A Moroccan ethnographer travels to Islam’s shrines and reports on what he finds, much of it unexpected.
“I am a Muslim,” writes Hammoudi (Anthropology/Princeton), “who continually questions the religion’s fundamentals but fiercely maintains its ethos.” Ever doubtful, he discovers that his fellow Muslims undertake the hajj, or pilgrimage to Medina and Mecca, for many reasons, not least of them the assumption that wealth and reputation will follow. To examine those reasons, however, Hammoudi must first get on the roster of pilgrims, for the fundamentalist Wahhabi mullahs and Saudi Arabian bureaucrats, “guardians of the Holy Places,” have imposed a strict quota on the number of foreign hajjis admitted each year, and competition is fierce. Morocco, where he resides when not teaching in New Jersey, metes out its quota down to the village level: a nicely democratic practice in theory, though at every stage open to favoritism and power-brokering. “If one wanted to look for the ideology that has the most adherents in my country, one would not be surprised to find it to be something very like corruption,” Hammoudi writes. “It’s a secret, but an open secret.” Corruption is no rarer within the walls of the holiest shrines, we find; the author recalls encounters with hookers, crooked officials and guides, and the like. Medina, thronged by visitors who all have their own reasons for coming, becomes a shrine for “the religion of Me, Me first, Me before everyone else.” The Islam Hammoudi finds there and even at the Kaaba is far from monolithic, riven by ethnic and social divisions that, in theory at least, should not exist. “Around the black cube, the circle consecrated the equal dignity of all Muslims, but it did not eliminate differences in class or status.”
A Muslim counterpart to Lawrence Taylor’s Occasions of Faith (1995) and other recent studies of pilgrimage; highly recommended for students of contemporary Islam, especially those prohibited from entering its shrines.