Posted by: Dan | August 16, 2007

Pilgrimages and Migrations

Here’s a contribution from John Bryden (below the horizontal line; my comments are much below the fold, following another line)

Here’s an angle that seems kind of appropriate to put forward on a blog entitled Migrations.

A paper by historian Bernard Lewis surveying middle eastern personal travel starts by discussing the Hajj, the Muslim pilgrimage. He writes:

“I start with pilgrims, not because they are the earliest chronologically (they are not); but because the pilgrimage — more specifically the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina — is the first really major factor of personal travel over vast distances in human history, and for long it remained the most important single factor.”

He explains the main features of the Muslim pilgrimage and its character as a religious obligation and then goes on to say:

“Almost from the beginning the Hajj brought travelers from the entire world of Islam (already in medieval times reaching from Spain and Morocco at one end to Southeast Asia and Central Asia on the other), to join together at one time, in one place, and engage in certain common rituals and other activities. This, clearly, has been a factor of enormous importance in the cultural and social history of the Islamic world. Every year, great numbers of Muslims, from many countries and from different races and social strata, leave their homes and travel often over vast distances, to take part in a common act of worship. These journeys, unlike the mindless collective migrations familiar in ancient and medieval times, are voluntary and individual. Each is a personal act, following a personal decision, and resulting in a wide range of significant personal experience.”

His next long paragraph, which I summarize here, deals with the “important social, intellectual and economic consequences” of the Hajj. The personal interchange that takes place en route to Mecca and in Mecca, and the infrastructure needed to support pilgrimage, facilitates development of contacts that foster trade, scholarship, literature, systematic communication links between distant places, a profound sense of common awareness amongst the pilgrims of belonging to a larger whole, enhancement of social and cultural mobility, and “a corresponding evolution of institutions”.

(See Lewis, Bernard; “From Babel to Dragomans: Interpreting the Middle East”; Oxford University Press, 2004; pages 137-138)

Bernard Lewis’ account of the Hajj struck me as showing a fascinating example of the power of religion. It very well illustrates that religion serves not only to hold existing bodies of people together (ethnocentrically) — it also creates new communities that transcend former boundaries. Moreover, the genius of a concept like the hajj is astonishing. An institution like that the Hajj that mobilizes people to go way out of their comfort zone, geographically and mentally, in contributing to the creation of an entirely new civilization, is exercising motivational forces that reach deep into the individual and collective psyche in a manner that religion is uniquely capable of doing. The creation of the Hajj by the Prophet Muhammad exhibits both deep insight into human nature and an extraordinary foresight regarding the outcomes by way of building a unified Islamic community.

Concerning the power of religion in contrast with the power of secular philosophy, ‘Abdu’l-Baha comments:

“Consider whether there exists anywhere in creation a principle mightier in every sense than religion, or whether any conceivable power is more pervasive than the various Divine Faiths, or whether any agency can bring about real love and fellowship and union among all peoples as can belief in an almighty and all-knowing God, or whether except for the laws of God there has been any evidence of an instrumentality for educating all mankind in every phase of righteousness.

“Those qualities which the philosophers attained when they had reached the very heights of their wisdom, those noble human attributes which characterized them at the peak of their perfection, would be exemplified by the believers as soon as they accepted the Faith. Observe how those souls who drank the living waters of redemption at the gracious hands of Jesus, the Spirit of God, and came into the sheltering shade of the Gospel, attained to such a high plane of moral conduct that Galen, the celebrated physician, although not himself a Christian, in his summary of Plato’s Republic extolled their actions. A literal translation of his words is as follows:

“‘The generality of mankind are unable to grasp a sequence of logical arguments. For this reason they stand in need of symbols and parables telling of rewards and punishments in the next world. A confirmatory evidence of this is that today we observe a people called Christians, who believe devoutly in rewards and punishments in a future state. This group show forth excellent actions, similar to the actions of an individual who is a true philosopher. For example, we all see with our own eyes that they have no fear of death, and their passion for justice and fair-dealing is so great that they should be considered true philosophers.[1]

“The station of a philosopher, in that age and in the mind of Galen, was superior to any other station in the world. Consider then how the enlightening and spiritualizing power of divine religions impels the believers to such heights of perfection that a philosopher like Galen, not himself a Christian, offers such testimony.”

[See “Galen on Jews and Christians” by Richard Walzer, Oxford University Press, 1949, p. 15. The author states that Galen’s summary here referred to is lost, being preserved only in Arabic quotations.]

(Abdu’l-Baha, “The Secret of Divine Civilization”, p. 83)

In the past, religion has always been able to come up with powerful ways of dealing with the particular problems of each age in historical evolution. (As alluded to by Galen in the above quotation, part of religion’s power lies in its ability to express metaphysical concepts in metaphorical language that captures the imagination. Religion knows people better than they know themselves.)

Looking at religion’s past record, I put my money on religion “saving” humankind again in our own age. But not religion as hitherto known. Rather, religion in a form that deals effectively with the conditions and needs of our time. To reflect on what form of religion that might be would lead me into a discussion first of the significant and valid points you’ve made about emergence of secularism and universal concepts of human rights, scientific knowledge, etc., that have emerged in the last 300-odd years, and whether these represent a new species of thought that supersedes religion. I agree that reconciling modern developments in thought, with religion, is an important subject. But for simplicity in this present post, I will limit it to the single theme that in history religion has demonstrated an influence that secular thought and secular institutions never achieve.

Religion has been the driving force in the evolution of civilization for thousands of years. Why suppose it has suddenly run out of steam?

This, I think, is the crux of the point of view of many atheists and agnostics – that religion is out-dated in a number of ways. Certainly, religion remains a powerful societal force, is multi-faceted, and not all aspects of religion may be out-dated. I’ve been making two very specific and separate claims, however:

(1) – The need for supernatural entities as the focus for religions no longer exists, simply because we have a better way of making sense out of things that happen in the world (i.e., science). The corollary of this is a note that non-theistic religions and philosophies do exist, and may be a more rational alternative (see Carl Sagan’s Varieties of Scientific Experience, or look up ‘non-theistic religions’).

(2) – While nationalistic faiths (i.e., those that strongly define ‘in-group’ and ‘out-group’; see ‘Tribalism’ section of my Religion and Ethnocentrism essay) are probably very adaptive in warring societies, they have decidedly less utility in peaceful societies. Yet, nationalistic faiths (e.g., Christianity and Islam) appear to dominate Western, Near Eastern and Middle Eastern societies still, despite a crowded world with increasingly dangerous (nuclear) weapons in which we would do better to cooperate in.

True, there is a species-wide trend away from magical thinking and warfare over the past few centuries, but I think that maybe my explanation is why – because rational thinking and out-group tolerance are on the rise.

But there’s no doubt that pilgrimages effect our minds, and our behaviors towards each other, in important ways.



  1. Dan,

    My comments in response are very extensive. For this reason, I’ve put them in a post at Vox Cosmicos.

    I see you’re away until Sunday. Trust you’ll get around to reading my post when opportunity allows.



%d bloggers like this: