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Andrea Useem, creator and publisher of ReligionWriter.com, is a freelance journalist and editor based in Northern Virginia who specializes in writing about religion. Andrea holds a Masters of Theological Studies from Harvard Divinity School, as well as a Bachelors degree in religion from Dartmouth College. Previously, Andrea worked as a freelance journalist in Eastern Africa for four years; she has also lived in Muscat, Oman. She is married and has three sons.

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When Orthodoxy Is Good for You: Making Sense of the “Hajj Effect”

Headlines about Islam usually write themselves: A Muslim blowing up innocent people is dog-bites-man. A Muslim acting thoughtful or funny or anything besides angry is man-bites-dog. The obvious headline from a recent academic study, “Estimating the Impact of the Hajj: Religion and Tolerance in Islam’s Global Gathering,” fell into the latter category: Three economists found that Pakistanis who completed the pilgrimage were more likely than non-Hajjis to be more tolerant not only of other Muslims, including women, but also non-Muslims.

As the three authors wrote in an International Herald Tribune column, headlined ‘Mecca and Moderation,’ “The promotion of tolerance doesn’t need to be defined in immediate opposition to religious orthodoxy. There may be ways, as demonstrated in the hajj, to leverage religious beliefs to foster compromise and mutual respect.” In other words, practicing orthodox Islam doesn’t lead to being a terrorist. (Dalia Mogahed said Gallup research discovered the same thing: that radical Muslims who endorsed violence were not more religious than politically moderate counterparts.) This angle was also emphasized by Columbia Business School professor Ray Fisman in his article about the study in Slate, “Does Going to Mecca Make Muslims More Moderate?

But what the authors found actually raises a series of other questions. Yes, the Hajj changed opinions and outlooks, but how and why exactly did that happen? The authors offer explanations based in social theory — mixing with others makes you more tolerant — but left aside more religious questions. Could it be that intense religious experience, regardless of context, leads to a more benevolent embrace of the world? Do the tenets of Islam itself in this context — the rites of Hajj require Muslims to be patient with one another — give rise to this new spirit of toleration that Hajjis discover?

First you should know the three authors — David Clingingsmith of Case Western’s Weatherhead B-school, Asim Kwaja of Harvard’s Kennedy School, and Michael Kremer of Harvard’s econ department — came up with an ingenious way to study the issue. Like any researchers who want to study causality, the authors had to be able to compare Hajj-goers with a control group that did not go on Hajj. But how to find such a control group? You can’t just pick any old non-Hajj-going Muslim, because maybe Muslims who go on Hajj are already tolerant or religiously orthodox to begin with. What the authors did, then, was draw research subjects from a single pool of Pakistanis who applied for visas to complete the Hajj. Because Saudi Arabia limits the number of pilgrims from a given country, the Pakistani government applies a lottery system to grant visas, and the authors could thus compare those who went on Hajj with those who tried to go on Hajj but were prevented by lack of visa. (To see the full methodology, complete with incomprehensible equations, you can download the whole paper.)

And here’s what they found: One, Hajjis remained more religious even five to eight months after returning, engaging more often in both obligatory and recommended observances, such as fasting and praying, sometimes even in the middle of the night. At the same time, they were less likely to practice “local” religious customs like wearing amulets or visiting the graves of holy men.

Two, as the authors write in their ???????? ????? ????????IHT column, “Hajjis have more positive views about people from other Muslim countries and are more likely to believe that different Pakistani ethnic and Islamic sectarian groups are equal and that they can live in harmony. Despite non-Muslims not being part of the hajj experience, these views also extend to adherents of other religions: Pilgrims are 22 percent more likely to declare that people of different religions are equal and 11 percent more likely to state that different religions can live in harmony by compromising over their disagreements.”

Finally, the authors write, “hajjis report more positive views on women’s abilities, greater concern for their quality of life, and are also more likely to favor educating girls and women participating in the workforce….and become more sensitive to crimes against women.”

So what causes these changes?

The authors look to social theory for explanation, theorizing that praying, sleeping and eating side-by-side with Muslims from around the world has a salutary effect. Malcolm X, of course, was transformed by just such experiences on his own Hajj. Write the authors in their study, “The evidence suggests that exposure to Muslims from around the world during the Hajj is important. While we find that Hajjis do not
acquire greater formal religious knowledge, they do gain experiential knowledge of the diversity of
Islamic practices and beliefs, gender roles within Islam, and, more broadly, the world beyond

This theory is confirmed by the fact that pilgrims in small groups were more affected by the experience (presumably they mixed more with others) and that Hajjis in particular had a changed opinion about Indonesians, who, as members of the world’s largest Muslim country, are most represented at the Hajj.

But the authors point out that interacting with others does not inevitably lead to a “smile on your brother” mentality. Common sense confirms this insight from social research: My husband, for example, dislikes Eagles fans and disliked them even more after we attended a game at Lincoln Field. And, of course, hanging out with your own — i.e. getting together solely with other Muslims for a month, or hanging out with fellow Eagles fans — can reinforce that “in-group” feeling. So what explains this “hajj effect,” in which Muslims seem to come back more orthodox but also more tolerant?

Unfortunately, the authors were not able to consider religious theories. One possible explanation is that the Muslims who went on Hajj engaged in intense religious devotion, and that devotion itself — the closest we come to direct contact with God — leads to the universally good and true values of tolerance and respect. Of course academics might not be able to ask this question, since it assumes some objective reality of God and some essential definition of what is “good.” But the question remains: Are these people simply returning from a transformative religious experience? And does such religious experience naturally open the spirit to a more expansive, loving view of the world?

Another religious aspect the article did not explore was the specific religious commandments relating to Hajj. In particular, to remain in the state of ritual purity required to make one’s pilgrimage valid in the eyes of God, one must refrain from being angry. In the Qur’an, for example, God tells believers that if they undertake Hajj, there should be “no obscenity, nor wickedness, nor wrangling” (2:197.)

I remember once years ago asking a Muslim friend in Sudan what the hardest aspect of Islam was: He replied, without hesitating, “Going on Hajj.” I was suprised: I assumed that the obligation to wake each morning before dawn to pray, or fast for an entire month, would be the most difficult. But Hajj, he explained, was an extreme physical and social trial: Not only does one cope with dust and heat and thirst, but also the stress of crushing throngs and pilgrims from other cultures who may have entirely different standards of personal hygeine. Yet one has to remain patient — indeed, there is a religious obligation to remain patient.

So maybe what’s being overlooked here is that it’s not just mixing with different people that is transformative. It’s mixing with them within a religious context where you are obligated to be patient with them.

Indeed, the authors do hint at the role the Hajj plays in the larger experience of Islam. It contributes, they write, to the capacity of Islam to function as a “unified world religion.” They continue, “Over time, religions with far-flung adherents tend to evolve separate strands which may eventually break away into different religions. Our analysis suggests that the Hajj may reduce dissent and splits in Islam by moving Hajjis toward a common set of practices, making them more tolerant of differences among Muslims, and by creating a stronger shared identity. This may be particularly significant for a religion, such as Islam, without a centralized hierarchy that can enforce common practices and beliefs and promote unity among followers.”

In other words, Hajj almost sets the standard for what it means to be Muslim around the world. And if Hajjis come back practicing their religion more devoutly, feeling more tolerant toward others, and holding women in higher esteem, I say “ameen” to that.

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There Are 7 Responses So Far. »

  1. This is very interesting, Andrea. I like your hypothesis about the influence on the individual of attempting the specific religious commandments associated with Hajj.

    As far as the other ideas go, what I am reading in The Great Theft complicates the picture. Khaled Abou El Fadl makes the case that the current uniformity of Hajj practice is actually itself a product of intolerance, specifically the Saudi adoption and promotion of Wahabbism and their control over what rituals are performed during Hajj. Before the rise of the Saudi regime, he says, there was much more variation in practice. This is one of the ways, along with sophisticated largesse, that the Saudis have influenced Islam world-wide because, as you say, “Hajj almost sets the standard for what it means to be Muslim around the world.” El Fadl’s book also makes me wary of the word orthodoxy. When I see it now I think, orthodoxy defined by whom? And I now have another reason to use as little oil and its derivatives as possible, as it is helping to fund the re-shaping of Islam in unhappy ways. I’m rather taken with El Fadl, but I also realize I’m not really equipped to do a critical analysis of The Great Theft. I wonder what you think of it?



  2. A very insightful article. Your religion-based explanations of some of the observed phenomena are very plausible and add to the social theory arguments of the paper.

  3. Thank you for writing such a thoughtful article. It is rare to find much contemporary analysis on the Hajj, so this is a refreshing and welcome piece. Tolerance and patience are probably the most widely reinforced themes of the Hajj. It should be noted that many Muslim scholars interpret the rituals of Hajj as blueprint for the social and otherwise interactive life of each individual that performs these rituals upon their return home.

    I find difficult Priscilla’s point about the Hajj as governed by the Saudi’s to be some sort of forced Wahabbism. Despite the critique of the Saudi’s asserted about El Fadl’s book, I am impressed with the Saudi’s accomodation and care taken to host and manage literaly millions upon millions of pilgrims multiple times per year.

  4. Sciences, especially those in direct relationship with the human being, will find benefit in the understanding of the human being as a very intricate trilogy. Body, mind and soul do not and cannot operate individually, in a vacuum. Whatever is done to one component affect the others. I wish the researchers understand what you’ve explained so succinctly and clearly. Insha’Allah, maybe one day Science will come to see that it is one of the manifestations of God’s power, nothing more, nothing less.

  5. Assalamu-Alaikum Andrea!
    Another beautiful, well researched and well considered article- Jazaka Allahu Khairun, and many thanks. My own Hajj experience, and the changes I saw in myself and my fellow Hajjis completely confirms your premise. I think part of it is a simple matter of perspective. Hajj is life in microcosm- every step you take and every moment there is directed at pleasing God on your journey to Heaven. It makes it easy to see the bumps and grinds of living in a more positive context: someone who steps on your foot is an opportunity to forgive! The other side is a profoundly spiritual one- you spend every day drinking from a well with no geophysical reason for existence that’s capable of supplying water to millions of pilgrims who happen to be there, the hot desert sun doesn’t burn even shaved-head, white-skinned Muslims like me, and Muslims from around the world are unified, happy and helpful to each-other despite sometimes having nothing in common but the simple evidence that we’re so committed to Allah that we’re there. It’s easy to see God’s hand in your life when He waves it in front of you, and easier to trust Him to look after everything else but your own personal righteousness and kindness to others for ever after. Allahu-Akhbar!

  6. salamualaikum.

    good article. to answer priscilla’s article, i think there is some truth to what she has said. basically, when the Saud regime got power, they were wahhabis. Their core idea is monotheism. Muslims from other areas very often follow practices that are shunned by islam. When the wahhabis came to power, they destroyed anything they thought would be un-monotheistic. so they destroyed the prophet muhammad’s (s.a.s.) house, and hte graves of some important people. Many other historically important places and relicswere also destroyed. Muslims from other religions would literally come to these places and start worshipping these things or to these people. The abolition of such things was necessary.

  7. [...] July 13, 2008 A period of enforced religious rites, physical hardship, patience and exposure to Muslims from all around the world leads to noticeable attitude changes for many who complete the Hajj. When Orthodoxy Is Good for You: Making Sense of the “Hajj Effect” [...]

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