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Muslim Pilgrimage:

a journey toward tolerance?

Imagine the power of standing at the geographical and spiritual center of your religious faith, together with millions of fellow believers. How would that experience change your life, your spirituality, your politics and your relationships?

Muslim Pilgrimage: A Journey Toward Tolerance?

In 2006, David Clingingsmith, PhD, of Case Western Reserve University's Weatherhead School of Management, asked this question in the context of perhaps the most famous religious pilgrimage in the world-the annual Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca, called the hajj.

Every Muslim, if he or she is physically and financially able, is urged to participate at least once in the hajj, which consists of a series of rituals commemorating the life and struggles of the biblical prophet Abraham. The pilgrimage is one of the "Five Pillars of Islam," crucial religious duties that also include daily prayer, charity, fasting during the holy month of Ramadan, and professing Allah as the one true God.

Given that the hajj is a large-scale religious and community ritual, it is a powerful subject of study. Muslims pray five times each day facing Mecca and the Kaaba, a black, cube-shaped building at the center of the city's Masjid al-Haram mosque. Standing at this site of holy veneration with so many fellow Muslims (nearly 3 million attended in 2006), walking counter-clockwise around the Kaaba seven times and participating in other hajj rituals is surely life-altering.

But what exactly is its impact? Does it change the way Muslims think about their religion, or even lead to a radicalized form of the faith? In forging unity among Muslims, might the hajj inspire negative thoughts and opinions of non-Muslims?
These are the questions Clingingsmith asked in his study.

He and colleagues Asim Ijaz Khwaja and Michael Kremer, both professors at Harvard University, interviewed Pakistani Muslims who participated in a random lottery system to secure one of the 150,000 hajj visas allotted to Pakistan by Saudi Arabia. Half of those interviewed were granted visas and went on the hajj; the other half were denied and did not attend. Clingingsmith notes that this comparison lets researchers know that they are measuring a "real" effect of the hajj and not an erroneous correlation.

What Clingingsmith found was that participation in the hajj actually increased both connection within the Muslim community and positive regard for those outside the faith. Among the study's findings:

  • Those returning from the pilgrimage (called hajjis) were 22 percent more likely to declare that people of different religions are equal, as compared with the non-hajji group.
  • Hajjis were twice as likely as non-hajjis to openly condemn the goals of Osama Bin Laden.
  • Male hajjis were 8 percent more likely than non-hajjis to express hope that their daughters and granddaughters would adopt professional careers.

These findings would not surprise anyone who has read the famous hajj account in Malcolm X's autobiography. "My pilgrimage broadened my scope," Malcolm X said. "It was in the Holy World that my attitude was changed...by what I witnessed there, in terms of brotherhood...between all men, of all nationalities and complexions."

The results of the survey also could be understood in terms of social identity theory, which says that when you share a positive experience within a group, you are more likely to think positively of others, even members of other groups, Clingingsmith says. Clingingsmith says his study should comfort the 45 percent of Americans that a 2007 Pew study showed believe that Islam encourages violence more than other religions.

"When you have extremist elements within a religious tradition, you should be careful not to let that color your view of the character of that belief system in a general sense," he says. "From the point of view of people who are non-Muslims, the experience that the pilgrims have of going on the hajj is something we should feel positive about."