Hajj as Metaphor

25 Jan 2021

Hajj as Metaphor

By Mahdi Chowdhury

January 25, 2021


I. The Pilgrim

The hajj—that is, the annual pilgrimage to Mecca—was a subject of deep personal resonance and ethical symbolism for Ali Shariʿati. Born in 1933 in provincial Khorasan, Shariʿati was one of Iran’s most influential twentieth-century intellectuals. The crux of his thought, Ervand Abrahamian argued, was the project of refiguring Islam—and Shi’ism, in particular—from being understood as a “conservative, fatalistic creed” or “apolitical personal religion” into a mass “revolutionary ideology that permeate[d] all spheres of life."[1] In deconstructing Islamic rituals, symbols, and beliefs—in addition to drawing upon existentialist, anticolonial, and Marxist intellectual traditions—Shariʿati articulated a charismatic and original vision of Islam as a form of liberation theology. In attempting this supposed “ideologization of Islam,” there is perhaps no place in which Shari’ati expressed himself as passionately than in his writings on hajj. 

By the end of his life, Shariʿati had performed the pilgrimage no fewer than three times. State restrictions, however, often challenged his mobility. His journey to Mecca in the winter of 1970 had been particularly complicated. The SAVAK—Mohammad Reza Shah’s CIA-trained intelligence force—placed Shariʿati under surveillance. He was subsequently banned from leaving “Khorasan’s legal jurisdiction."[2] A delicate and serious situation,[3] it was eventually resolved in time for the pilgrimage season.

Though surveilled and hyper-visible in Mashhad, documentary traces of Shariʿati’s trips to Mecca are relatively elusive and fragmented. Just as a pilgrim blends in with the crowd, Shariʿati’s archival presence is often shrouded in plain sight. For instance, in photographs—of which there are at least four publicly recorded—it is easy to pass over him unless one knows he is present. Save for one more intimate portrait of Shariʿati standing by himself, he is otherwise anonymous among his colleagues from Hosseiniyeh Ershad. In two images, they pose in coordinated rows for a group photograph; in another, a more informal snapshot, Shariʿati’s face is accidentally obscured by his own hand and he is one of two whose gaze does not meet the camera. This last scene, however, is redeemed and comes to life in a fortuitous record: a souvenir 8mm film footage taken by a member of the group.


“Ali Shari’ati and Hosseiniyeh Ershad members photographed on hajj”

The hajj, as expressed in his public lectures and writings, was a transformative experience. In March 1970, one month after returning from Mecca, he held a series of public lectures on the subject at Ershad. According to Shariʿati biographer, Ali Rahnema, after a seven-month state ban on his speeches, these religious lectures also gave cover to the re-emergence of Shariʿati’s political expressions, including anti-Pahlavi critiques. Even on Iranian New Year, young men and women “crowded into Ershad’s main lecture hall that could hold up to 1,700”—going well beyond capacity—to hear Shariʿati speak. In these lectures, he characterized the hajj as a radical ritual that contemporized and elapsed the temporal distance between the origins of Islam and the present day. Shariʿati claimed the hajj had its religious ontology in the social mission of Abraham. The prophet’s “anti-idolatrous movement” was—in his quasi-Marxist reinterpretation—a crusade against class society. As he surmises, the hajj binds Muslims to this prophetic tradition and places an onus on the faithful to not neglect their “liberating socio-religious responsibility."[5]

II. The Book 

Shariʿati’s pilgrimages and subsequent public lectures form the base for his 1972 publication, Tahlili az manāsek-e-hajj (تحلیلی از مناسک حج)—Analysis of the Rituals of Hajj (hereafter, “Hajj”). It is one of three volumes that Shariʿati wrote on the subject. Of his hajj writings, it is the most well-known tract and the one that most elaborately brings together his theses about the hajj as a revolutionary tradition.




“1978 cover of Tahlili az manāsek-e-hajj (تحلیلی از مناسک حج)”

Shariʿati’s Hajj is a strange and compelling book. It does not settle neatly into a specific genre. On one hand, it is structured like a conventional pilgrimage guide. It follows a logical order according to the sequence of hajj rites. But it is not a manual and is prefaced with the insistence that this book does not substitute for the word of an “Islamic religious authority.” Instead, Shariʿati defines his book as a “contemplative treatise."[5] Still, he goes on to critique the very kinds of hajj guides ubiquitous in his time and for which his book may easily be mistaken. Their rigid formalism, he argues, makes us perform a hajj “not [in] the tradition of human beings but of sheep."[6] Consequently, with this criticism, he also implies the broader intervention of his text: to caution that one “not become lost in the external form of these rituals” and to outline a template for how to “make a hajj of concepts, not just a hajj of rituals."[7]

Shariʿati’s book departs from another form of popular hajj literature: the travelogue (safarnāmeh). He regards hajj travelogues as gauche “souvenirs [of] aristocratic extravagance."[8] Instead of offering useful religious knowledge, travelogues are instead filled with “recollections [of] nonsensical incidents and the vomitings of the journey."[9] Barbara Metcalf suggests that the emergence of the modern hajj travelogue was itself shaped by other nineteenth-century forms of literature that focalized the individual. In other words, it is “the hajji and not the hajj [that] takes centre stage."[10] Against this popular literature, Shariʿati made a formal departure: Hajj eschews most standards of novelistic, observational, first-person narrations of pilgrimage for an abstract, philo-theatrical, second-person narration. This stylistic approach performs some of the central themes and ideas of his text. Namely, the second-person narration performs the project of “disinvidualizing” oneself, and the rhythmic “you”s preceding descriptions of hajj motions, rites, and meanings throw one into the kinetic movements of the pilgrimage.

While Hajj has been steadily and continuously read for half a century—since publication, the first-edition sold over 60,000 copies, it was reprinted at least eleven times, and translated into several major languages[11]—there is, nevertheless, scant engagement with this text in English-language scholarship. Moreover, when Shariʿati’s hajj text is invoked, it is more often than not cited for more decorative reasons than analytical ones. Even Susan Shariʿati—a daughter of the late author—has noted the discrepancy between this text’s popularity among non-academic classes and its striking omission from scholarship in Iran itself. Not even Rahnema’s masterful “political biography” references it. Yet, this effaced presence is partly understandable. For in many ways, Hajj is an outlier vis-à-vis the themes and concerns that have historically determined the study of Shariʿati in the academy. 

The major interest in Shariʿati in the West has long been in relation to the study of political culture in Iran and—in the aftermath of 1979—predicated on the image of Shariʿati as the exceptional ‘ideologue of the Iranian Revolution.’ Consequently, many have come to read Shariʿati as either a martyred intellectual or an ideological architect of the Revolution. However, this was evidently a posthumous construction—or as Behrooz Ghamari-Tabrizi has put it, the “1979 Revolution transformed a multi-faceted, politically inconsistent Shariʿati into a one-dimensional, uncompromising revolutionary."[12] None of this is to say that Shariʿati is unimportant to the history of modern Iranian political thought. Rather, it is a reminder that there is more to Shariʿati and his oeuvre than what can be exclusively appraised through a teleological reading of 1979. In this light, Hajj offers an opportunity to de-center certain overdetermined readings of Shariʿati by engaging with other aspects of his work. It is an exemplary case-study to consider, in particular, the understudied role of poetics in his intellectual persona.

III. The Poetics of Shariʿati

Compared to an earlier work, Islamology (Islamshenasi), which outlines a “geometric” theory of Islam and progresses with a certain positivist rigour, Hajj is more fluid, open-ended, and reads like “prose-poetry."[13] It is a rhapsodic voice that has been noted in essays like “Community and Leadership” (“Ommat va Imamat") or in his hitherto untranslated work, Kavir. Abrahamian has often referenced the particular importance of this voice and the fundamental role Shariʿati’s speeches, rhetorical persona, and circulated tapes had in the making of the public intellectual.[14] In other words, not only are these a significant part of his corpus, the aurality and rhythms of these recordings appear too in his writings—just as Hajj is partly based on his Ershad lectures. In short, one can say that rhetorical stylization and performance were intimately connected to the outline and expression of his ideas. 

Unsurprisingly, poetry was a lifelong preoccupation for Shariʿati. Writing on the formative literature that shaped the young intellectual, Rahnema emphasizes the extent to which poetry was perhaps “his true passion,” his “single consistent love,” and that to which “he probably allocated the greatest amount of time.” As an adult, he was a regular patron and attendee of poetry circles in Mashhad. He admired classical Persian poetry, the Belgian modernist Maurice Maeterlinck, and the South Asian poet—on whom he would later write a study—Muhammad Iqbal. Most tellingly, Shariʿati also wrote and published several poems of his own.[15] In short, lyricism and the expressive, if not interpretative, role of poetics shaped Shariʿati’s intellectual life. Even his critics agreed. Hossein Rowshani, for instance, demonstrated an error in the book: the mistaken claim that Hajar, a Black slave and Shariʿati’s symbol of the oppressed, is buried under the Kaaba. This error indicated to Rowshani that Shariʿati’s work was little more than “quasi-modern poetry"[16]—a critique as damaging as it is strangely insightful.

In a lecture on aesthetics, Shariʿati argued art in modern times “is no more a pleasant and diverting tranquilizer to keep our lives closed and comfortable, [but rather, art] leads the philosophies of today and runs ahead of our contemporary ideas.” Art and poetry, as mediums of “self-discovery” unattached to the disembodied rationality of scholars or the hermetic seal of clerics, are important in our times for transcending alienation. It is telling that this specific claim—the redemptive promise of art against alienation—is identical to the claim he will later make about the hajj. If for no other reason, this lecture is a prime example of the understudied significance that aesthetics and aesthetic questions played in his thinking.

IV. Hajj as Metaphor 

Metaphor occupies a central place in Hajj. The role of Shariʿati’s metaphorical language is far from ornamental. It is a method of deconstruction. Shariʿati deciphers Islamic symbols and rites by often asking an unsaid question throughout his text: what do these things resemble? With resemblance as a starting-point—whereby circling crowds are transfigured into whirlpools, pilgrim garbs into funeral shrouds, pelting stones into bullets—Shariʿati retroactively reads back into the hajj ritual a meaning derived from these associations. It is in this manner that Shariʿati weaves much of the analytic tapestry of Hajj

That said, the metaphors in Hajj—and the metaphorization of the hajj—have to be read through Shariʿati’s stakes in the theme of alienation. If the focal point of the modern hajj travelogue, discussed above, is indeed a liberal Enlightenment concept of “the individual,” Shariʿati’s guiding focus in Hajj is how one escapes such subjectivity and arrives at a “return to the self” (bazgasht beh khish). He places the concept of the individual in opposition to “the human being” (nasik): “You have been a human being. You have been a child of Adam. But history, life and the anti-human social system has metamorphosized you. It has alienated you from yourself, your primordial nature. It has made you a stranger.’"[17] Arash Davari notes the ubiquity and importance of the word mashk—translated in this quote as “metamorphosized”—in Shariʿati: “it signals a change in appearance where something has changed its form and no longer appears as it was or truly is."[18] Here, this is the movement from authentic, human selfhood to a hollow, individual subjectivity based upon entirely worldly and accidental identities: race, gender, family, profession, nation, etc. There is an extant literature on the theme of Shariʿati’s “return to the self” and what constitutes its bounds and ends. In Davari’s reading of the 1967 lecture, “Bazgasht Be Khishtan,” he argues that while “grounded [in a] conception of a religious self,” Shariʿati’s call for a “return to self” was the promise of a “new universal”—situating his theme in conversation with a distinctly Third Worldist canon of intellectuals who had also grappled with the same issue, including Aimé Césaire, Leopold Senghor, and Frantz Fanon.[19]

On alienation, Shariʿati analogizes its dehumanizing social, historical, and psychological causes to jinns. Though esoteric, his extended metaphor of jinns performs his grand theory of alienation. It is a creative recasting of a religious topoi in Islam to frame the question: what is that force in modern life—omnipresent yet invisible—that alienates you from yourself? What is that force that “infiltrates your essence, your personality, your humanness”?[20] Shariʿati amalgamates that invisible, infiltrating, melancholic force as jinns. Re-appropriating Ahmad Fardid and Jalal Al-e Ahmad’s concept of gharbzadegi—“westoxification”—Shariʿati speaks of how modernity “jinn-toxicates you."[21] He allegorizes jinns as alienation presumably because of the scriptural and loric characterization of jinns as an “invisible creature.” Like alienation under capitalism, jinns are “an unseen, hidden power”—a power that “penetrates into humanity but is neither human nor visible."[22] In a long, stream-of-consciousness passage, Shariʿati lists jinn-ic forces throughout history, which include capitalism, slavery, Genghis Khan, dictatorship, psychedelic drugs, psychoanalysis, and witchcraft.[23]


Modernity is a context and tone-of-room that is inseparable from Shariʿati’s treatise and anxieties—and results in what is perhaps the only text ever written on Muslim pilgrimage that alludes to neocolonialism, fascism, and jazz in the same breath.


Here, one is struck by the reference-world of Shariʿati’s text: though the hajj has long been a site of religious symbolism and mystical interpretation across Islamic literary and philosophical traditions, the haptic temporality and crisis-filled modernity of Shariʿati’s hajj stands apart.      Modernity is a context and tone-of-room that is inseparable from Shariʿati’s treatise and anxieties—and results in what is perhaps the only text ever written on Muslim pilgrimage that alludes to neocolonialism, fascism, and jazz in the same breath.[24] Underlying the crisis of modernity is that of alienation, defined as “the tragedy of changing a human being to [something] other than a human being."[25] Shariʿati furnishes this definition by, at one point, citing Herbert Marcuse’s “warn[ing] that the human being has become one-dimensional like a tool."[26] Yet, there is a reprieve for the alienated, or “jinn-toxified,” human being. Against the vale of an anti-human and eschatologically-tinged modernity, Shariʿati offers the hajj as a redemptive and restorative solution. To the one individualized at the expense of their human essence, the hajj is their ritual of disindividualization—or in other words, a way out of “this damned destiny."[27]

In this light, one can better understand his metaphorical analysis of the ihram, or the “white, unsewn, patternless, colorless” garb worn by pilgrims. Shariʿati observes that such clothes are only ritually prescribed on two occasions for Muslims: once for hajj and once for their funerals. When the pilgrim dons the ihram, they discard all their accumulated, temporal, and accidental markers of individuality. Pilgrims become easily mistaken for one another. The total disinheritance of one’s life and the substantive equality between bodies, Shariʿati suggests, is paralleled only in death. The ihram, in other words, symbolizes the act of taking off life’s clothes and putting on “the clothes of death."[28] Death and hajj—both are forms of disinvidiualization and often couple one another. The hajj is a “death which breathes'' and the true pilgrim is likened to “the living dead."[29] Shariʿati intones the reader to “choose death,” to “intend death,” to “resolve death,” and “make the hajj!"[30]

In addition to death, an equally prominent metaphor for disindividualization in Hajj is that of movement. The hajj is in fact nothing but movement: “a combination of ‘movements,’ ‘orderly movements’ connected to ‘time’ and ‘union.’"[31] Just as the Quran is the message of “Islam in words,” Shariʿati claims the hajj is all of Islam “in movement."[32] Here, it becomes a metaphor within a metaphor: the hajj is movement and movement is language. Like words, motions signify. Circumambulations around the Kaaba or the stonings at Mina are all inflected with a kinetic meaning, a corporealized letter. It is an image and a metaphor that evokes a moment from his “Bazgasht Be Khishtan” lecture, in which Shariʿati claims that “the self is only “brought to life” when one realizes oneself in “the text of the masses."[33] Understanding the object of his study in these terms, Shariʿati has been in fact offering us a semiotics of hajj this entire time: a manual of decipherment for a “symbolic language” written in the matrix of “soundless movement[s]."[34]


“Illustrations in the 1978 reprint of Hajj”

In addition to the significance of language, the metaphor of movement also reveals Shariʿati’s interpretation of pilgrimage as performance. It is the bodily performance of an order of rituals as well as a latent, esoteric performance of Islam itself. In this sense, hajj is often analogized to theatre: “a symbolic drama,” a “drama of creation, a “play performed in the language of movement” wherein the characters are “Adam, Abraham, Hagar and Iblis” and so on. The actors of this sacred play are at once one and many:

“Whosoever you are, whether man or woman, whether old or young, whether black or white, because you have participated in this scene, you have the main role [...] It is a theater in which one person plays all the roles, is the hero of the story and, at the same time, the stage is open."[35]

There is something critical in performing Islamic cosmology as bodies in motion, as opposed to simply reading or hearing about it. It is, for Shariʿati, an ethical theatre in which movement, physicality, and one’s situatedness in the originating spaces and symbolic motions of Islam are essential to one’s transformation. Golnar Nikpour—extending Saba Mahmood’s work to the hajj—offers a useful way for thinking of Shariʿati’s insight: a recognition that “embodied ritual practice is itself capable of producing ethical effects."[36]

The function of metaphor in Hajj is representative—isotropic even—of Shariʿati’s text at large. Metaphors are invoked as interpretative devices but they are also used to perform his very text. “You” are carried across the motions and rites of the hajj. Metaphors in Hajj are centered around the function of embodiment. True to Shariʿati’s mission and belief that the pilgrim is not meant to be a flâneur in Mecca—a discrete, individual subjectivity—but rather something both other and higher, both communized and spiritualized, the text of the Hajj is also written in the ethical image of that invisible, redemptive, inner-dimension of pilgrimage that so deeply moved him in real life.

[1] Ervand Abrahamian, Iran Between Two Revolutions. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1982, p. 466.

[2] Ali Rahnema, An Islamic Utopian: A Political Biography of Ali Shari’ati. London: I.B. Tauris, 1998, p. 243.

[3] Shari’ati was imprisoned in 1957, at the age of 24, for being affiliated with a pamphlet criticizing the Shah’s oil concessions to the West. In 1962, upon returning to Iran from his studies abroad in France, he was interrogated by the SAVAK for two weeks. His family was not given his whereabouts and he was thereafter imprisoned. In the time after his hajj, he would be incarcerated again in 1975 and released only after the Algerian government petitioned on his behalf. Two years later, he would be dead at the age of 43—as many accuse, under “mysterious circumstances,” though Rahnema affirms it was indeed a fatal heart attack.

[4] Rahnema, p. 242-245.

[5] Shari’ati, Hajj, p. 40.

[6] Ibid, p. 47.

[7] Ibid, p. 158.

[8] Ibid, p. 41.

[9] Ibid, p. 41.

[10] Barbara Metcalf, “The pilgrimage remembered: South Asian accounts of the hajj” in Muslim Travellers (edited by Dale F. Eickelman, James Piscatori). Routledge, 1990. p. 87.

[11] Nematollah Fazeli. Politics of Culture in Iran. London: Routledge, 2005, p. 112.

[12] Behrooz Ghamari‐Tabrizi, “An Islamic Utopian.” Critique: Critical Middle Eastern Studies (9:16), 2000, p. 109.

[13] Sayyid Gulzar Haider, “Introduction” in Shari’ati, Hajj, p. 21.

[14] See: Ervand Abrahamian, "Ali Shariati: Ideologue of the Iranian Revolution," Middle East Report, 102 (January/February 1982).

[15] Rahnema, p. 45-47.

[16] Ibid, p. 270.

[17] Shari’ati, Hajj, p. 52.

[18] Arash Davari, “A Return to Which Self?: ʿAli Shari’ati and Frantz Fanon on the Political Ethics of Insurrectionary Violence.” Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East. May 1, 2014; 34 (1), p. 94.

[19] Shari’ati, Hajj, p. 96.

[20] Ibid, p. 240.

[21] Ibid, p. 241.

[22] Ibid, p. 235.

[23] Ibid, p. 237-238.

[24] Ibid, p. 238.

[25] Ibid, p. 240.

[26] Ibid, p. 247.

[27] Ibid, p. 52.

[28] Ibid, p. 59.

[29] Ibid, p. 51.

[30] Ibid, p. 55.

[31] Ibid, p. 39.

[32] Ibid, p. 44.

[33] Davari, p. 102.

[34] Shari’ati, Hajj, p. 43.

[35] Ibid, p. 46

[36] Golnar Nikpour, “Revolutionary Journeys, Revolutionary Practice: The Hajj Writings of Jalal Al-e Ahmad and Malcolm X”. Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East. May 1, 2014; 34 (1), p. 68.