This week, on 21 August, Muslims all over the world celebrated the eid al adha, the Feast of Sacrifice which occurs every year at the end of the Hajj, the obligatory pilgrimage to Mecca. The Hajj is one of the Five Pillars of Islam. Every Muslim who is physically, financially and otherwise able is obliged once in a lifetime to perform the Hajj with its special rituals.
During this time of year, when so many people are often traveling on vacation, this singular event reminds us of the importance of a specific kind of travel, pilgrimage, in the religions of the Middle East— Judaism, Christianity and Islam. In fact, pilgrimage to a sacred place is something deeply rooted in so many of the people and places CNEWA serves. It’s a tradition stretching back many centuries.
Long before Islam, for example —even before the arrival of Muhammad and the monotheistic faith he preached —pilgrims went to Mecca to worship the over 300 gods revered there.
In fact, the Arabic word hajj is related to the Hebrew word hag, which appears many times in the Hebrew Scriptures to men “festival” in general; specifically, it refers to a festival which involves a pilgrimage to the Temple in Jerusalem. Even in modern Israeli Hebrew, hag sameah means “happy holiday.”
It is interesting to note that although the three great Hebrew feasts of Passover, Shevuot (Pentecost) and Sukkot (“booths”) antedated the Temple in Jerusalem—in some instances by centuries—and were originally home or agricultural feasts, the three eventually evolved into pilgrim festivals. Israelites ideally observed them with a pilgrimage to the Temple in Jerusalem. Again and again in the Pentateuch and historical books of the Hebrew Scriptures and in the New Testament, there are accounts of Jews—including Jesus—making the pilgrimage to Jerusalem.
Christianity, for a number of reasons, did not originally place an emphasis on pilgrimage. The deep-seated belief that the Risen Christ was alive and present in the community rendered pilgrimages to encounter the Lord unnecessary. In addition, the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 AD removed the goal for pilgrimage. Three centuries of intermittent persecution and the struggle to assert a Christian identity that was rooted in Judaism— yet different from it— also reduced the importance of Jerusalem and pilgrimage there in the life of most Christians.
However, when Christianity became the religion of the Empire, emperors and wealthy people began to show their piety by building churches and shrines at places connected with events in the life of Christ.
The Emperor Constantine and his mother Helen were the first in the line of many emperors who restored and built new holy places in the Holy Land. In the first four centuries of Christianity, Jerusalem went from being a Jewish city under Roman control to a Roman city where Jews were forbidden to enter to a Roman (Byzantine) Christian city. Once under Christian control, Jerusalem and the Holy Land gradually became a place for Christian pilgrims. However, it was never the only pilgrim destination or even the most important goal for Christian pilgrims. Christians made pilgrimages to the tombs of Peter and Paul in Rome, the tomb of Thomas Becket in Canterbury, England, and to the tomb of James the Apostle in Compostela, Spain. In modern times the convenience of air travel has made Jerusalem and “the Holy Land” increasing popular with Christian pilgrims.
While the purposes and goals of pilgrimage vary among the three faith traditions, all three see the period of pilgrimage as a special time, an occasion for the pilgrim to be dedicated totally to God. In all three religions, it is a time of strict non-violence and spiritual reflection.
More pious than a vacation, and more physically involving than a retreat, it is a time when the believers renew themselves and rededicate their lives to following the faith and worshipping the one God.
Pilgrimage is a practice that binds all three religious traditions together — and as such, it is one we should all respect, cherish and appreciate throughout the world CNEWA serves.