The Season of Pilgrimage by amina wadud

amina - featureThis weekend those of us not performing the ritual pilgrimage, or Hajj, will enjoy the Festival of the Sacrifice of Eid al-Adha. Celebrated on the 10th day of the 12th lunar calendar month, it tends to creep up without warning, since we operate on the solar Gregorian calendar. The next day I jump a plane to Southeast Asia so my attention is already diverted.

The sacrifice here refers to Prophet Abraham’s botched contract with God over his first son. Muslims stick with the sheer biology that it was his first son, Ishma’il rather than Sarah’s first biological son, Isaac as recognized in Christianity and Judaism. It’s political, I won’t go there.

Instead I want to focus on this veneration of things masculine across all three Abrahamic faiths with the attention surrounding this particular patriarch. For example, I recall an Eid sermon which dwelt at length on Abraham circumcising himself in full adulthood without anesthesia. All I could think was, WHO should care about that? This particular manhood seems to excel over any reminder of his humanity, or of his devotion to monotheism in a community steeped in Idol worship.

My favorite Abraham story in the Qur’an tells about him being booted out of that Idol worshiping community so he goes in search of Ultimate Truth through nature itself. First, he directs himself to the stars, then the moon and the sun as each one outshines the other in the sky. Finally he has an Aha moment that the stars, moon or sun are each a sign POINTING towards the Ultimate. He arrives at this Truth, the Qur’an tells us, through his fitrah: primordial predisposition towards the Truth. This is something at the core of all humanity.

But Abraham’s journey pales when I think about how he abandoned that child and his mother Hajar (Hagar) to fend for themselves in the harsh desert. Each year Pilgrims walk seven times between the foot hills of Safa and Marwa to commemorate Hajar’s frantic search for water. Now this rite is performed in the cool crisp air conditioning of the modern mosque development. No longer do we labor directly under the direct sun. At one section of the walk there is a green light to signal where she actually ran. It is recommended that we pick up our own pace. That is unless you are a woman.

According to the keepers of this holy sanctuary, running is limited to men.

Each year the limits placed on women’s participation in the various rites and rituals of the Hajj are increasing. All attention is taken up with complaining about too many modern developments around the mosque with its subsequent loss of ancient and historical sites, but no one is in an uproar over the ways women are forcibly denied the equality of worship which used to be the corner stone of this sacred experience. Folks are fond of saying that in Islam, women and men are equal spiritually…but not social-culturally. Women are subservient to men in that arena and somehow that is expected. Yet, men exercise their authority over all aspects of women’s lives and this impacts the Hajj experience. Understand that performing Hajj at least once in a life time is incumbent upon women and men alike.

Yet the prayer space surrounding the Kaaba (that cube shaped building towards which over a billion Muslims direct their ritual prayer, from every corner of the earth, and have done so for over a thousand years) is now prohibited to women for their prayers. They are forced to make their way to two tiny corners of the main floor FAR AWAY from the Kaaba. Even if they were in the midst of doing tawwaf (or circumambulation) around the Kaaba, a most central rite during the Hajj, and the time for prayer comes, women will be physically assaulted by female guardians if they attempt to begin the prayers from right where they stand. What is more, the cordoned off section of the main floor is never big enough for the teaming flow of worshiping women and their children.

Makkah and Madinah were once celebrated as the place to actually experience ritual equality between women and men. Now, Masjid al-Haram has become haram—or prohibited—to women’s free expression of devotion to their Lord. And nobody says anything. So every year, the infringements increase.

In recent years, these restrictions also surrounded the second most sacred spot: the Prophet Mosque in Madinah. An ugly white tarp is laced throughout the mosque to form a strict passageway dividing women and men on their way to the Rawdah, which represents, the ground of the mosque built by the Prophet himself. Furthermore, women are no longer permitted to past by his tomb and offer greetings of peace while awaiting the promised return greetings from beyond time. Two or three hundred women are herded together like cattle to perform the two rak’at (units) of ritual prayer in a space big enough for maybe 75 people. Then once again we are rushed off, since permission to do even this is further limited to three select times during the day.

The Prophet had promised for whoever prayed on his rawdah a place to pray in Paradise. Many women and men are not even aware of the extent of these restrictions which now limit our fulfillment of our divine right. With no chance to give greeting inside, I chose instead to stand on the outer wall of the tomb and say my greetings. I also call on God for relief from this outrage. For while I am always grateful for our ritual celebrations, I want to go on record to say, I do not agree with these restrictions placed in the historical location of Islam’s beginning due to patriarchy that have nothing to do with the ritual or my Lord.

I do not intend to take this without some effort to reclaim my rights.


amina wadud is Professor Emerita of Islamic Studies, now traveling the world over seeking  answers to the questions that move many of us through our lives.  Author of Qur’an and Woman: Rereading the Sacred Text from a Woman’s Perspective and Inside the Gender Jihad, she will blog on her life journey and anything that moves her about Islam, gender and justice, especially as these intersect with the rest of the universe.

Author: amina wadud

amina wadud is Professor Emerita of Islamic Studies, now traveling the world over seeking answers to the questions that move many of us through our lives. Author of Qur'an and Woman: Rereading the Sacred Text from a Woman's Perspective and Inside the Gender Jihad, she will blog on her life journey and anything that moves her about Islam, gender and justice, especially as these intersect with the rest of the universe.

16 thoughts on “The Season of Pilgrimage by amina wadud”

  1. What is to be done? You’re talking about the Saudi monarchy, one of the most repressive regimes in the world, and the ultra orthodox clergy they have placed in power and control of the piligrimage. I have one friend who refuses to go on hajj as long as the monarchy persists. Should we boycott going on hajj? Can a woman even have an acceptable hajj with these innovative restrictions in place?


    1. Yes, she can have an acceptable hajj and can be transformed by the experience.

      Those who choose not to make the journey or to boycott hajj are mostly talking to themselves. Thus they are free to do so but they effect no change.

      I point to inequities not to foreclose the whole thing but rather to raise awareness so we can work to transform it towards greater inclusion.

      I would not agree that Saudi monarchy are “one of the most repressive”, but they do linger in gender restrictions.


      1. “Those who choose not to make the journey or to boycott hajj are mostly talking to themselves. Thus they are free to do so but they effect no change.”


        I really enjoy your posts, but I find this such a hard stance to take on those who actively dissent. For some, participating and wanting to bring about transformation (as you have stated, by raising awareness and still having an acceptable hajj and experience) is the way in which they live authentically, but to say that those who cannot due to their own conscience are “talking to themselves” and effecting no change? To “step out” or protest something can and does bring about change for many–as we have seen many times throughout history. I think telling our feminist sisters that listening to their gut as to how to follow their feminist instincts is ineffective is just as divisive as the white tarp you described in your post.


      2. Hajj is actually the personal Ibadah that has got nothing at all to do with the Saudi ruler .It just so happen that due to political fate they became the ruler of Saudi Arabia that happens to include the 2 sacred cities and thus happens to be entrusted with the management of the pilgrimage. That is all. Boycotting has no effect at all. In fact due to various reasons they are trying very hard to limit the number of pilgrims yearly


    1. Thanks Martha and I should clarify that my saying they do so FOR THEMSELVES is not to diminish the importance of one’s conscientious objection. However I want to stress that steps to make a difference for all women and men who do go is part of my future plans. but I can’t say more than that now.

      I also wanted to PUT things in proportion. Now that new “improvements” on the infrastructure is under way, the numbers of pilgrims for the hajj, which is like a one week window will swell to nearly 10 MILLION. meanwhile there is the umrah or lesser pilgrimage that goes on all year round another 10 million easily.

      So no, one woman NOT going is really not gong to have an impact, but she is absolutely free to object and protest by abstaining. It’s a little hard when hajj once in a lifetime is one of the five pillars or five obligatory acts for Muslims. Not a voluntary act, like extra prayers or extra fasting days. So who is hurt by not going? Not the patriarchs?

      Thanks for letting me see how thoughtless it sounded in the way I responded.


      1. As international travel gets easier and each country organizes their hajj apparatus more pilgrims apply to attend the hajj each year but the cities of Makkah and Madinah cannot accommodate EVERY one just for the asking. so every country has a quota. How the individual countries coordinate that quota is left up to them. But some countries. have way more applicants than the quota so folks are put on a wait list. Other countries, like the US and minority Muslims in all of Europe have yet to meet their quota.

        So the restrictions on who attends Hajj is not random it is in fact thought out in advance. There are also circumstances, like the Ebola outbreak this year, where new rules and restrictions have been applied “for the safety of other pilgrims.. ” can you imagine what it would be like if such an outbreak was let loose on the hajj with representatives from every country in the world converging there?

        So while the Saudi government is not a religiously mandated host, the host of the hajj has always been the custodians of the physical place. Coincidentally the Saudi government also puts out millions of dollars each year for development and for the logistics of pilgrims. No one can pay all that it costs to provide this infrastructure just from hajj fees. They recently opened a rapid transit and while every one will want to ride no one paid towards its development just because they believe.

        I have my issues with some of the local temperament but having seen the chaos of millions of pilgrims I actually think they are doing a decent job.


  2. Being treated as “lesser than” in one’s patriarchal faith tradition is impetus for many women to leave and never look back. However, there’s that matter of “working towards justice” within a community where one is nourished and sustained (most? some? of the time). Also, not letting those who wield power ultimately define one’s spiritual experience. And yet…it’s way difficult as your essay shows. You and others (Laury Silver’s recent FAR post listed several women) are working hard at it!


  3. Very old accounts about hajj show that women and slaves found a place in which social boundaries were loosened. Women used to set up camp at the the grand mosque, stay on for months and months there worshipping daily. Those days are over. I’d like to boycott. But that just works in their favor. The Saudis would love it if women stopped coming.


    1. Professor Silvers, if I may ask, when in your opinion did urban muslim society start becoming more strict in terms of gender segregation? It doesn’t seem to have really existed so much in pre-Islamic Arab culture or early Arab muslim culture.



  4. The Hajj is the famous pilgrimage to Mecca, familiar probably to most members at FAR, as there are often film clips of it in the news media. Mecca is a word in my vocabulary too meaning any challenging journey which demands hard work, time and commitment. I’m just wondering if we could understand the journey toward women’s equal rights in the Muslim faith as a “mecca,” literally, “a goal to which adherents of a religious faith or practice fervently aspire.”


  5. I have always thought of the story of Hajar and Ishmael abandoned in the desert where they seek and find water as the mother-lode of Islam, the source of a core ritual and re-enactment of human faith and divine mercy. I am horrified to hear of these unjust and (it could be argued blasphemous) restrictions. My heart goes out to you and stands with you.


    1. Although I am happy we have this commemoration of Hajar’s struggle, it is only one of several rituals for the Hajj which has as its highest duty a day of silent devotion on or near Mount Arafat.

      Still I find it off putting to restrict women from the “run”. However by the time I arrived to make my performance I was actually too old to do more than walk the full terrain which total a little less than 4 kilometers (in bare feet).

      I recommend that those more fit, go ahead and take a little jog as so far none of the gender police oversee that part of the experience to the extent they do on the floor of the Kaaba and at the Prophet’s mosque. There we need a consolidated strategy and that is my plan.


  6. Excellent blog. As usual. Yes, indeed–reclaim your rights!

    Back in the 90s, I met an author named Savina Teubal. She was brilliant. I just pulled two of her books off my shelf. I recommend them very highly. Sarah the Priestess: The First Matriarch of Genesis (published in 1984). Hagar the Egyptian: The Lost Tradition of the Matriarchs (1990). Both of these books will make readers think differently about the patriarchal traditions across the standard-brand religions and marvel that maybe, just perhaps, something could have been a little different, and………….


  7. The idea that God would ask a man to sacrifice his son (or his daughter, though in patriarchy that might seem less of a sacrifice) is for me the ultimate blasphemy. Moreover it is a crime against motherhood and a failure to appreciate the gift of life.

    God is not ever going to ask anyone to do anything that is not right. I think the Buddhists got it mostly right when they said “if you meet Buddha, kill him.” I would have preferred if they had said, turn and run away as fast as you can.


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