“At the call of an idea they had left their forests, their clearings, the protection of their rulers, their prosperity, their poverty, the surroundings of their youth and the graves of their fathers” (Joseph Conrad – Lord Jim)
In recent years, there has been a significant expansion of non-religious pilgrimage, especially in Europe where many old routes have been revived, or new ones created to take advantage of our growing appetite for ‘walking with purpose’. But these represent just a few pixels of a much bigger picture. The estimated 75 million or so Hindus who travel to the Kumbh Mela, do so primarily for reasons of faith as do the majority of those who walk the Camino de Santiago. For the 2-3 million Muslims who make the Hajj each year, the pilgrimage to Mecca is one of the five pillars of their faith and central to their religious practice and identity.
Malik, a native of Mecca recounts how
“When your home is God’s land, When each year you are waiting and longing for the hajj, You are in a perpetual state of transition. This is how it is to be Meccan. The call goes out to Muslims, from every place on earth, And from every deep abyss, to come to God. You are waiting and longing, and the proof is that they always come. With their arrival, God comes. He is in every pilgrim. This is the greatest act of community and humanity. It expresses the fortitude of the human spirit, You want to help them and give them what they need, All differences disappear in a common purpose, as the channel between earth and heaven opens up over the Ka’ba.”
The origin of the black stone which is embedded into the Ka’ba, the focus of the Hajj, is unknown, but long before the advent of Islam this mysterious object drew pilgrims from across the Arabian Peninsula and beyond. This same phenomenon of special places or objects drawing the faithful has shaped the way in which all the major faiths were formed. The question is why, given that the God of the Abrahamic religions is omnipresent, these particular sites exert such a magnetic attraction.