Sponsoring the Hajj

Having inherited a hajj tradition with their colonial conquests, Europe’s imperial powers had to decide what to do with it.

In the mid-nineteenth century, as hajj traffic between European colonies and Mecca began to grow, colonial officials were essentially of two minds about the hajj. At a time of growing anxiety about burgeoning Islamic political movements as a threat to empire, and fears of the hajj as a spreader of cholera and other infectious diseases, some suggested banning the hajj.

This was especially true after 1865, the year a massive cholera outbreak in Mecca became a global epidemic, spread far and wide by dispersing crowds of hajj pilgrims. After this epidemic—which killed more than 200,000 people worldwide in cities as far away as New York City—the European powers convened the first in a series of conferences that identified the hajj as a sanitary and security threat to empire. But attempts to ban the hajj proved impossible: as a pillar of Islam, and a duty for Muslims, the hajj could not be easily banned or stopped.

The Grand Mosque and the Kaaba, 1907

Increasingly, as European control of Muslim populations grew over the nineteenth century, colonial officials began to see potential benefits in sponsoring rather than restricting or prohibiting the hajj. In the early 1800s, colonial officials began to experiment with hajj patronage as a way to win the support of recently colonized Muslim subjects, while also monitoring their contacts with Muslims from other parts of the world.

In the Russian-ruled Caucasus, tsarist officials in the 1840s started subsidizing hajj journeys for local Muslim elites they were trying to integrate into the emerging Russian administration. Similarly, in French West Africa in the early 1850s, the colonial government offered to pay for the hajj trips of select “friends of the colonial regime,” as part of a broader effort to advertise the toleration of French colonial rule.

By the end of the nineteenth century, and for various reasons related to the desire to preserve empire and cultivate Muslim loyalties, all of the European powers began to sponsor the hajj. They subsidized travel between their colonies and Arabia during hajj season, opened foreign consulates along routes to Mecca, and passed new laws to protect pilgrims from physical harm and financial scams.

19th century British hajj ticket granting travel from Bombay to Jeddah

By the eve of World War I, European empires were involved in virtually all aspects of the hajj. Most Muslims would have found it impossible to make the Meccan pilgrimage in this era without interacting with European officials.

In Jeddah, the Dutch had set up a multi-service “Hajj Bureau.” The British ran a medical dispensary out of their consulate, run by the vice-consul, a Muslim doctor and British subject from India. And European doctors and nurses staffed the two main quarantine facilities set up to screen hajj pilgrims in El Tor (at the bottom of the Sinai peninsula) and on Kamaran Island (in the Red Sea).

Abdürreşid Ibrahim and his children

By sponsoring the hajj, European colonial powers were not simply trying to control it or contain the problems it created as a mass, annual movement of people. Instead, they were seizing an opportunity created by imperial conquests to tap into and co-opt the hajj, a global Islamic network, as a mechanism of imperial integration and expansion.

Through sponsorship, they sought to turn the hajj into an instrument of imperial integration. This was part of the broader process underway across European empires over the nineteenth century through which colonial governments institutionalized Islam and Islamic practices to advance their own imperial agendas.

European involvement in the hajj shocked many Muslim observers, who did not expect to be greeted in Ottoman Arabia by Europeans. Abdürreşid Ibrahim, the pan-Islamic intellectual and activist from Russia, was surprised when he showed up at the Kamaran quarantine station in 1908 and was greeted at the door of the disinfection building by a Christian woman. “Aren’t we in Ottoman territory?” his equally stunned travel companion asked him, to which he replied, “I don’t know.”

Europe and the Hajj, Lessons from the Past

In many ways, the hajj as we know it today bears little resemblance to its early twentieth-century counterpart. Airplanes long ago replaced sea and rail travel and transformed the itinerary of the hajj from a multi-site, months-long journey into a rapid, direct journey between home and Mecca.

A time traveler from 1900 would barely recognize Mecca: the Saudis have bulldozed Ottoman-era buildings and holy tombs around the city to make space for new shopping malls and luxury hotels. And today’s hajj crowds number in the millions, not the hundreds of thousands.

Construction surrounding the Grand Mosque in Mecca, 2010

And yet, in an interesting parallel, the hajj today has again become a European phenomenon, as a result of global events and processes connected to European imperialism. Post-colonial migrations since the mid-twentieth century, the result of various push and pull factors, have brought millions of Muslims from former colonies to the European continent.

At the same time, the disintegration of the Soviet Union in the 1990s—hailed by many as the belated collapse of the last of the European empires—also freed millions of Muslims from state-mandated atheism and brought about a resurgence of Islam in Russia and surrounding former communist states.

Major European airports are now hubs along global hajj routes. In the days leading up the scheduled hajj rituals in Arabia, at airport departure gates in London, Berlin, Paris, and Moscow, crowds of Muslim pilgrims gather and pray before boarding flights bound for Jeddah’s King Abdulaziz International Airport.

Pilgrims arriving by ferry to Jeddah Port, 1957 (left) versus the contemporary Hajj Terminal of the King Abdulaziz International Airport in Jeddah (right)

As today’s European states grapple with their own inheritance of a hajj tradition and how best to manage it, history can offer lessons as well as cautionary tales. The history of how Europe’s imperial powers embraced hajj patronage as part of their broader efforts to integrate Muslim populations in their empire has resonance today.

The case of the Russian Empire is perhaps most relevant to the situation of today’s European states. For the British, Dutch, and French empires, the hajj was largely an external issue, located in far-away overseas colonies, and not a domestic matter. Russia was different. A land-based empire, Russia had large Muslim populations living inside its borders, and hajj routes that cut through its central Slavic-speaking lands and busy Black Sea ports, and so it had both internal and external interests in the hajj.

For Russia, then, the hajj was not a matter limited to faraway regions and populations, invisible at home and separate from domestic issues. Instead, it was a highly visible, mass, annual event that happened largely within the empire’s borders, and was bound up with domestic issues such as state revenues, identity politics, and the integration of Russia’s 20-million-strong Muslim population (about 15% of the empire’s overall population in 1900).

In the early twentieth century, Russia struggled to reconcile its historic identity as an Orthodox Christian empire with the reality of its large and increasingly mobile Muslim populations, whose loyalties, it feared, may have belonged to the neighboring Ottoman sultan, not the tsar.

Many Russian officials wanted to restrict the hajj for many reasons. But how could they do this without appearing to intervene in Muslim practice and violate religious freedom? Conversely, how could they extend patronage to the hajj without upsetting the Russian Orthodox Church and losing its crucial institutional support for the regime?

Many of these same questions confront European officials, including in Russia, as they struggle to manage the hajj and accept it as part of their evolving national cultures. These are not so much new questions as old ones, rooted in Europe’s colonial past and made urgent for the European powers during the first wave of globalization in the late nineteenth century.

Russian President Vladimir Putin meeting with members of the country's Muslim religious leadership, 2002

By exploring Europe’s overlooked, ambivalent, and complex role in the history of the hajj, we can begin to see that present-day discussions of Islam in Europe have a deeper history, and that perceptions about Muslims today are in many ways colored by stereotypes and prejudices refined in the late nineteenth century.

For instance, many European colonial officials in the early 1900s feared Mecca was a center of clandestine, conspiratorial, and anticolonial plotting. But no great anticolonial revolt was ever plotted in Mecca. And firsthand accounts by more than one Pan-Islamic activist reveal how disappointed they were by hajj pilgrims’ indifference to politics. Abdürreşid Ibrahim, a leading Pan-Islamic thinker and activist, lamented that he was unable to engage the simple, pious Muslims he met in Mecca in political discussion.

It remains to be seen how Europe will adapt to its new and growing role as a center of the global hajj. The context today is very different, and yet there are lessons to be drawn from history. The European embrace of hajj patronage was certainly opportunistic and imperialistic; the aim was to protect empire and, by accommodating Islam, subdue and integrate Muslim colonial subjects.

At the same time, there was a certain optimism to this policy that we should note: European officials did not simply fear Islam and its global dimensions, exemplified in the circular migration of Muslims between the colonies and Mecca. In the Russian case especially, there was a widespread belief that the Islamic inheritance of the hajj offered opportunities, not just dangers, and could be remade, not just suppressed, into a Russian tradition.

Today the hajj raises difficult questions for European nations that seek to reconcile national, secular identities with a need to respect the religious freedom of large and growing numbers of Muslim citizens, while also developing new strategies for integrating these citizens into the nation.