Every year millions of Muslims from around the world participate in the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca. Despite being a fundamental pillar of Islam, the Hajj is often misunderstood, especially by those wary of increased religion-tinged violence in recent years. The July 7 bombers of the London public transport system, not to mention the 9/11 hijackers, had undertaken the Hajj; could it have been the cause of their increased radicalization? Wouldn’t a yearly gathering of more than two million Muslim men and women from over one hundred different countries be a good place to breed religious extremism?
So what is the actual impact of the Hajj on pilgrims?
Researchers from Harvard (Khwaja and Kremer) and Case Western Reserve University (Clingingsmith) decided to find out. They conducted an experiment on Pakistani Hajjis (those who have performed the Hajj) back in January 2006, comparing successful and unsuccessful applicants to an existing lottery system that allocates a limited supply of Hajj visas to aspiring pilgrims. Results suggest that while increasing observance of Islamic practices (praying, fasting, etc.) and better integrating the broader Muslim world, the Hajj also increases the desire for peace and tolerance among both Muslims and non-Muslims. Interestingly (and somewhat unexpectedly), Hajjis also show a (slight) movement away from prejudices against women.
More on that in a bit – first some numbers and details on the experiment itself.
Due to overcrowding, Saudi Arabia maintains quotas for the number of Hajj visas available to Pakistan and other major Islamic countries. In Pakistan, the majority of visas (90,000) were allocated using a random (and yes, researchers found that the system was not significantly subject to outside influence) government lottery system with the remaining (60,000) allocated to private tour operators. The evaluation focused on those applying to the lottery. Since all applicants showed a tangible desire to participate (an application fee is required) and some were successful while others were not, the lottery provided a suitable isolation of the Hajj impact on comparably motivated populations. Ultimately surveyors completed interviews with 1,605 applicants, asking a myriad of questions on everything from religious knowledge and practice to business and employment.
But enough about the details.
The results were very interesting and could be counter-intuitive to those who don’t fully understand the Hajj (or Islam for that matter):
Hajjis showed greater tolerance of other nationalities, social groups and religions and were generally more interested in peace. After the pilgrimage they were 33 percent more likely to have positive views of people from other countries and generally showed more interest in peace with India (which, as Indians and Pakistanis will tell you, is huge). Hajjis were 22 percent more likely to say that people of different religions are equal – interesting because non-Muslims are not even allowed to attend, perhaps signaling a broader willingness of Hajjis to embrace tolerance beyond the Muslim world.
Notably, they showed no increase in negative views of the West or an increased desire to integrate religion with politics, thus challenging assertions that the Hajj increases political radicalization and animosity toward the West.
In a notable and significant way, Hajjis were more likely to believe that women’s overall status is equal (though still only a comparatively small percentage believed as such). Additionally, the Hajj did not have an impact on how people view a woman’s ability to challenge male household authority (like divorce) or gender roles traditionally espoused by global Islam.
So what about ObL? The Hajj increased the number of respondents who declared that bin Laden’s methods were incorrect from 16 percent to 21 percent. Though a relatively small group (13.1 percent) declared that the goals of bin Laden were incorrect, this is still almost double the percentage of non-Hajjis answering the same questions (6.8 percent).
The team also found that Hajjis shifted away from local beliefs and practices (ex. using amulets, visiting tombs of saints, giving marriage dowry, etc.) and towards more global practices (ex. fasting, prayer, etc.). They were 13 percent more likely to regard themselves as religious persons and twice as likely to fast outside of Ramadan (the obligatory month of fasting) compared to non-Hajjis.
Keep in mind that this talks about the impact of the Hajj itself, not the perceived ‘rightness’ or ‘wrongness’ of the views. It’s not making summary judgments about Pakistan or about Islam. The study simply shows that the Hajj significantly (i.e. above the margin of error) affected Pakistanis in mostly positive ways.
So what can we learn from this?
We learn that increased religious orthodoxy does not automatically translate into extremism and violence. As shown, Pakistani Hajjis became more religious while simultaneously becoming more tolerant and peaceful. The Hajj promotes peace and unity among Muslims, increases tolerance of non-Muslims and increases perceptions of gender equality. While many may view the Hajj with concern, this study shows that Hajjis are in fact more peaceful and more likely to shun regional interpretations of Islam, including possibly more radicalized elements.
Additionally, the altered gender views of Hajjis reflect a movement away from local prejudices against women and toward fairer treatment within Islam, though not necessarily a more general trend toward liberalism or feminism. Exposure to Muslims from around the world has a large impact on Hajjis’ experiential knowledge. Especially when traveling in small groups, Hajjis learn tolerant attitudes from non-Pakistani fellow Muslims during the Hajj. Such exposure and cross-gender interactions may facilitate the changed views towards women.
Finally, the results shed light on contemporary concerns about Islamic orthodoxy and extremism, though they are localized to Pakistan and further work is needed to determine the extent to which the findings generalize beyond the specific context.
Some studies have shown that 45 percent of Americans believe Islam is more likely to encourage violence than other religions; this study shows that global Islam, as represented by Hajj rituals, elicits the opposite reaction in Hajjis.
Erol Yayboke is is a Program Manager with the Evidence for Policy Design (EPoD) team at the Center for International Development at Harvard’s Kennedy School and a member of the Board of Directors of the Andi Leadership Institute for Young Women. Before EPoD he served in a variety of development aid management roles in Iraq, South Sudan, Ethiopia and Afghanistan. He holds a Masters in Public Affairs from the University of Texas at Austin and currently lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.