Marjo Buitelaar, Manja Stephan-Emmrich and Viola Thimm (eds), Muslim Women's Pilgrimage to Mecca and Beyond: Reconfiguring Gender, Religion, and Mobility (London: Routledge, 2021), 213 pp.
Muslim Women's Pilgrimage to Mecca and Beyond is an interdisciplinary exploration of Muslim women's pilgrimage and the ways in which the rites of pilgrimage shape and are shaped by gender and social relations, institutional power structures and histories of access and mobility. Across a total of 11 chapters, including the introduction, the volume successfully makes Muslim women's pilgrimage visible. The volume also successfully applies several theoretical frames to understand pilgrimage. The first is intersectionality: how multiple identities intersect and constitute each other during pilgrimage. The second is transnational mobility: how the mobility of persons performing pilgrimage can define and shape the people involved, including the religious experiences of pilgrimage, and assessments of the places in which people dwell, past and present, near and far (7). Finally, the volume aptly explores pilgrimage as a religious practice that intersects with women's broader life-worlds, including their domestic lives, economic activities, social status and politics.
Most chapters discuss Muslim women's Hajj and/or Umra practices (Al-Ajarma, Buitelaar, Fewkes, Karić, Kenny, Kadrouch-Outmany and Buitelaar, Van Leeuwen, Lucking, Thimm). The Hajj is the compulsory pilgrimage that every able Muslim should perform once in a lifetime, and the Umra is the voluntary pilgrimage (1). Both practices connect pilgrims to a shared Islamic past and an imagined spiritual homeland, promoting feelings of belonging to the Umma or community of believers. Indeed, the pilgrimage plays an important role in ‘Muslim home making, even as it involves the crossing of boundaries on different levels’ (1). Only two chapters step away from the Hajj to address other Muslim pilgrimage practices. One focuses on women's pilgrimage to Mecca by way of Jerusalem (Lücking) and another explores the pilgrimage of Shi'i Muslim women to the Shrine of Lady Masoumeh in Qom (Rahbari). The women represented in this volume are from numerous religious backgrounds and countries, including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Malaysia, Iran, Morocco, India, the Netherlands, Egypt, West Africa and Indonesia.
A major theme in the first three chapters of the volume is how women from distinct backgrounds who perform the Hajj have different experiences and face different obstacles. Thimm, for instance, applies theories of intersectionality to discuss how gender and citizenship/nationality (e.g. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Malaysia) shape women's interpretation of powerful (Saudi) regulations such as the requirement of having a male sponsor when they are under the age of 45. In the next chapter, Kadrouch-Outmany and Buitelaar show how young Moroccan-Dutch women combine what is to them the spirit of the Hajj with the value of gender equality. Their rich chapter focuses on Saudi regulations concerning gender segregation and the way in which some women actively appropriate certain spaces at Hajj sites, reforming and recreating them (40–41). The third chapter in this group, by Al-Ajarma, explores Moroccan women's experience of the Hajj. Al-Ajarma notes how in Morocco the Hajj was traditionally associated with men. In addition to the Saudi regulation that women must have a male guardian, women also face obstacles because, as caregivers for family members, they must often prioritise their domestic responsibilities over their religious obligations (71). Nevertheless, when Moroccan women do gain the title of hajja, they demand recognition of their new social status and gain significant social and cultural capital. This theme of the Hajj as a means, not only of spiritual development but of gaining social status and/or capital connects several other chapters in the volume (e.g. Kenny).
The second subset of chapters explores the relationship between religion, economic activity and tourism/leisure in the context of women's pilgrimage, with vivid discussions of women in the marketplace, and of Islamic consumerism and entrepreneurship. Rahbari, for instance, writes about pilgrimage to the shrines of local saints or other important figures in Islamic historiography. She focuses on the practice of pilgrimage to Lady Masoumeh's shrine in Qom (86), revealing how the boundaries of leisure, tourism and religious practice are renegotiated and blurred. Turning to the Umra pilgrimage to Mecca by way of Jerusalem, Lücking investigates the nexus between the marketplace and religious tourism in the activities of Muslim and Christian Indonesian pilgrims. She discusses how Indonesian Muslim and Christian women exert meaningful agency and map out religious and political difference through the discourses surrounding their shopping practices on their pilgrimage to Jerusalem, though they often ultimately buy the same Israeli Dead Sea cosmetics (105). These shopping practices are thus deeply political. In contrast, Kenny explores how female Malinke entrepreneurs from Guinea, West Africa, participate in the Hajj in a way that intersects with their experiences of marriage and widowhood, and enhances their business ambitions.
Finally, several chapters explore how narratives of the Hajj have often omitted women, creating misperceptions of the gendered histories of the Hajj and of women's Hajj experiences. Fewkes, for instance, focuses on the construction of silences in and about narratives of women's historical Hajj travel in the Indian Ocean from the fourteenth to the nineteenth centuries. Karić writes about Bosnian women who perform the Hajj, addressing the socialist context of Bosnia and Herzegovina between the 1960s and 1980s. She observes that women's pilgrimage is deeply connected to their bodily, discursive, narrative and political visibility. Van Leeuwen discusses a work published by Bint Al-Shati (1913–1998), a prominent Egyptian scholar and intellectual. Published in 1952, the book contains an account of two journeys to the Arabian Peninsula undertaken perform the Umra and the Hajj. Buitelaar concludes the volume with a chapter about Indian American journalist Asra Nomani's 2003 memoir about her pilgrimage to Mecca, Standing Alone: An American Woman's Struggle for the Soul of Islam. The chapter explores Nomani's navigation of the Hajj and her other social positions as a daughter of Indian migrants to the United States.
Collectively, the chapters in this volume highlight the way in which mobility and identity can shape each other in the act of pilgrimage. Muslim Women's Pilgrimage to Mecca and Beyond draws from a variety of interdisciplinary perspectives, including anthropology, sociology, geography, history and religious studies, and thus includes information for scholars in all of these fields. As with most edited volumes, some chapters are stronger than others, providing richer details or clearer insights into pilgrimage, mobility, gender or power – but taken as a whole the volume is an important contribution, revealing the Hajj to be a religious practice that is deeply entangled with politics, citizenship, gender and history. I recommend it for all scholars interested in gender, Islam, pilgrimage, religion and mobility as well as those who want insight into women's experience of pilgrimage generally.
Rose Wellman, University of Michigan-Dearborn
Erika Friedl, Religion and Daily Life in the Mountains of Iran: Theology, Saints, People (London: I.B. Tauris, 2021), xix + 178 pp.
This book is a testimony to ‘lived Islam’ through five decades in a small tribal town, Sisakht. It is located in the eastern Zagros Mountains in the province of Kohgiluye/Boir Ahmad in South-Western Iran, and is inhabited mainly by Luri-speaking Shi'a Muslims who have traditionally been agro-pastoralists. Friedl and her husband, Reinhold Loeffler, did ethnographic studies there between 1965 and 2008, and again in 2015. Understandably, ‘such continuity makes writing difficult, … because there is not a fixed time horizon’ while dealing with an ‘overwhelming amount of information’ (xviii). Fifty years is truly an extraordinary time span, making Friedl's study a unique document covering also the disruptions caused by the Iranian Revolution of 1978–1979. The wealth of information accumulated over this period on religion (amongst other topics) led the author to concentrate on the differences in religious concepts held by various people and in people's opinions about the choices they have for being ‘good Muslims’. ‘Islam’ emerges as a conglomerate of often widely divergent options that people in small communities have about religious and philosophical matters. This approach transcends the common format of descriptive ethnographies by taking into account the astonishing variety of choices for belief and action as they emerge over time.
The book contains – after prefaces including one entitled ‘The Setting’ – an introduction including an overview of the rather scant relevant literature, followed by seven chapters entitled ‘Religion and Gnostic Realism’, ‘God’, ‘Theology, Extended’, ‘Saints and Clients’, ‘The End of Life’, ‘Beyond the Grave’ and ‘Well-Being’, each ending in a summary. All offer great reading marked by precisely formulated statements about local people's views on their beliefs in God, saints, extra-human powers, life after death and how it all relates to their daily lives. The study describes, for example, how the annual highly emotionalised staging of the fight and martyr death of the Imam Husayn in 680 CE, the ta'ziyeh (see Fig. 4), which is popular in the Shi'a world generally and also in traditional Sisakht, quieted down locally in response to the Islamic regime's unwelcome propaganda (personal communication).
Prevalent in the study is the theme of people's assumptions of life, spiritual matters and philosophical notions as expressed ‘in casual comments, in vernacular language and with vernacular logic’ (13) which furnish arguments outside of scientific logic. The image of an almighty, omnipresent God both benevolent and vengeful is most important. Though God's purported commands and the moral foundations of Muslim life as defined in the Five Pillars of Islam are generally considered to be beneficial to everybody, life conditions might lead some to neglect them. Nonetheless, ‘God's mercy can be counted on to minimize the potential sin of ignoring the order’ (27). Themes such as truth and justice, sins and the afterlife and what God wants of people occupy people's imagination, and a habituated experience-based pragmatism leads people to doubt many of ‘the mullahs’’ assertions about these topics.
As to be expected, only very few people expressed doubts about the existence of God, but there is the option ‘to see God as an otiose, remote deity who keeps out of His creations’ daily struggles’ (40). Although one has to accept that God's order seems to be unjust by letting ‘the kings live in opulence in a palace’ while ‘the people live in poverty in a stone hut’, people are convinced that God wants them to use their God-given abilities to reason well so as to have a good life.
In the especially interesting chapter ‘Saints and Clients’, the focus is on cult places and shrines called emamzada (‘descendant of the Prophet’), although they may be syncretised pre-Islamic cult places. The ‘saints’ are expected to help people in need who petition them. Estimated by locals to number ‘between thirty and “a hundred”’ in the province (65), pilgrims visit them with vows and votive sacrifices that also benefit the caretakers and the poor. They hope for the saint's direct assistance or for their intervention with God on the petitioners’ behalf. A few famous large shrines have thousands of annual visitors. The cults of saints lead to popular pilgrimage travels organised by the government as a hallowed, pious tradition (76) but also to doubters’ criticism.
Some amusing anecdotes appear in the chapter ‘The Making of an Emamzada’. Too many visitors at a shrine might lead to problems, such as when, in 1989, the body of Ayatollah Khomeini had to be kept behind stacks of shipping containers to discourage mourners. Yet, the big containers were ‘instantly used as an Emamzada’ by mourners who touched and kissed them to partake of the baraka, the grace that the Ayatollah was said to emanate (68).
Friedl uses quotes, proverbs and tales to understand empathically the people's survival strategies, their reasoning and their doubts, and to come to terms with their ‘flexible ethics’ and numerous contradictions such as ‘unconditional hospitalities and bitter hostilities’, ‘polished politeness and aggressive dominance’ and ‘open-minded interests and doctrinaire narrow-mindedness’. Friedl gratefully recognises the unconditional hospitality that she and her family experienced from people who were ‘feared by outsiders for their violence’, and which made it difficult for her and her husband ‘to acknowledge the darker side of their lifeways’ (2–3).
Tragically, part of the town, where Friedl and Loeffler had undertaken research for such a long time, was destroyed by an earthquake recently, in February of 2021. The publication of this rare and remarkably lucidly written study, indeed ‘a concentrated charge’ of very valuable information on life and religion in the rural ‘backyard’ of Iran, should have allowed for the printing of the (unfortunately only) 12 photographs spread in the text on paper better suited for reproduction. The good paper hardcover is ‘dipped’ in an appropriate ‘Islamic green colour’, and features the image of a small local domed shrine of the kind where people might stay overnight in their quest for help from saints.