Going back to the Meccan well....

(guest post by Razib Khan, of the Gene Expression blog)

I have been reading some chapters of A History of Islamic Societies recently, and I noticed something interesting. My conception of the emergence of a urban literate santri (orthodox Muslims) in Indonesia was that it was an inevitable result of a closer reading of the source texts and traditions of Islam, the Koran and the Hadiths. In other words, santri Muslims were simply more Muslim than the typical Indonesian Muslim (an increase in the magnitude of the same vector).

But, as some know, I have also expressed skepticism at too close of a reliance on texts as determinative on the pathway of social and cultural development. In the chapters in the above book on 19th century Indian Islam I noted something interesting: reformist neo-orthodox movements are repeatedly attributed to hajjiis, those who made the pilgrimage to Mecca, in particular those who had resided in the city for long periods of time. The prestige that they attained upon their return resulted in their initiation of "reforms" to bring local practices (often loosely classified as "Sufi") into line with Meccan norms. The same "reforms" were initiated by Hui who had returned from Mecca. And sure enough, the chapter on Southeast Asian Islam notes that the modernist reformist Muslims who rose to challenge the traditional expressions of Javanese Islam were also inspired by movements founded by hajjiis!

In The Meme Machine Susan Blackmore characterizes some individuals as "meme fountains." It seems clear to me that the hajjiis were operating as meme fountains when they returned from Arabia and the sacred physical heart of Islam, Mecca. The practices of Meccan Islam are in some ways unchallengeably normative, and so the hajjiis had the moral authority to "reform" local practices which deviated from the Meccan norm. The standard model promoted by many is that the Koran and Hadiths serve as a template. I dissent from this view because my own reading of cognitive science suggests that religious texts are easily warped and distorted by "learned consensus" or personal self-interest. They do not exhibit the transparent inferential characteristics of mathematical axioms, ergo, the often strained verbal gymnastics of the religious "sciences." Rather, I am suggesting that the template is more likely to be the norms espoused by the Muslims of Mecca.

This has an implications: the hajj is far more common today than it was in the past. There are millions of hajjiis every year (the Saudi government even has to limit it). In synergy with communication technologies that implies that the number of meme fountains might be far greater than in the past (though the more mundane nature of the hajj because of modern transporation might mitigate the influence of hajjiis). Efforts to tailor or accommodate Islam to local norms must be balanced against the conformist tendencies of the meme fountain generator that is Mecca. Additionally, the character of Meccan Islam is partly dictated by the Saudi state, which frowns upon non-Wahhabi or Salafist practices (though Meccan Muslims resist the Saudi orthodoxy).

In the past the Dar-al-Islam was an idea that appealed to elites, for only elites were literate and practiced an Islam which was characterized by punctilious adherence to the norms of sharia (this is more true of the non-Arab world). Today many regions of the Muslim world are modernizing (eg; Malaysia) and literacy and access to source texts is spreading. With it is an attempt to generate a common set of Islamic norms. But I think it is important not to neglect the physical presence of hajjiis throughout the Muslim world and their direct experience and understanding of how Islam is practiced in the city of Muhammed.

Cross-posted in longer form over at Gene Expression.


Brian said...

My understanding is that many of the people you're talking about also studied with leading scholars while in the Arabian Peninsula. That gave them as much "credentialing" as anything else.

Aziz Poonawalla said...

Most hajjis go to Mecca to perform the hajj - which is an intense, grueling experience, and many have saved their entire liv es in order to afford it. Very very few of these will have spare time to hang around in Saudi Arabia to study. In fact, practically none.

Razib said...

credentials mean different things in different contexts, whether as a function of time or space. having gone to mecca will not, for example, give you much heft in dhaka, which relatively cosmopolitan in terms of travel. but, it will give you a lot of heft in a remote village where (until recently) many people haven't even gone to dhaka! to use an analogy, immigrants who live in the USA have the experience of being experts on america in their lands of origin when in the USA they feel like aliens. nevertheless, their behavior patterns and opinions can become symbols of 'america' for people who have never been.

one key point is how much relevance this has in the global world where people see 'america' or mecca on television all the time. my reading suggests that the meccan hajj had a powerful centripetal affect in the past. not sure now.