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Pandemics, Hajj, and Politics

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The Covid-19 pandemic has got us thinking about what happens when a pandemic intersects with religion and politics. And, how a pandemic can activate the fault lines of our precarious coexistence and reshape political possibilities.

Pilgrimage, a migratory religious ritual that is also often a mass gathering, is central to these discussions. Religious and state officials around the world are currently tussling over whether to close shrines and sites to pilgrims, to save lives.

Global Pandemics and the Hajj

The hajj, one of the largest pilgrimages in the world, falls in late July this year. Two million Muslims typically make the hajj, jetting in from all corners of the world, a terrifying prospect from a public health perspective. Many are calling on Saudi Arabia to suspend the 2020 hajj but so far it hasn’t, no doubt fearing a backlash and damage to its reputation among Muslims in the world. Even in a pandemic, it is tricky for governments to ban religious rituals: both authoritarian leaders who get power from pushing religious supremacy, and liberals who want to be seen as supporting religious diversity and freedom.

This is not the first time a pandemic has disrupted the hajj, or activated the complex politics surrounding it.

Even in a pandemic, it is tricky for governments to ban religious rituals: both authoritarian leaders who get power from pushing religious supremacy, and liberals who want to be seen as supporting religious diversity and freedom.

Cholera in the late nineteenth century was a prevalent, poorly understood, and very contagious infectious disease that Europeans increasingly blamed on Muslims and the Meccan pilgrimage. Terrified about the spread of cholera to their possessions in Asia and Africa—where most Muslims then lived under colonial rule—Europeans started holding conferences in the 1860s to draft rules and regulations for hajj pilgrims, and agree on quarantine sites and protocols. This international work would help lay foundations for the World Health Organization, founded in 1948. 

Public Health and Religious Toleration

Russian Hajj is about how Russia struggled with the public health and political issues raised by the hajj in the late nineteenth century when the empire suddenly became a crossroads of fast-growing Muslim movement to Mecca.

Russian Hajj is about how Russia struggled with the public health and political issues raised by the hajj in the late nineteenth century when the empire suddenly became a crossroads of fast-growing Muslim movement to Mecca.

On the one hand, Russian officials feared the hajj as a destabilizing force that spread disease and anticolonial ideas among the empire’s large Muslim population, and many called for its ban.

Photo by ekrem osmanoglu on Unsplash

On the other, Russian officials had to admit they were constrained by the government’s official policy of religious toleration. A promise extended to Muslim populations in the Caucasus and Central Asia as the empire expanded into those territories, toleration was key, many officials believed, to neutralizing Muslims’ “fanaticism” and integrating them into the empire. To ban the hajj was impossible, they concluded, as it would surely spark a revolt.

Russian Hajj reveals how Russia, unable to ignore or stop the hajj, made the uneasy and controversial decision to sponsor it. With chapters focused on nodes along the routes Muslims traveled between Russia and the Arabian peninsula, the book traces tsarist Russia’s construction of a sprawling, cross-border hajj infrastructure. It presents hajj sponsorship as an imperfect and yet unexpectedly productive way that Russia tried to control the hajj and contain its disease threat, and also tap into it to extend Russian influence into the Middle East.    


Eileen Kane teaches modern European and Russian history and directs the Global Islamic Studies Program at Connecticut College. The recipient of a Mellon New Directions Fellowship, and two fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities, she researches the relationship between Russia and the Middle East. She is currently finishing a new book of translated primary sources, compiled and co-edited with Margaret Litvin and Masha Kirasirova, called Russian-Arab Worlds: Lives and Documents. Follow her on Twitter @emarykane.

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