritualistic practices of the pilgrims Lin studied, like those of the Just Orthodox, are eclectic, improvised, and performance oriented. They unfold in temporary communities that form in travel to fulfill certain goals and then quickly disband. Motivations for engaging in these pilgrimages are as varied as the practices themselves, but for all participants they produce a desired experiential connection to a land they consider ancestral through a social imaginary that roots them in place and routes them in devotional travels. Transnational forms of religious practice connect lands in ways that make them interdependent and less sovereign. Conversely, when war and revolution create a bitter history of separation, as Lin reminds us, divergent imaginaries and the aspirations for political and economic changes redefine sovereignty, borders, and relatedness once again.
Amorphous Pilgrimages and Imagining Subjects in the 21st Century
National Taiwan University
“Virtual recentralization” is the only article in this series that is not about an Abrahamic religion. So let me start by introducing the idea and practice of pilgrimage in China and Taiwan (the latter being the primary subject of my paper). Chinese people have a long tradition of undertaking pilgrimages (jinxiang, literally, “presenting incense”) to the root temples of deities. The adherents carry their deity statues back to the mother temple in order to reinvigorate the magical power (ling) of their statues. Since most ethnic Chinese in Taiwan moved there from southeast China, the most popular deity of that region, Goddess Mazu, has become the major deity of pilgrimage in Taiwan. On important occasions in the past, devotees even carried her statue across the Taiwan Strait to visit her birthplace in Fujian province, China. Following the Japanese colonial period (1895-1945) and the political separation of Taiwan and China in 1949, pilgrimages in Taiwan gradually developed their own local networks and distinct traditions. For example, the biggest and most celebrated pilgrimage in Taiwan is the Dajia pilgrimage. It was held during April 8-17, 2022, even as the coronavirus pandemic was widespread. Pilgrims were required to show proof of vaccination and to wear masks throughout the journey. Despite these strictures, there were as many as a million participants. Another very large one, the Baishatun Mazu pilgrimage, was celebrated during May 20-27 of this year.
Alongside these Taiwanese pilgrimages, returning to the birthplace of Goddess Mazu in China is still considered highly meritorious. Especially during the 1990s and the 2000s, when political tensions between Taiwan and China were somewhat mitigated, many temples in Taiwan were eager to launch pilgrimages to China. It was a way for them to compete for authenticity within Taiwan while seeking economic opportunities in China. Governments on both sides of the Taiwan Strait tended to view pilgrimages as a form of “cultural activity” that could soften prevailing ideological conflicts and promote beneficial contacts between their peoples.
My paper concerns the Matsu archipelago; strategically located in the Taiwan Strait, it was controlled for almost fifty years by Taiwan’s army during the Cold War as an “anti-communism springboard.” Since tensions between Taiwan and China began to lessen after 1987, it has lost its military importance and faces an increasingly serious threat of marginalization. Local government officials and elites took advantage of the similar pronunciations of “Goddess Mazu” and the “Matsu islands” and initiated a series of novel religious practices, such as inventing myths (“Goddess Mazu was buried in the Matsu islands”), erecting a giant statue of Mazu, and designing many innovative kinds of cross-Strait pilgrimage; the aim is to promote Matsu, attract people from Taiwan and China to visit, and thus revitalize the island economy: in short, to “recentralize” Matsu.
The new forms of pilgrimage have become more and more diverse and improvised, and often even infused with elements of fiction and fantasy. A pilgrimage can be designed to take a different route each time, or a long detour. It can be eclectic in purpose. Sometimes, religion seems to play a minor role. Many laypeople are keen to join these journeys for a chance to visit China, rediscovering ancestral places from which they have long been separated or with which they are completely unfamiliar. Pilgrimages in the 21st century are increasingly amorphous.
In thinking about how one could depict these amorphous religious shapes, I have begun to study the “ambience and affective atmosphere of religiosity,” and I had read Catherine Wanner’s article even before participating in this dialogue. Her work in Ukraine inspired me to think about how to capture the essence of contemporary religious forms: pilgrimage is no longer text-based with rigid ritualistic contours but is radiated, diffusing and proliferating across the interface of political, economic, and spiritual processes. Indeed, I wonder whether, and to what extent, this amorphism characterizes not just contemporary pilgrimage, but all religious and related practices we took for granted in the twentieth century.
Similar phenomena are found in Ismail Alatas’s article. In his words, pilgrimages are “poetic projects” that are mediated through various chronotopes into distinct alignments. I am intrigued to find that, like me, Alatas analyzes a new kind of pilgrimage. Devotional trips to Ḥaḍramawt, Yemen, have become popular only in the last decade in Indonesia. In relation to these new pilgrimages, I share with Alatas the conviction that we must pay more attention to the various actors and mediatory practices that juxtapose, contrast, and assemble sociopolitical and cultural processes. In my recent book, I use the term “imagining subjects” to emphasize the importance of creativity and self-exploration in experiences of pilgrimage. Pilgrims are animated or dis-animated by material and spiritual encounters; perhaps in the future we should also include nonhuman beings, exploring how they (together with humans) reconfigure the journey.
Spatiotemporal Imagination and Pilgrimage Infrastructure
Ismail Fajrie Alatas
New York University
Shrine and pilgrimage anchor divergent worlds, narratives, itineraries, and projects to produce semiotically dense, viscerally intense, but nevertheless variegated imaginaries and experiences. Owing to their ability to engender relations that can make, break, or transcend political and ontological borders, shrines and pilgrimage can be harnessed for different purposes without necessarily exhausting their abundant — at times subversive — potentialities. This theme ties together the insightful CSSH articles that make up this collection, and it is accentuated in Lin Wei-Ling’s study of how Mazu Islanders institute new pilgrimages to re-center their now demilitarized archipelago. Mazu islanders are “longing to regain their important Cold War status as the focal point between China and Taiwan,” (132) Lin writes. They use pilgrimage to “imagine and reconfigure their current political and economic situations” (132) in hopes of becoming a mediator in the neoliberal economic zone that now joins the two countries. As a social practice of imagination that brings together various actors, histories, and itineraries, pilgrimage gives shape to collective geopolitical aspirations.
I want to highlight two points from Lin’s essay that resonate with what I tried to pursue in my 2016 CSSH article on the emergence of the Indonesian pilgrimage to Ḥaḍramawt, Yemen. The first is the question of spatiotemporal imagination. Lin shows how the disquiets of the Mazu islanders had to do with their perception of their foregone geopolitical centrality. This historical consciousness, together with their ancestral connection to the Longshan Temple in Changle (Fujian Province), affords Mazu islanders the ability to use pilgrimage — more literally, “presenting incense” (jinxiang) — to envision a futurity that is different from, yet fulfills, that very past. In this sense, pilgrimage serves as an anchor that grounds and articulates an imagined or remembered past and a desired future. The present in and through which pilgrimage takes place is not simply a succession of ever-vanishing “nows.” It is a present thickened (to use Husserl’s term) by spatial or portable images of time, both past and future, that can be creatively assembled into a variety of meaningful constellations. By tracing their ancestral path through a more sinuous itinerary, Mazu islanders encounter and incorporate old and novel images of past and future that, in turn, allow them to (re)imagine their present social existence.
My article shares this emphasis on pilgrimage as a practice of spatiotemporal imagination. In contrast to the future-oriented imagination discussed by Lin, however, Indonesians who embark on pilgrimage to Ḥaḍramawt expect to experience an idealized Islamic past. Actors involved in the pilgrimage, from scholars and writers who evoke spiritually idyllic images of Ḥaḍramawt, to travel agents and guides who assemble pilgrimage trips that conform to those images, to pilgrims who narrate their experiences to their families and friends upon return, all produce spatiotemporal images (or chronotopes) of Ḥaḍramawt that resonate with other mass-mediated chronotopes of an idealized Islamic past circulating among Indonesian Muslims. These “mythic” chronotopes are contrasted to those of the modern world, including contemporary Indonesia, thereby generating a sense of temporal discontinuity between the otherwise contemporaneous Ḥaḍramawt and Indonesia. Owing to these chronotopic mediations, pilgrims are able to experience their spatial journey as a travel across time. There is a poetic quality to pilgrimage as a practice of spatiotemporal imagination precisely because it hinges on the production of multiple chronotopes that are juxtaposed and brought into implied parallelism.
But pilgrims do not necessarily experience the mythic chronotopes they were previously exposed to in the texture of the landscape they encounter during pilgrimage. One pilgrim, for example, noticed how satellite dishes dominate the urban skylines of cities and towns in Ḥaḍramawt, a detail usually left out of mythic chronotopes. The attempt to deny coevalness does not always work in practice. Nevertheless, many Indonesian pilgrims find it easier to “visualize the time of the Prophet” (614) in Ḥaḍramawt, where the landscape is still perceived as somewhat rhyming with textual representations of a prophetic, saintly past. Infrastructural developments in the Hijaz, by contrast, have markedly transformed the landscape, rendering it incongruous with chronotopes found in the religious texts pilgrims are familiar with.
This leads me to the second point I want to highlight, namely the role of material infrastructure both in (re)producing and disseminating chronotopes that motivate pilgrimage, and in enabling pilgrimage itself. Lin, for example, points to the role of temples, ferries, tour buses, temporary customs offices, reception auditoriums, and the media. In my article, I look at texts, tombs, travel brochures, advertisements, airports, airplanes, and audiovisual materials. Michael Christopher Low also explores questions of infrastructure in his article on Ottoman and Saudi technopolitics of pilgrimage, which includes a penetrating analysis of regional water supply. Low shows how Ottoman and Saudi administrators embarked on ambitious projects of hydraulic management in the Hijaz. As he argues, “the ability to provision potable water emerges as a fundamental component of the state’s capacity to manage the hajj … and impose modern forms of governance” (947). Here we have an infrastructure crucial for pilgrimage that also instantiates modern statecraft and political imaginary, “a pillar of a new technopolitical state” (964). What Low describes with astonishing precision in regards to the Hijaz are the very details that my interlocutors often find unsavory and consciously erase from their mythic chronotopes of Ḥaḍramawt. Their past-oriented chronotopic directionality stands at odds with the Saudi state’s future-oriented modernization projects. For many Indonesian pilgrims to the Hijaz, what ought to be a journey to the ancient house (bayt al-ʿatīq) turns out to be a trip to the future, where they behold infrastructure not yet present in Indonesia. Here, the infrastructure that enables pilgrimage can simultaneously destabilize what some pilgrims imagine as the chronotope of pilgrimage. This tension between contending spatiotemporal imaginaries and the material infrastructures that evoke and sustain them is one of the numerous dynamics that make pilgrimage an exciting field of study. After all, shrine and pilgrimage assure abundance. Not just for the fatigued pilgrims, but also for the avid analysts.
A Pilgrimage to the Fragile Future
Michael Christopher Low
University of Utah
First, I’d like to extend heartfelt thanks to Andrew Shryock and my esteemed co-contributors for organizing and executing this rich discussion. The experience of publishing in (and later reviewing for) CSSH has been one of the most intellectually valuable and fortuitous experiences of my career. The process of writing and rethinking my 2015 essay, “Ottoman Infrastructures of the Saudi Hydro-State,” not only helped me to clarify the theoretical framings of my first book, Imperial Mecca: Ottoman Arabia and the Indian Ocean Hajj (2020), it also helped launch my next book project on the history of fossil-fueled desalinated water in the Arabian Peninsula.
One of the more intriguing aspects of this new project on the entangled histories of man-made water, energy infrastructures, and climate change has been the degree to which it has forced me to abandon, or at least radically adapt, all conventional disciplinary visions of how historians think about periodization. When I sometimes sheepishly explain that I’m writing an environmental history of water in Arabia from 1800 to 2100, I often get bemused grins and nervous chuckles from my fellow historians. And yet, despite the potential pitfalls of this Anthropocene approach, I remain convinced that the blatant futurity of this project is, in fact, what supplies its driving logic. The technopolitical alchemy of turning crude oil into man-made water has underwritten the fabulous wealth and development enjoyed across much of the Arabian Peninsula today. Mirroring the Gulf’s petroleum-based ethos of endless energy, the large-scale adoption of desalination technologies has given rise to an equally problematic environmental imaginary of “infinite water.” In turn, decades of state-subsidized desalination have rendered conventional renewable water resources virtually obsolete, lulling Gulf populations into the false belief that water is a “free resource.” Thus, despite the growing recognition of a looming post-oil future, it remains virtually impossible to imagine the decoupling of the region’s water supply from the fossil fuels that have become the primary ingredient in its production. Thus, with wet-bulb temperatures and humidity levels throughout the Arabian Peninsula, the Gulf, South Asia, and the Indian Ocean poised to frequently exceed the boundaries of human habitability as early as 2050 to 2070, the conundrum presented by fossil-fueled water production and the climate-altered future casts a long shadow over the environmental history of the region.
But how does this relate to the hajj and pilgrimage more generally? Here, I found Ismail Fajrie Alatas’s discussion of “spatiotemporal images” or “chronotopes” to be an especially helpful jumping-off point for thinking about the climate-altered futures of pilgrimage. As Alatas rightfully points out, the “mythic” chronotopes and textures of prophetic and saintly pasts that pilgrims desperately hope to encounter in Mecca, Hadramawt, and other pilgrimage destinations have often been replaced with modern infrastructures of air travel, rail, hotels, medical surveillance, and all the other air-conditioned and sanitized spaces of modern tourism. As early as the late Ottoman period, pilgrims began to feel the dissonance between the quickening pace of travel and communication produced by colonial infrastructures of steam, rail, and telegraph and the older “Muslim spacetime” experienced once they disembarked in Jeddah. In the late Ottoman period, this led to many uncomfortable comparisons between the relative safety and ease provided by the colonial world of steam and the frequent disappointment felt by pilgrims, many of whom described the Hijaz as emblematic of Ottoman underdevelopment, poor sanitation, and the all too traditional threat of Bedouin banditry. Today, however, pilgrims encounter a near complete reversal of the divide between “modern” and “Muslim” spacetime. As Alatas astutely explains, “the past-oriented” chronotopic expectations of the average pilgrim crash against the rocks of the Saudi state’s resolutely “future-oriented modernization project.” What should have been a journey of reconnection with the prophetic past winds up being a Disney-style introduction to infrastructural futures and modern conveniences not yet available at home. Of course, in this case infrastructure is no neutral actor. The infrastructural backbone of Saudi modernization and the redevelopment of Mecca has denuded the city of some notable sites of prophetic and historic significance and reinscribed these sacred spaces with new meanings. The most obvious manifestation of the holy city’s altered skyline is the gargantuan government-owned Abraj al-Bayt tower complex, complete with its gaudy Big Ben-style clock tower. Here, the visual symbolism is unmistakable. The royal/national monuments of the hotel towers cast their shadow over the now-dwarfed Masjid al-Haram and Ka‘ba.
However, even as these sparkling symbols of petro-state wealth are barely a decade old, the gentrified modernization of Mecca and the infinite abundance it suggests look more fragile than ever. In his trenchant satire of Gulf petro-kingdoms, ‘Abd al-Rahman Munif mocked Saudi Arabia and its neighbors, dubbing them “Cities of Salt.” At the time, Munif was primarily referring to the presumed fragility of the autocratic socio-political systems forged by the so-called shaykhly rentier states of the region. Today, however, we might be well served to revisit Munif’s idea of “Cities of Salt” as a tool to think about the impermanence of the enviro-technical systems of energy, water, and climate adaptation devised by the twentieth-century Gulf states.
Although the 2020 emergence of the global COVID-19 pandemic temporarily set back Saudi Arabia’s ambitious plans to open the kingdom to mass tourism, from Jeddah to Al-‘Ula and the greenwashed NEOM project, the dramatic transformation of the Hijaz and the Red Sea region is well underway. But for how long? Despite much talk of green solutions, hydrogen and solar alternatives, and other “technical adjustments” designed to maintain the region’s petroleum-based economic order, Saudi plans to build a mass tourism market on top of the millions of international pilgrims that it already hosts poses a tangle of thorny questions. And while the long-term viability of mass tourism and the fossil-fueled transportation models that underpin them are in no way issues unique to Saudi Arabia or the Gulf region, the temptation to maintain the oil-rich status quo remains strong. To be clear, as I write these words on Eid Al-Adha, the high in Mecca is 108°F/42C°. Where I sit in Salt Lake City, the high is 102°F/39°C. Thus, I fully acknowledge that this warning applies equally to my own backyard.
For the better part of the last decade, each hajj season has brought a new round of op-eds raising the prospect of a terrifying new era in which the summer-time hajj, at least as we know it, will eventually be impossible due to climate change. While there is something about these columns predicting the hajj as a victim of global warming that seems uncomfortably reminiscent of nineteenth-century commentary proclaiming Muslim pious mobility as a unique threat to global public health, orientalism or no, dramatic climate change is coming to the peninsula in the very near future. Thus, just as Alatas reminds us how disorienting modern infrastructures are for the average pilgrim’s imagined encounter with the mythic past, the fossil-fueled and -funded transport and infrastructural systems underpinning mass pilgrimage and tourism, each barely more than a century or century and a half old, threaten to unravel more than the texture of the pilgrimage experience. The coming decades portend something more existentially dreadful for all forms of long-distance and international travel facilitated by burning carbon.
Although it was once virtually unthinkable to imagine the suspension or even the dramatic curtailment of international hajj travel, Saudi Arabia’s remarkably responsible handling of the COVID-stricken 2020 season offers a disturbing preview of the climate-altered future of pilgrimage. In the coming decades, one can easily imagine tighter hajj quotas, lower overall capacity, and even entire seasons cancelled due to deadly heat and a host of other pathogenic and natural disasters spinning off from our larger planetary crisis. While it is grim to imagine the prospect, as our current energy-intensive, air-conditioned peregrinations become increasingly impractical, an era of escalating climate threats might also bring a return to a numerically diminished, deadlier era of pilgrimage travel, ironically promising the restoration of some of the more intrepid, self-sacrificing devotional aspects of the pilgrimage experience we find in the old pre-modern rihla and safarname narrations of pilgrimage’s numerous environmental hazards.
Bruce Grant is Professor and Chair of Anthropology at New York University. A specialist on cultural politics in the former Soviet Union, he has done fieldwork in Siberia and the Caucasus. He is author of In the Soviet House of Culture: A Century of Perestroikas (Princeton 1995), winner of the Prize for Best First Book from the American Ethnological Society, and The Captive and the Gift: Cultural Histories of Sovereignty in Russia and the Caucasus (Cornell 2009). His current research explores the early twentieth-century, pan-Caucasus journal Molla Nasreddin (1905-1931) as an idiom for rethinking contemporary Eurasian space and authoritarian rule within it.
A. Azfar Moin is Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Texas, Austin. He studies the early modern Islamic world from comparative perspectives with a focus on issues of sovereignty. His book The Millennial Sovereign: Sacred Kingship and Sainthood in Islam (Columbia 2012) won the Best First Book in the History of Religions Award from the American Academy of Religion, John F. Richards Prize in South Asian History from the American Historical Association, and Honorable Mention for the Bernard S. Cohn Book Prize (South Asia) from the Association for Asian Studies. With Alan Strathern he co-edited Sacred Kingship in World History: Between Immanence and Transcendence (Columbia 2022). Moin is co-editor of Modern Asian Studies, published by Cambridge University Press.
Catherine Wanner is Professor of Anthropology, History, and Religious Studies at Pennsylvania State University. Her research centers on the politics of religion, conflict mediation, and human rights, especially in Ukraine, but more broadly in Eastern Europe. Her books include Burden of Dreams: History and Identity in Post-Soviet Ukraine (1998), Communities of the Converted: Ukrainians and Global Evangelism (2007), and most recently, Everyday Religiosity and the Politics of Belonging in Ukraine (Cornell 2022). In 2020, Wanner received the Distinguished Scholar Prize from the Association for the Study of Eastern Christianity.
Wei-ping Lin is Professor of Anthropology at National Taiwan University. Her research interests are kinship, issues of place and space among the Han Chinese in Taiwan, and aspects of religion, including healing cults, sacred objects (god statues), and religious change. Among her several books are Materializing Magic Power: Chinese Popular Religion in Villages and Cities (Harvard 2015) and Island Fantasia: Imagining Subjects on the Military Frontline between China and Taiwan (Cambridge 2021). Lin is currently doing research on de/militarization, violence, and the state in Taiwan.
Ismail Fajrie Alatas is Assistant Professor of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies at New York University. His research interest is in Islam in the Indian Ocean world, particularly connections between Southeast Asia and South Arabia, religious authority, semiotics, and the Hadrami diaspora. He is the author of What is Religious Authority? Cultivating Islamic Communities in Indonesia (Princeton, 2021). Alatas is currently working on a book-length study of Islamic social imaginaries, which will focus on the interrelations of Sufism, Islamic law, and implicit meanings of social action.
Michael Christopher Low is Assistant Professor of History at the University of Utah. His primary research interests are the Ottoman Empire, the Arabian Peninsula, the Indian Ocean world, and environmental history. He is author of Imperial Mecca: Ottoman Arabia and the Indian Ocean Hajj (Columbia 2020), winner of the Middle East Studies Association’s Albert Hourani Book Award in 2021. Low is currently investigating the entangled enviro-technical histories of desalination, water production, infrastructure, energy, and climate change in the Arabian Peninsula.