Chapter 11 ‘Beyond Words’: Moroccan Pilgrims’ Narrations about Their Ineffable Hajj Experiences through Stories about the Senses

In: Narrating the Pilgrimage to Mecca
Kholoud Al-Ajarma
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When Moroccan pilgrims narrate their hajj experiences, they speak of the importance of the pilgrimage as a sacred journey that freed them from sins and, importantly, gave them the opportunity to ask for God’s forgiveness and mercy. They often describe this journey by referring to the five senses: sight, touch, smell, taste, and hearing, which are discussed in this chapter as part of the pilgrimage as a ‘sensational form’. Taking the narratives of Moroccan pilgrims as point of departure, the pilgrimage experience is discussed through its capacity to address the physical senses of pilgrims through which their emotions are evoked. It is demonstrated that although pilgrims often assert that their experience was one ‘beyond words’, by using their senses as a medium of expression, pilgrims try to demonstrate the religious and spiritual connectedness to the holy sites they visited during their pilgrimage, their piety in performing the ritual, and the authenticity of their experience. It is argued that at a personal level, the use of senses in descriptions of the pilgrimage allows individual pilgrims to memorialize the sacred time and space upon return through narrating their embodied experiences of hajj. At a group level, sharing hajj experiences stimulates feelings and emotions for both those who have previously been on hajj and those who have not (yet) visited Mecca.

1 Introduction

A group of female tailors from Fes gathered in Hanan’s workshop to help design and prepare traditional Moroccan dresses, qafṭāns, and ṭaqshiṭas.1 Hanan performed the hajj in 2006 and has been to ʿumra several times. When I asked Hanan about her experience in Mecca, her first reaction was a sigh followed by a few seconds of silence. She then told me that if I wanted to learn about the experience of being in Mecca, I should go to visit it myself because—as she saw it—that was the only way one would understand the importance of the journey and the feelings she experienced. In her words: ‘The pilgrimage was an unforgettable experience,’ and ‘a chance in a lifetime to experience a place that is better than any other place.’ When Hanan’s neighbour, Amina, joined us, I learned that she too had been on hajj. Hanan suggested that Amina too should tell me about her journey to Mecca. Amina’s response to the suggestion was this comment: ‘What is there to say? That experience cannot be described with words!’

Many Moroccan pilgrims I talked to during my research on the socio-cultural embeddedness of the hajj—the pilgrimage to Mecca—in present-day Moroccan society used similar words and images to Hanan and Amina.2 In their narratives, my interlocutors often insisted that many events and moments of their pilgrimage experience were ‘beyond words’ and that one ‘has to personally experience the journey to understand it.’ Despite the insistence that the hajj pilgrimage defies verbal expression, my interlocutors often used readily understandable sensory terminology as means to convey this ineffable experience. Through this sensory lexical field, they sought to recount details of the holy sites they visited, the people that they encountered, the food that they ate, and the prayers they recited or heard. Over time, I came to understand that the realm of sensory experience offered an avenue for sharing experiences that the pilgrims perceived as extraordinary by using language with which everyone could connect. Therefore, the senses became a point of entry to the powerful emotions and awe that were encountered during hajj.

In this chapter, I reflect on the emphasis placed on sensory experiences in the stories of Moroccan pilgrims as a way to express emotional responses to significant moments and encounters during the hajj. I examine the pilgrimage experience through Birgit Meyer’s concept of a ‘sensational form’, which helps to highlight the ways in which pilgrims express and interpret different moment of their hajj journey (cf. Meyer 2006). I also identify and discuss the dimensions of the pilgrimage that inspire the assertion by pilgrims that their experience is indeed ‘beyond words’. I argue that by referring to their five senses as a medium of expression, pilgrims aim to present their religious and spiritual connectedness to the holy sites they visited during their pilgrimage, their piety in performing the ritual, and the authenticity of their experience. At the personal level, I argue that the use of senses when describing the pilgrimage allows individual pilgrims to memorialize sacred time and space upon return by narrating their embodied experiences of hajj. At the group level, sharing the hajj experience stimulates feelings and emotions for both those who have previously been to hajj and those who have not.

2 Pilgrimage as a Sensory Experience

Since the 1980s, several scholars have advocated a research perspective that takes into account the role of senses and emotions in understanding how social worlds are shaped (de Witte 2011; Meyer 2009; 2006; Howes 2003;1991; Feld 1991; 1982; Stoller 1989). Anthropological writings on the senses initially tended to explore specific sensory domains, such as sound, taste, smell, or touch (cf. Feld 1991; Stoller 1989) and critiqued the predominantly visual focus of much anthropology. Anthropologists focus not simply on individuals’ sensory experience, but also on the attribution of meaning to those physical experiences, including the capacity of the sensory to affect deep, abstract feelings and emotions. Addressing the role of sensory experiences in the formation of religious subjectivities and communities, Birgit Meyer explains that sensational forms make possible a sensory involvement with, and access to, the transcendental:

Sensational forms (…) are relatively fixed, authorized modes of invoking, and organizing access to the transcendental, thereby creating and sustaining links between religious practitioners in the context of particular religious organizations. Sensational forms are transmitted and shared, they involve religious practitioners in particular practices of worship and play a central role in forming religious subjects. (…) The notion of ‘sensational forms’ can also be applied to the ways in which material religious objects—such as images, books, or buildings—address and involve beholders.

Meyer 2006, 9

In their ability to make the transcendental accessible, Meyer argues, sensational forms play a key role in constructing religious subjects and communities; the ways the transcendental is experienced and invoked in the here and now underpins individual and collective identities (ibid.).

My research findings confirm that sensory experiences—as described by pilgrims—can be awe-inspiring and appear to be beyond comprehension (cf. Meyer 2015). Pilgrims tended to speak about their religious or spiritual experience by describing its effect on their bodies. For example, one pilgrim spoke about her hair standing up when she saw the Kaʿba and feeling shivers on her skin when she visited the Prophet’s Mosque. I would argue that my interlocutors often described the pilgrimage as an emotionally powerful experience exactly because of its strong impact on the senses. Meyer further describes the role of sensational forms in the construction of religious subjectivities and communities with the term ‘aesthetic formation’. According to Meyer, aesthetic dimensions of religion are central in generating shared sensory experiences. These shared experiences are not to be seen as mere expressions of a community’s beliefs and identity, as in Benedict Anderson’s notion of the ‘imagined community’ (Anderson 1983), but they are also actively involved in an ongoing process of constructing or making religious subjectivities and communities:

‘Aesthetic formation’ captures very well the formative impact of a shared aesthetics through which subjects are shaped by tuning their senses, inducing experiences, molding their bodies, and making sense (…).

Meyer 2009, 7

Bodily responses as well as emotions evoked during the pilgrimage, however, do not exist separately from socio-culturally inflected collectively shared meanings attributed to the pilgrimage experiences (Al-Ajarma 2020). Marjo Buitelaar (2015) points out the importance of understanding specific instances of hajj performances within their wider historical and cultural contexts, thus testifying that the hajj is a living tradition in Islam. While sensory experiences provide a framework for emotions, I shall argue that socio-cultural discourses and expectations about emotions attached to a specific experience also shape that sensory experience in an interactive manner (cf. Davies 2011; Schielke 2010, 10). By looking at the sensory dimension of the pilgrimage experience, I highlight ‘the lived and emergent nature of the senses’ as well as ‘the cultural embeddedness of sensory experience’ (Porcello et al. 2010, 53). Following Davidson and Milligan who argue that ‘most immediate and intimately felt geography is the body’ (Davidson and Milligan 2004, 523, italics in the original text), I discuss how pilgrims use the five bodily senses in their recollections of the pilgrimage experience.

3 Sight: ‘You Have to See to Understand’

In his discussion of the early Muslim intellectual al-Jāhiz (d. 255 AH/869 CE), Christian Lange demonstrates that common views that link the primacy bestowed on the eye over the other sense organs to the European enlightenment and theorize that Oriental societies privilege nonvisual senses do not stand the test of evidence (Lange 2022a, 1; 2022b). Similar to the importance that al-Jāhiz accorded to the eye, sight was the most dominant sensory experience described by my interlocutors. They spoke about their first encounters on hajj, starting with their arrival in Mecca, its lights, buildings, and mosques, moving to the sight experience of significant places like the Grand Mosque of Mecca, the Kaʿba, the hills of al-Ṣafā and al-Marwa, ʿArafa, and the Prophet’s Mosque and his tomb. Pilgrims also described the people they encountered by commenting on the diversity of their appearances along with the numbers they noted in crowds and at gatherings in Mecca, Minā, ʿArafa, and Medina. Despite the great diversity of narratives, narrations about seeing the Kaʿba for the first time were accorded greatest significance by most pilgrims. In a conversation with Yusra, a pilgrim from Rabat who performed the hajj with her husband in 2014, she recollected her arrival in Mecca as follows:

I took a nap on the bus taking us from the airport to Mecca; when I woke up my husband said that we just entered the city … I looked out of the window and screamed to my husband: ‘Where is the Kaʿba; I cannot see it!’ I thought that I would see the Kaʿba first thing when entering Mecca. My husband said: ‘Be patient … be patient … We will see it when we go to the Grand Mosque.’

Yusra described seeing the Kaʿba as a moment that she had longed for. She was only satisfied when she was finally able to stand in front the Kaʿba and physically see it. Amina and Hanan, the two women from Fes mentioned in the introduction, described their first sight of the Kaʿba as an unforgettable moment that brought them both to tears. Many pilgrims described that seeing the Kaʿba invoked a range of other bodily sensations, including shivering, cold skin, or instant feelings of strength. For example, Ruqayya, a pilgrim from Fes, described her experience as follows:

My legs could not carry me anymore; my whole body refused to move. I was like a stone … I sat down, my head on the shoulder of my sister-in-law. It was as if something was going on under my skin. Then I felt something pinching my skin … It was like I was struck by energy that I could not tell where it comes from. Then I stood, I felt I was strong, and I circled the Kaʿba in full strength.

The physical impact of seeing the Kaʿba on Ruqayya was so immense that her habitual leg pain when walking vanished. When Ruqayya described how she had felt her skin being pinched, she pinched my leg to convey the bodily sensation to me. Like Ruqayya, many of my interlocutors described sudden strength, disappearance of physical pain, and seeing flashes of colours, all of which were the result of one sensory experience—the sight of the Kaʿba—that stimulated other physical responses. Yusra, for example, told me:

As I was performing ṭawāf around the Kaʿba someone stepped on my foot … I only knew about it later when I went to the hotel and found that my foot was swollen in red and blue … I did not sense it when I was performing ṭawāf.

Many pilgrims described the Kaʿba as a place embedded within, and possessing, a powerful force, probably due to the religious significance of the site. Therefore, many pilgrims talked about being ‘overwhelmed with emotion’ upon seeing the Kaʿba, being ‘moved to tears’, ‘unable to hear people’ around them, or ‘frozen in the moment’. The sight of the Kaʿba when standing in front of it for the first time is arguably a ‘totemic’ image, the apex of the pilgrimage journey, and therefore often mentioned in hajj narratives (Al-Ajarma 2020). By using the term ‘totemic’, I seek to convey a spiritual relationship that pilgrims assume with the Kaʿba.3 A totemic object is a physical one that has acquired symbolic representation and even spiritual qualities and connotations. A totem becomes a focal point for the entire group to recognize its core significance and consequently venerate it. It seemed to me that this was what the Kaʿba represented for many pilgrims.

When pilgrims spoke about seeing a significant place like the Kaʿba, they often pointed out the spiritual rewards of their experience. Sami, an old pilgrim I met in Casablanca, told me about the importance of looking at the Kaʿba, referring to God’s reciprocal gaze on humanity:

God, Almighty, looks each night upon the people of earth. The first He sees are the people of the Ḥaram … He forgives those He sees circumambulating, those He sees praying, and those standing in front of the Kaʿba.4

Sami mentioned a hadith of the Prophet Muhammad according to which God sends 120 blessings to descend on the Kaʿba and those around it every day: 60 blessings for those who do ṭawāf, 40 for those who pray, and 20 blessings for those who look at the Kaʿba.5 The mere sight of the Kaʿba, then, is believed to be a central element for Muslims receiving blessings. Arguably, the religious texts through which pilgrims learn about holy sites are brought to life for them when they perform the pilgrimage and may precondition, or at least influence, the construction of their experience. Such prior knowledge of the religious importance of Kaʿba may also contribute to personal reflections that pilgrims sometimes share, as was the case with Yusra:

I cannot describe how I felt when I saw the Kaʿba … There were so many emotions all over me at once … Then I thought: ‘I feel all this in front of the Kaʿba which is only a building; how then will I feel when I meet God on Judgment Day?’

The importance of the visual experience is often reflected in the souvenirs and artifacts, depicting key sites that Moroccans bring from Mecca and Medina or, less frequently, purchase locally for their own use or to share with relatives and friends. Images of the Kaʿba or the Grand Mosque of Mecca were displayed in almost every house that I visited in Morocco. In the house of a pilgrim I visited in Fes, for example, there was a large wall hanging, approximately 100 inches (254 centimeters) in width, depicting the Kaʿba and pilgrims circumambulating it. Framed pictures of the Grand Mosque of Mecca or the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina, or both, were hung in people’s places of work, bus stations, restaurants, and sweetshops in the market. These photographs captured both the strength of the personal experience and the shared community experience. Pilgrims not only shared gifts and souvenirs, but also their experiences, stories, and memories with family members and friends, insisting on the significance of what they saw and experienced. Many pilgrims echoed the words of Hanan who told me:

Had I not known that I have been to those holy places and saw them in my own eyes, I would have thought it was a dream … You have to see with your own eyes to understand (…).

To underscore the importance of seeing the Kaʿba, I will close this section with a tale told to me by Lubna, a woman from Mohammedia; the story had circulated via Facebook, possibly changing in the process, but it nevertheless illustrates the point I wish to convey here. In the story, a woman goes on hajj but fails to see the Kaʿba. She panics and cries. People around her point at the Kaʿba but she insists she cannot see it. When she later asks a scholar, he tells her that she must have committed a grave sin. The woman confesses that she was involved in black magic to harm others. The moral of the story, as explained by Lubna, is that the woman was punished by God for her immoral deeds by precluding her from seeing the Kaʿba at the very moment all pilgrims aspire to see it.

I interpret the story as reflecting the central religious significance of the Kaʿba, not just the desire to see it but, importantly, as a symbol of merit, in a spiritual sense. To see it is a sign from God, who sees and knows all, that a pilgrim is accepted. This significance might be a reminder of the metaphor of God looking at the pilgrims even as they look at the Kaʿba. For some pilgrims, the act of seeing the Kaʿba validates their sense of worthiness and perhaps even spiritual success, invoking a feeling that God is aware of everyone’s conduct. The failure of the sinner in the story to see the Kaʿba reasserts the moral imperative to live a worthy life, which will enable spiritual inclusion in the apex of the faith—seeing the Kaʿba.


Figure 11.1

Living room in a Moroccan house with wall painting of the Kaʿba

photograph taken by Al-Ajarma in Fes, August 4, 2015

4 Soundscapes: ‘One Goes to Hajj when Hearing God Call’

Vocal practices are an important element for performing pilgrimage rites. One of the first soundscapes pilgrims are immersed within, and talk about later, is the talbiya, the prayer invoked by pilgrims as an expression of their determination to perform the hajj. Pilgrims participate in this sound creation process once dressed in their iḥrām and continue to repeat it until they reach Mecca:

Here I am at Your service, O Lord,

Labbayka Allāhumma labbayk;

Here I am; You have no partners.

Labbayka lā sharīka laka, Labbayk;

Yours alone is all praise;

Inna al-ḥamda,

and all bounty;

Wa al-niʿmata;

Yours alone is the sovereignty.

Laka wa-l-mulk;

You have no partners.

Lā sharīka lak.

Regardless of their different languages and backgrounds, all pilgrims take part in creating this soundscape and collectively preparing themselves for the pilgrimage. In the words of Mousa, a pilgrim from Fes:

When pilgrims start the talbiya, they all chant together ‘Here I am’. Every pilgrim would say this as an answer to the call of the Almighty, Who, in the Qurʾan commands Prophet Ibrāhīm in sūra ‘al-Ḥajj’: ‘And proclaim unto mankind the pilgrimage.’ Whenever I hear talbiya, I remember my pilgrimage (…).6

For Mousa, participating in the talbiya and hearing other pilgrims chant it was an aural memento of the hajj, recalling moments of being immersed within his pilgrimage experience. Mousa accounted for his ability to perform the hajj as being his answer to God’s call, that of Prophet Ibrāhīm, and later Muhammad (Al-Ajarma 2020). According to Jamal, a pilgrim from Casablanca, no one can go to Mecca or perform the pilgrimage unless they hear God’s call. ‘When you hear the call, you should go to Mecca and perform the pilgrimage,’ Jamal pointed to his ear as he told me these words, indicating the sense of hearing.

Another sound was also significant for my interlocutors: the adhān or call for prayer that Muslims hear five times a day during their pilgrimage. Although my interlocutors are familiar with the call for prayer in their daily lives in Morocco, hearing it in Mecca implies another layer of significance. As Mousa put it: the adhān ‘unifies all pilgrims in one heart in sacred moments at a sacred place.’ In addition to the daily prayers, many pilgrims pointed out the particular significance of the call for the janāza (funeral) prayer.7 For the duration of the hajj, this prayer takes place five times a day after every mandatory prayer. For several of my interlocutors, the janāza prayer was a constant reminder of death, that life is short, and that one should be more pious in their actions and deeds. In the words of Mousa:

We prayed janāza after every prayer; after fajr, ẓuhr, ʿaṣr, maghrib, and ʿishāʾ … The call for janāza prayer every time it reminded me of death and of Judgment Day … I felt that it was a call to remember human weakness and to be thankful for the life God has given me … Then, I thanked God and I made duʿāʾ prayers asking God for mercy and forgiveness (…).

The significance of supplication or duʿāʾ prayers mentioned by Mousa was also highlighted by other pilgrims. Some of my interlocutors said that they performed their supplication prayers individually and others in groups, repeating duʿāʾ prayers after a hajj guide, from their phones, or by reading small booklets that they carried from Morocco or purchased in Mecca.

Pilgrims did not only share experiences of actual aural patterns, but also spoke of auditory experiences that were beyond the natural. For example, in a women’s gathering in Fes, Ruqayya told a group of female relatives that during her pilgrimage she had encountered the following inexplicable experience:

I was performing my ṭawāf around the Kaʿba when I heard someone calling … Amina … Amina … That’s the name of my daughter! I looked around trying to identify where the sound might be coming from. But everyone was performing their ṭawāf … Could it have been my imagination? Was it a divine call? I did not know what that meant!

Upon asking a religious scholar in Mecca about her experience, Ruqayya learned that this might be a karāma, an expression that means an extraordinary favour from God.8 She was told that the meaning of her experience was that good fortune awaits her daughter. For Ruqayya, what she heard was a spiritual message that would stir her thoughts for a time afterwards. Two years later, Ruqayya’s daughter Amina, indeed, performed hajj with her father, being the youngest in the family to do so; something that Ruqayya related back to her own seemingly extraordinary auditory experience in Mecca.

5 Smell: ‘The Mosque Smelled like Musk’

Out of the five senses, Moroccan pilgrims mentioned smell least of all. Although it was never in great detail, the discussion about smell was limited to three subjects: the cleanliness of mosques and their scents, the smell caused by unhygienic conditions in Minā, and perfumes or incense experienced in Mecca and Medina and then brought home as gifts. Several pilgrims commented on the cleaning process that takes place at the Grand Mosque of Mecca where throughout the day they saw large groups of workers cleaning the entrances to the mosque along with its bridges, minarets, and columns. Pilgrims told me that rosewater was used to scent the passages and hallways of the mosque. Bukhūr or incense was burnt to scent the mosque between sunset and evening prayer, while the mosque’s officials scented the Kaʿba’s kiswa and Black Stone five times a day (cf. Bursi 2020).9 According to Mousa:

Despite the large number of pilgrims coming and leaving the mosque, you would only smell perfumes … The Grand Mosque is frequently cleaned and washed with Zamzam water … When you sit there and just breath in and out or when you perform prayers; you can enjoy it … It smelled like musk (…).

Thus, when talking about the Grand Mosque of Mecca, my interlocutors only mentioned the good smells that they remembered when speaking about their pilgrimage experience. Smell, Margaret Kenna argues, is a strong mediator between sensual perception and the transcendent realm (Kenna 2005, 62–63). Indeed, this is recognized in the wide use of incense at holy sites and in religious ceremonies, arguably enhancing the sensory perceptions of the worshippers (cf. Howes 1991).

Unlike the overwhelmingly positive responses by pilgrims regarding the cleanliness of the Grand Mosque and its positive smells, only a few pilgrims complained about their experience in Minā, which was mainly caused by the unhygienic conditions in the tent camp. In 2015, one of my interlocutors shared with me a video recording of Moroccan pilgrims at Minā who complained about the piles of trash built up near their tents. There is of course a difference between the immediate registering of dissatisfaction whilst on the pilgrimage and the act of narrating the hajj when it is over (cf. Buitelaar and Kadrouch-Outmany elsewhere in this volume). In the narratives of hajj memories, pilgrims may emphasize the positive memories over the negative ones for a range of psychological and religious reasons (cf. Al-Ajarma 2020). I would argue that the narratives of pilgrims regarding their experiences may also be related to a hegemonic collective discourse in which it is mostly positive connotations that are ascribed to the pilgrimage (cf. Buitelaar 2020). It can similarly be related to the idea that pilgrims should exert ṣabr, patience, and tolerate slight discomforts or negative experiences during the pilgrimage and should refuse to be distracted from the main focus (cf. Buitelaar and Kadrouch-Outmany elsewhere in this volume). On the other hand, some pilgrims related that they had anticipated the hygiene standards in the Minā tent camp to be lower than in the hotels of Mecca. Furthermore, pilgrims’ social backgrounds can be a factor in differential experiences of matters such as cleanliness and hygiene issues (ibid.).10

My interlocutors also talked about bringing scents as gifts from Mecca, including scented bricks, bukhūr, mixed with musk or agarwood, ʿūd, as well as perfumes made from musk, ambergris, and Aquilaria.11 These gifts are often given to family members and friends, signifying the social aspect of sharing the experience of hajj with those at home. Hassan, for example, told me that he brought scented perfumes for his relatives and some for his own personal use. The smell, he insisted, reminded him of his time in Mecca. In his words:

I was introduced to the scent of ʿūd in the Grand Mosque of Mecca where it is regularly used … I liked the smell very much … I then recognized it in many other mosques that I visited in Mecca and Medina. It is a fragrance that does not vanish easily … I bought some for myself and some perfumes for my siblings as gifts to take home (…).

On multiple occasions, I smelled ʿūd and bukhūr in Moroccan houses. It was sometimes burned to remove the smell of cooked food, but more often simply to enjoy the calming scent. For pilgrims, these scents sometimes reignited and catalyzed connections and memories formed during the pilgrimage, enabling the experience to be accessed from the recesses of memory more fully.

6 Touch: ‘When You Touch It, You Absorb the baraka

In a recent article, Adam Bursi, highlights the disputed role of touching holy spaces during pilgrimage between those who associated it with pagan and idolatrous practices and those who encouraged this practice (Bursi 2022). During my reseach in Morocco, many of my interlocutors told me about the importance of reaching the Kaʿba, touching it, and, if possible, kissing the Black Stone, despite the fact that physical contact with the Kaʿba is not mandatory. Here is how Hanan related her experience:

When we were in Morocco, I wished that I would at least see the Kaʿba and circumambulate it even if I was the furthest from it. But when we made it to the Kaʿba at night, it was crowded but not to a suffocating extent; so, I made my way through the crowd and I could reach the Kaʿba. I touched it with my hands … It was like absorbing the baraka at that holy site.

In addition to the Kaʿba, pilgrims also spoke about touching other places of importance in Mecca and Medina, such as the areas in and around al-rawḍa al-nabawiya in the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina. Al-rawḍa al-nabawiya (also known as riyāḍ al-janna or rawḍa for short) has great significance among pilgrims. Following a famous hadith narrated by Prophet Muhammad, ‘That which is between my house and my pulpit is a garden from the gardens of Paradise’ (Muslim 1983, book 15, hadith 572), many Muslims consider the rawḍa as a highly significant place that they wish to visit and in which they strive to perform prayers. The rawḍa is also where the Prophet is buried (together with Abū Bakr and Umar, the first and second caliphs). I was also told by Moroccan pilgrims that supplications uttered in the rawḍa are never rejected.

Despite the importance of the rawḍa, entrance into this space is limited. This is especially the case for female pilgrims who are allowed only into a small section of the rawḍa for shorter periods of time than those designated for men (cf. Kadrouch-Outmany and Buitelaar 2021). Female pilgrims are also prohibited from physically reaching the tomb of the Prophet. During my participant observation of the ʿumra in Medina, I joined a group of female pilgrims to visit the rawḍa at the time assigned to women (cf. Al-Ajarma 2020). Once at the rawḍa, however, each woman barely had time to pray two rakʿas of ritual prayer (often less than five minutes) before being obliged to withdraw by female guards. Feeling the urgency of being allowed to spend only a very short time at the rawḍa, I noticed that the expressions of these women often become very intense. Many women cried as they raised their hands in prayer and others rubbed their hands on the carpets or spread them on the walls surrounding the place. Some women gathered around the marble pillars to touch them with their hands and kiss them. Using the tip of their index finger, I saw some women writing the outline of their names on the pillars before female guards noticed and physically forced them to leave. The gender privilege of men, the time limitations of women’s visits, and the guards’ control seemed to hinder a spiritually satisfying experience (Al-Ajarma 2020). It seemed to me that female pilgrims—using the sense of touch—were compensating for other limitations, including their inability to reach the tomb of the Prophet, as they are neither permitted to see nor touch it (cf. Al-Ajarma 2021).

For many of my interlocutors, the sense of touch seemed to be connected with the religious importance of the sites they visited, and they often described it as one of the many channels for deriving divine blessings or baraka. Baraka is believed to be found within physical objects, places, and people, which/whom are chosen by God (cf. Buitelaar 1993; Eickelman 1976). In Morocco baraka is often used to express an understanding of divine blessing, which could be obtained in many ways including the performance of pilgrimage itself and also other actions like visiting mosques, shrines, and even tombs of religious figures. In the eyes of many people, by obtaining the baraka through pilgrimage or ziyāra—and specifically mediated by the sense of touch—they transfer the efficacious power that they attribute to the divine into themselves. For many pilgrims, touching sacred places and objects becomes a tangible memory of blessing that they refer to when they narrate aspects of their pilgrimage experience. According to some, particularly traditionally inclined pilgrims, the baraka could even be transferred to others through touching the souvenirs and objects that the pilgrims brought home (cf. Buitelaar 2020; Al-Ajarma 2018).

When I joined my interlocutors to welcome their loved ones returning from the hajj in Morocco, I witnessed numerous encounters where returning pilgrims were welcomed with flowers, dates, milk, hugs, and kisses. What struck me most was how some members in the crowd would touch the hands, arms, or clothes of pilgrims and then rub their hands against their own face and arms, as if absorbing the baraka from returning pilgrims by touch transferal. This assumption was confirmed when I asked some of my interlocutors about these encounters. I was told by Sarah, a young woman from Mohammedia, that returning pilgrims possess baraka, having successfully completed the pilgrimage and visited Mecca and Medina. Remembering her father’s return from hajj, Sarah, told me:

One of our family friends likes my father very much. When he returned from hajj, she visited us and kept holding his arm. He was shy and told her to stop but the woman did not. The woman said that she wanted to have baraka because my father had visited the Prophet and the holy places in Mecca and Medina.

This connection between touch and baraka seemed to be accepted by a considerable number of my interlocutors as a channel of accessing blessings. This came to the fore particularly when discussing the taste and power of Zamzam water, which I discuss next.

7 Taste: ‘One Could Taste Communities and Cultures’

The main experience that my interlocutors talked about in relation to taste was that of Zamzam water.12 My interlocutors spoke about how they consumed large quantities of Zamzam water, especially after their ṭawāf around the Kaʿba and throughout their stay in Mecca and Medina.13 They often discussed the taste of Zamzam water; some saying that it is distinctively different from tap or mineral water and others commenting on its ability to quench both thirst and hunger. On various occasions, my interlocutors described Zamzam water to me as ‘pure and colourless’ and ‘odorless’, or stated that ‘it has an authentic taste’, ‘it is mildly salty’ or ‘clean’. Here is how Ruqayya, a pilgrim from Fes, put it:

In the Qurʾan, God stated: ‘We made every living thing from water.’14 Zamzam is not just any water; it is the most sacred and miraculous water … It has [blessings, kaa]; just think of how long it has existed, and it still satisfies millions of people … The Prophet said: ‘Zamzam water is for what one intends to drink it for.’15 So, when you drink it, you should make a prayer (…).

Like Ruqayya, many pilgrims emphasized the taste and consumption of Zamzam water in relation to its sacred character. Believing that ‘Zamzam water is what one intends it to be drunk for’, pilgrims assume that when one drinks it they will be healed through God; when one drinks it to quench their thirst, God is quenching it. In this sense, the water of Zamzam is seen as something transformative, possessing mystical and unique qualities, including baraka. According to my interlocutors, the baraka of Zamzam water is capable of being transmitted to those who did not personally visit Mecca for the pilgrimage. Consequently, those who visit Mecca carry back quantities of water for relatives and friends in Morocco. In a way, Zamzam water is considered a doorway to the realm of sacredness and spiritual experiences beyond the sensory.

Pilgrims also discussed the taste of types of food they consumed during the pilgrimage. Since the meals that are distributed during the hajj are mostly provided as part of their travel package, comments on the food were limited to expressing a liking or disliking of its quality and quantity. During the voluntary ʿumra pilgrimage, nonetheless, pilgrims have more time to explore food options as most meals need to be prepared by the pilgrims themselves or bought locally (depending on the package provided through travel agencies). Pilgrims performing ʿumra in ramaḍān were specifically vocal about their experience as they often shared breaking their fast at the Grand Mosque of Mecca (or in Medina) with other pilgrims in groups. For example, Hassan, a pilgrim from Safi, often expressed how much he had enjoyed spending ramaḍān in Mecca. In addition to the spiritual dimension of the experience, he explicitly appreciated sharing food with other pilgrims and tasting their dishes. He told me about the dishes he shared with Muslims from Egypt, Palestine, Malaysia, Bangladesh, and Turkey. Every sunset in the month of ramaḍān (as he spent all 30 days in Mecca), he would sit with a new group of people, place his food next to theirs, and enjoy conversations while everyone broke their fast. He relished both the food and the interactions, and, in a way, he was, literally, tasting the global Muslim community:

At sunset, people would first break their fast with dates and water; something small to sustain us until we pray. After prayer, we had big meals … Each group of people prepared and brought their traditional food; Moroccans would bring ḥarīra [traditional Moroccan lentil, chickpea and tomato soup, kaa], bread and mint tea; Turkish pilgrims would bring rice cooked with meat or chicken … Excellent foods that people shared together … A friend of mine and I made sure to join different groups and share their food; not for the sake of eating but to taste their food and learn about their traditions … I tried dried fish that was brought from Niger, beef stew prepared by Sudanese pilgrims, and chicken and rice prepared by Indian and Pakistani pilgrims.

Hassan embraced the diversity of food traditions that he described in much detail. In my estimation, of greater significance were the conversations that took place in these gatherings and the concept that tasting of different foods was, metaphorically, a way to experience diverse Muslim cultures and traditions. Hassan described the foods he tasted in a social sense, as an activity that has a social and cultural value. He was not only satisfying his hunger but also nourishing his curiosity about other Muslims. He expressed much satisfaction in these encounters and fondly remembered fellow pilgrims with whom he shared more than meals.

8 Reflections on Pilgrim’s Stories: Senses, Feelings, and Expectations

The discussion of pilgrims’ stories about sensing Mecca illustrates that, although most Moroccan pilgrims insisted that their experience could not be described with words, the vocabulary of the senses was always present in what they shared about their pilgrimage. The senses were channels to remember, to imaginatively recreate and connect with the pilgrimage, and to connect with the Holy Places. In pilgrims’ passionate accounts about their encounters in Mecca and Medina, nevertheless, I noticed a recurrent pattern—such as crying when seeing the Kaʿba for the first time. These encounters led me to question to what extent descriptions of sensory experiences during hajj were pre-determined by culturally transmitted narratives or influenced by the experience of individual pilgrims. To illustrate the reasoning behind my query, I share one of numerous conversations in which pilgrimage experiences were discussed. This conversation took place between Salma, a young woman from Rabat who performed ʿumra, and her mother, who performed the hajj a few years earlier:

Salma: I remember all the moments of my ʿumra trip; I cannot wait to go again …

Mother: You should try to go in ramaḍān … After my hajj, I went for ʿumra three times; my favourite was in ramaḍān … But I always like to go to Mecca … No doubt … [Salma’s mother laughed when she made the comment about her constant desire to go to ʿumra, kaa]. ʿUmra in ramaḍān might be difficult as you would be fasting; but you can break the fast with Zamzam water and dates and join communal prayers … I remember how people cried while the imam made duʿāʾ during tarāwīḥ prayers16 …. My thoughts and soul were concentrating on ritual away from daily life here …

Salma: Yes, I also forgot about everything I left behind [in Morocco, kaa] I also cried, ḍarūrī [for sure, kaa] … I cried when I visited the rawḍa in the Prophet’s Mosque; I was less than three meters away from the Prophet and I felt his presence although I could not see his tomb … But I did not cry when I saw the Kaʿba; I was surprised that I did not since many people do …

Mother: I cried when I saw the Kaʿba … I told you before …

Salma: Yes, I remember … But I was mainly excited and in a happy mood. I could not wait to see the Kaʿba … It was larger than I had imagined and different from seeing it on TV.

[Both women laugh at Salma’s comment about the size of Kaʿba compared with footage that she had seen before her ʿumra trip, kaa].

Salma: When I was at al-Ṣafā and al-Marwa; I remembered my mother told me that a part of the original rocks of the hill were there … It was not in my head but my mother told me to try to touch it to see what it felt like in the past …

Mother: Now there is a barrier between pilgrims and those rocks because people in the past would climb them to make prayers and would not come down …

Salma: Yes, many changes have been made to the place … But I think it makes one have less feelings because I really would have wanted to live the things as they used to be in the past (…).

The conversation in which Salma and her mother shared memories of time spent in Mecca and Medina carried on for three hours. Salma compared her own experience with that of her mother, especially when reflecting on emotional moments. Like other pilgrims, Salma went to the Grand Mosque of Mecca to perform ʿumra and to Medina to pray at the Mosque of the Prophet. She also followed her mother’s recommendation and touched the rocks of the hills of al-Ṣafā and al-Marwa. The link between Salma’s desire and her mother’s instruction to try to touch the rocks seemed to have exercised a deep influence on Salma, structuring her expectations. Salma’s personal surprise that she did not cry when she saw the Kaʿba, for example, reflects an expectation of how one ought to react, created arguably by the narratives of others including her mother. Furthermore, the use of expressions like ‘for sure’ and ‘without doubt’ to point out being moved by the experience in a way suggests no other, less positive response was possible. When sharing experiences, mediated via the senses, Salma and her mother (and my interlocutors in general) were engaging in a cultural act that may condition people’s expectations of what physical and emotional reactions they might expect to experience during the pilgrimage (cf. Buitelaar 2020). Both those who have performed the hajj and prospective pilgrims may thus—consciously or unconsciously—anticipate certain sensations and emotions related to the various rites during the pilgrimage. This is unsurprising as the pilgrimage experience itself assumes such magnitude of importance for pilgrims that the narrations of that experience are laden with significance for them and for others.

My intention here is definitely not to question the authenticity of the sensory experiences of individual pilgrims nor the meanings they relate to those experiences, but rather to reflect on these aspects in relation to the lexical label, ‘beyond words’, as a description that pilgrims often attributed to their pilgrimage. Since their feelings were ‘beyond words’, pilgrims attempted to narrate their experiences through the five senses, using these medium to explain their reportedly ineffable experiences at religious sites. It seemed to me that when pilgrims described their experiences through the senses, they were engaging in acts of memory that fixed the experience both in their own minds and in the minds of those who listened. Sometimes these narratives stimulated expressions of longing towards the Holy Places among listeners. One example of how these feelings were expressed is the story of al-Ḥājja Zahra, a woman in her seventies, who performed the hajj in the 1990s and wished to visit Mecca again. Her husband, however, did not approve of her wish. In a women’s gathering at her house, following a conversation about a cousin’s visit to Mecca for ʿumra, I heard Zahra whisper to a younger cousin: ‘I miss those places, I want to see the Kaʿba again, and to visit the Prophet … I feel … It is like there is fire burning in my chest; right here [hitting her chest, kaa].’ As Zahra’s eyes filled with tears, I could not tell if the feeling of fire in her chest was one of sadness that she could not visit Mecca again, of anger at her controlling husband who does not take her along with him when he goes to Mecca every year, or of longing to visit the Holy Places one more time. She could not voice the exact feelings she had but was clearly using references to her physical body and her senses to metaphorically to express her longing, dramatizing her message further with sighs and a heart-broken tone.

In narrating the pilgrimage experience through references to the senses, pilgrims give voice to what they initially described to be ‘beyond words’. Being overwhelmed by the sight of the Kaʿba, crying, and forgetting bodily pains, are some examples of emotions mediated by the senses. The ability to share what one saw, heard, touched, smelled, and tasted during the pilgrimage with others at home also stirs emotions in the listeners, such as their own happiness when they performed the pilgrimage or a longing to visit the Holy Places (again). After all, the ineffable is given form and made accessible via the senses.


Qafṭān in Morocco is commonly used to mean a one-piece dress worn exclusively by women, both as an everyday outfit and haute-couture attire—depending on the material. Taqshiṭa (a loanword from Tamazight) is a two-piece version of the qafṭān that is worn with a large belt, primarily on formal occasions.


The narratives discussed in this chapter are based on data collected during my 18-month ethnographic study of Muslim pilgrimage in Morocco between the summer of 2015 and winter of 2017. For a discussion of this fieldwork, see Al-Ajarma and Buitelaar (forthcoming 2023).


Spirituality in this chapter is understood as the feeling of personal connectedness with God which includes reflection or thinking about the self that would bring one closer to God (cf. Ahmad and Khan 2016).


Sami’s narrative resonates with a paragraph by al-Ghazālī: ‘… the following is found in the tradition: “Verily God Most High looks upon the people of the earth each night. The first of those upon whom He looks are the people of the Sanctuary (Ḥaram), and the first of the people of the Sanctuary upon whom He looks are the people in the Sacred Mosque (al-Masjid al-Ḥarām). Those whom He sees performing the circumambulation He forgives; those whom He sees praying He forgives; and those whom He sees standing with their faces toward the Kaʿba He forgives” ’ (1853, vol. 1. 307); see also Campo (1991).


A reference to this hadith can be found in al-Muʿjam al-Awsaṭ, a hadith collection book of Ṭabarānī (1995, vol. 4, 381). Also, al-Azraqī in Kitāb Akhbār Makka [‘Book of Reports about Mecca’] stated that ‘Whoever looks at the Kaʿba with faith and belief, his sins will drop as leaves drop from a tree’ (1964, vol. 2, 9).


The full verse from the Qurʾan reads as follows: ‘Proclaim the Pilgrimage to all people. They will come to you on foot and on every kind of swift mount, emerging from every deep mountain pass’ (Qurʾan 22:27). According to Ibn Kathīr, Ibrāhīm said to God: ‘ “But my voice cannot reach all peoples.” God responded: “You make the call, and We will deliver the invitation to all” ’ (Ibn Kathīr 1986 vol. 3, 216–217).


The janāza prayer is part of the funeral ritual in Islam (cf. Kadrouch-Outmany 2016).


Karāma (pl. karāmāt) refers to the extraordinary favor given by God towards a human, often worked by Muslim mystics and saints (cf. Gardet 2012).


Bukhūr is a blend of natural ingredients, mainly woodchips, which is used as perfume or incense.


Also see Aourid (2019) and Hammoudi (2006).


ʿūd is the Arabic name for agarwood/aloeswood soaked in fragrant oils and mixed with other natural ingredients (resin, ambergris, musk, sandalwood, essential oils, and others).


Zamzam water comes from the Zamzam well, which is located within the Grand Mosque of Mecca and is believed to be a miraculously granted source of water from God to Hājar, wife of Ibrāhīm and mother of Ishmael (cf. Chabbi 2012).


For example, in 2018 pilgrims consumed eight and a half million liters of water outside the pilgrimage season alone, according to a Saudi newspaper (cf.; Accessed 20 August 2018).


Referring to Qurʾan 21:30.


Referring to a saying by Prophet Muhammad: ‘The water of Zamzam is for whatever it is drunk for’ (Ibn Mājah 1999, vol. 4, book 25, hadith 3062).


Tarāwīḥ literally ‘rest and relaxation’ refers to additional ritual prayers performed by Muslims at night after the ʿishāʾ prayer during the month of ramaḍān.


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Narrating the Pilgrimage to Mecca

Historical and Contemporary Accounts



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