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At the Centre of the World? A Spatial Approach to the Hajj Pilgrimage



Organised by the Berlin Graduate School Muslim Cultures and Societies (BGSMCS), the Institute for Asian and African Studies (IAAW - Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin) and Zentrum Moderner Orient (ZMO)


The hajj, the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca, is among the largest annual gathering in the world. To perform the hajj once in life is one of the five pillars of Islam, an obligation a Muslim must fulfil to obtain salvation. The hajj is seen as the single most important embodiment of the ‘Umma ⎯ the global community of Muslims. Its importance in the lives of individual Muslims, as well as for the creation of a sense of Muslim community cannot be overestimated. The hajj can be seen as the performance of the prescribed religious rituals in Mecca, but it is first and foremost the pilgrimage itself, the journey to and from the holy places. In the latter sense, it can be seen as a world in itself, a global, mobile and transient existence, centred on spirituality, blessing and reward in the hereafter, but involving such worldly matters as travel, trade, scholarship, politics, etc.

Recent scholarly attention inscribes the hajj as a defining manifestation and catalyst of globalisation in its core definition. From the earliest expansions of Islam; via the early 19th century developments in transport, health and communication; to the current trends in global mass tourism, capital movements and service industries, the hajj has helped to shape them all, and was in turn shaped by them. These are probably the very reasons why the hajj has become such a popular topic of research with a broad spectrum of humanities and social sciences dealing with globalisation, therewith re-inscribing orientalist regional studies into the mainstream of social sciences.

Since Alexander von Humboldt, the global has been conceptualised as a problem of space and scale. In this series of lectures we seek to inquire into the scaling dimensions of space and place involved in all aspects of the hajj. We thus invite for a spatial approach to understand the hajj pilgrimage as a producer and transformer of space by the movement of people and things, networks, and the flow of ideas and ideologies. Taking the conceptualization of ‘space’ as a social product of changing power constellations (Lefebvre) as our point of departure, we seek to trace the intricate relationship of ‘hajj spaces’ with places in and beyond the Muslim world as it was traditionally conceived. Thereby, we conceive ‘place’ as geographical, physical or imagined knots of connectivity, interaction and flow (Massey, Knott) which may transgress, or even establish borders and boundaries and change through time and space. However, social relations are materially produced through technology, geography, mobility, economy, politics, and other material and immaterial realities. Mecca with its geographical surroundings, sacred meaning and material representations is thus ‘a place’ embedded in and constructed by complex and multi-layered historical, spatial and social configurations of connectedness, entanglement and transgression. At the same time, Mecca becomes an organic, historically forged, locally particular but globally interconnected ‘space’ in which religion has a dynamic involvement but intersects with economic strategies, technological development, political agendas, and social needs.

Addressing such topics as state policy, ritual practice, identity discourse, biography, technology, and emotion, the lecture series seeks to explore how ‘hajj spaces’ are produced, transformed or appropriated by various actors, on different epistemic scales; i.e. trans-/local, trans-/national, trans-/regional, and global, and in different time periods. Concrete questions may include the following: How were space and place socio-historically transformed in relation to the hajj? What are the technologies for producing ‘hajj spaces and places’ and how have these technologies been changed through time and space? How does the hajj pilgrimage facilitate physical or virtual encounters with the ‘Muslim Other’? How do these encounters in turn relate to the conceptualisation of the Muslim ‘Umma? How do these encounters, in turn, produce intellectual, material or emotional spaces in which these differences or sameness can be negotiated, therewith articulating identity and belonging? And finally, how can the various spaces produced through the hajj pilgrimage be characterized or defined? Are they ‘open’ or become rather ‘closed’, as result of a particular policy or a technological novelty for example? When, and by whom, are hajj spaces and places perceived as ‘policed’ or ‘free’? Do the Muslim encounters mentioned above promote cosmopolitan habits or rather forms of provincialism, or both? How does ‘religious spaces’ interact with ‘secular’ ones, and how or what turns the hajj pilgrimage into ‘gendered’ spaces?



  • 27 October 2016, 6 pm
    Baz Lecocq (Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin) and Eric Tagliacozzo (Cornell University)
    "Transport & Geographical History"

    ZMO, Kirchweg 33, 14129 Berlin


  • 26 January 2017, 6 pm
    Saud Serhan (King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies) and Werner Ende (Emeritus, Albert-Ludwigs-Universität Freiburg)
    "Law & Regulation"
    ZMO, Kirchweg 33, 14129 Berlin


  • 23 February 2017, 6 pm
    Chanfi Ahmed (Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin) and Irit Back (Tel Aviv University)
    "Piety, Cosmopolitanism, Scholarship"
    IAAW, Room 315, Invalidenstraße 118, 10115 Berlin


  • 30 March 2017, 6 pm
    Lale Can (City University of New York) and John Slight (University of Cambridge)
    "Hajj & Empires"
    ZMO, Kirchweg 33, 14129 Berlin 


  • 27 April 2017, 6 pm
    Manja Stephan-Emmrich (Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin) and Marjo Buitelaar (University of Groningen)
    "Narrating the Hajj"
    IAAW, Room 315, Invalidenstraße 118, 10115 Berlin


  • 29 June 2017, 6 pm
    Nile Green (University of California, Los Angeles) and Eileen Kane (Connecticut College)
    "Critical Perspectives on the Hajj"
    BGSMCS, Room 2.2058, Fabeckstraße 23-25, 14195 Berlin