The Hajj from a French perspective: The effects of the pilgrimage on collective identities

Leila Seurat, European University Institute

This introduction is part of POMEPS Studies 32, The Politics of Islam in Europe and North America. Download the full PDF here.

The Hajj, the pilgrimage that brings millions of Muslims to Mecca every year, has transformed significantly since the end of the 1980s. Mass transportation, the increase in world population, and the organization of tour groups have facilitated the journey to Mecca. In just half a century, the number of pilgrims has increased from 60,000 in 1946 to more than three million in 2017. To regulate this enormous flow, in 1989 Saudi Arabia imposed a strict regulation of the Hajj: in Muslim countries, a quota of 1 pilgrim per 1,000 inhabitants was imposed, while in non-Muslim countries there is no fixed quota.

Approximately 100,000 Europeans citizens now make the pilgrimage annually, a huge increase reflecting both immigration and conversion.[1] Fewer than 3,000 Muslims made the journey from France in 1986. The number has now more than doubled, from 10,000 in 2010 to 20,000 in 2012. The sociological profile of the pilgrims has also evolved, being increasingly young and French.[2] While often travelling with their parents, they are less and less familiar with their family’s country of origin. They share an individualistic approach to their religious practices and beliefs.[3]

My research participates in two academic debates. The first of these is related to globalization and citizenship. Some consider that the intensification in migration has threatened the state, destabilized its territory and decreased national belongings[4]. Yet, others have shown that the blurring of territorial state borders has led to the strengthening of a national frame and local identification.[5] Following this second trend, I argue that the Hajj increases the pilgrims’ national belonging. By traveling with a group of national companions with no ethnic diversity, the pilgrim re-experiences a French sociability in Saudi Arabia. The concept of “transnational identity”[6] reveals the diversity of spaces in which the changing identification emerges.

The second debate concerns the link between neoliberalism and religion. If there continues to be agreement that the former increases the latter, there is no consensus on its effects on believers. Contrary to the thesis arguing that the religious market strengthens a “Salafi norm”[7], this article shows that the Hajj market prevents the creation of a homogeneous group around the same ideological trend. Rather, this pilgrimage confirms that economic competition leads to religious diversity.[8]

This paper is based on written and statistical sources as well as participant observation both in France and in Saudi Arabia between 2016 and 2018. In France, 60 interviews were conducted from August 2016 to August 2017, with a wide range of actors: pilgrims, directors of travel agencies (accredited and non-accredited), institutional actors (Ministry of the Interior, Tourism and Foreign Affairs, diplomatic personnel). In Saudi Arabia, I conducted two different fieldtrips: one based on participant observation during the Hajj season in August 2017 and another during Spring 2018 in Jeddah where I conducted interviews with Saudi actors implicated in the organization of the Hajj.

The Hajj and collective identities

What effects does the Hajj have on collective identities? By presenting itself as the expression of a strong religious identification, does the Hajj lead to a decrease in national belongings? What role does the market play in collective identities? Does re-Islamization through the economic field reinforce the prevalence of a fundamentalist norm?

Both the organization of the Hajj and the Hajj market appear to impact collective identities by reinforcing national belongings and promoting diversified groups around different ideological trends. The two hypotheses testify to the importance of institutions and organizations contributing to the formation of collective identities.[9]

By offering a form of socialization outside the nation, participation in this pilgrimage contributes to the concept of “re-Islamization” and the shifting of “ethno-national citizenship”[10] beyond the Wesphalian paradigm.[11] The Hajj also offers us the opportunity to examine the role of the market on collective identities: by organizing the tour, putting together the group and choosing the appropriate guide, the travel agencies are key actors re-configurating the pilgrims’ belongings. Far from being simple commercial transactions, these agencies participate in the circulation of immaterial goods impacting the beliefs’ systems of the pilgrims.

The Hajj strengthens religious belongings. On their return, pilgrims increase their religious practices by reading surahs of the Quran on public transports, adding recitations (dhikr), invocations (du’at) or supererogatory fasts. If common sense leads us to believe that the Hajj is a threat to national belonging because it reinforces religious ties, I argue that reinforcing religiosity doesn’t mean a decrease in national belongings.

Saudi Arabia’s organization of the Hajj is built on nationalities. If you reside in France, for example, you are obliged to travel from France. This particular rule has important implications in terms of identifications: during your stay, you are always in the company of fellow nationals. Thus, contrary to the tendency to think that the Hajj transforms pilgrims’ identities by placing them with strangers or people from different backgrounds, the purpose here is to show the opposite. While pilgrims undergo a change, but this change is not related to an ethnic or cultural sociability with the Umma, but more to the contacts with their French fellows. This collective experience strengthens their national identity vis-à-vis Saudi Arabia and pilgrims from other countries also for reasons of language. Indeed, for those who wish to meet the Saudi locals during the few chances they have (going to the Great Mosque, shopping in Medina), there tends to be language barriers for French pilgrims because many don’t speak Arabic. This lack of knowledge has an important impact on the way the pilgrim is being perceived by others and the way he perceives himself, stimulating or reactivating his sense of national belonging.[12] Alongside the literature dedicated to Pentecostalism in Africa or Latin America, which claims that religious tourism can build national identifications outside the nation,[13] the Hajj effectively consolidates a group of nationals.

Contrary to the assumption that a group confronted by other nationalities automatically increases its cohesiveness,[14] group consolidation doesn’t imply any decrease in its internal divisions. While the Hajj maintains the cohesion of a group of nationals, pre-existing internal divisions remain.

The first cleavage is generational. Even if the young and the old pilgrims travel together—and sometimes the young teach the old how to perform the rituals correctly (e.g. cutting hair at the right moment or picking up rocks no bigger than chickpeas for the Jamarat)—it is clear that there is a huge breaking point between them. This generational gap, which often appears before traveling when parents show their dissatisfaction seeing their children travel so soon, is reactivated during the pilgrimage when the young enter into conflicts with their parents. A lot of pilgrims say that the presence of their parents ruined their Hajj, with parents wanting constant attention whereas they needed to focus on their prayers. These conflicts, particularly problematic since the Hajj itself prohibits jidal,[15] confirm the claim that Islam has increasingly disconnected from culture and in particular its culture of origins. This “standard Islam” has to be seen as a pure expression of globalization, leading to a new form of relations between religions, territories, societies and states.[16]

A second cleavage separates the young pilgrims. Sleeping the third night of the three Tachriq days[17] in Mina is a point that is often discussed: if there is no obligation to sleep the third night, some would stick to the example of the prophet (Sunna) and stay while others will leave Mina, preferring to return to their lodgings in Azizia or to go and sleep under the Kabaa. If one were tempted to read these differences following the different trends of Islam, no clear evidence confirms a relationship between ideology and practices. On the contrary, my observations show that it is impossible to establish a link between these choices and a clear ideological family. The distinct categories, often used by scholars but also by individuals themselves such as Muslim Brotherhood or Salafi, are not always effective for reading the complex and conflicting religious belongings of a single Muslim. By putting someone in such a category the major risk is to ignore the fact that religious identifications always evolves.

A competitive market governed by profit rather than ideology

In France, as in the rest of Europe, the Saudi authorities have organized participation in the pilgrimage according to a particular regulation: in 2006 a Hajj accreditation was distributed to 43 travel agencies, officially allowing them to sell and organize packages to participate in the pilgrimage. Each agency received a different number of visas: some benefited from a huge number of visas (more than 1,000), others a small quota (only 100).[18] In recent years, young entrepreneurs have opened up new agencies to deal with the growing demand. Having similar preferences and being closer in age with the pilgrims, they are successfully competing with the traditional accredited Hajj agencies led by the older generations.

Most of the time, the pilgrim does not have a direct relationship with an accredited agency, and instead passes through a non-accredited young agency to buy his journey. These existing intermediaries have made the Hajj package more expensive in France than in other European countries, with an estimate of around 5,500 euros. With these high costs of participation in mind, the attraction of French youth to the holy sites[19] can be seen as the result of globalization and the emergence of a Muslim middle class born and educated in France. It confirms that the increase in the standard of living does not necessarily weaken religious affiliation, as the theory of modernization suggests.

The accreditation system imposed in 2005 has profoundly changed the Hajj market. Only these 43 actors are theoretically allowed to sell a Hajj package.[20] Far from this official rule, the reality of the market is different: aside these accredited agencies directed by the older generations,[21] new agencies run by young entrepreneurs more familiar with the young pilgrims’ preferences have emerged. Using an Islamic ethos and adapting their strategies to their clients,[22] they are challenging the traditional agencies.[23]

The Internet has become a major tool for this new generation, active in social networks and using marketing language. It appears to provide significant support for the religious market, confirming that re-Islamization is a product of globalization and that religious communities are becoming religious enterprises capable of transmitting the values of ultra-liberalism.[24] Without being accredited, these agencies are able to sell and organize packages to participate in the Hajj. Most of the time they buy the visa from the accredited agency and create their own package. This illegal trade of visas, supposedly free, is concluded through a “deal” between the accredited and non-accredited agency, two types of actors dependent on the same system: the first has the visa and the second has the clients. Thus, the Saudi organization has created a dysfunctional configuration where the accredited agencies are obliged to establish multiples partnerships with non-accredited agencies. Ignoring ideology, this collaborative business model allows for confessional diversity within the group and a wide range of different dogmas.

The circulation of the guides: How profit dominates ideology

Hajj management generates arrangements between accredited and non-accredited agencies that collaborate to gain more profit, disregarding religious preferences. If the non-accredited are more active on the Internet, offering effective products, they also offer opportunities to travel with prestigious religious figures known to young people. These figures, who follow the group and give religious classes during the Hajj can also be very active on social networks, posting on Facebook live, for example, during their tour in Mecca and Medina. But again, looking in detail at the guide’s route reveals the neglect of ideology in this market. Indeed, the guide doesn’t necessarily follow a non-accredited agency managed by his companions but travels with the agency offering the best deal. It appears that these well-known young preachers circulate easily between different agencies, both traditional and new. For instance, Youssef Abou Anas and Brahim Abou Talha, two famous preachers from the well-known Salafi association “la Voie droite” were both in partnership with non-accredited agencies before turning back to working with accredited agencies. The logic of markets is predominant among religious figures who go for the best offer following economical rules rather than depending on an “Islamic norm”. These men preserve their autonomy and can, when they wish, decide to change agencies, adding to competition.

Rather than familiarizing the pilgrims with another culture or with the larger Muslim community, as common sense would suggest, the Hajj reinforces the pilgrim’s sense of national belonging. As managed by the Saudis, the Hajj is built on nationalities and doesn’t facilitate meetings among foreigners, due to minimal opportunities and language barriers as previously noted. Analyzing the pilgrims’ identifications also means taking a look at the market. If the Saudis have officially given accreditation to only a few actors, non-accredited travel agencies also govern this market with a different brand of Islam. This particular management generates arrangements between accredited and non-accredited agencies, which collaborate to gain greater profits. The French authorities have also let a number of unofficial intermediaries gain further profit through a black market, considering the Hajj as a religious affair. This specific configuration doesn’t permit any homogeneous group based on ideology. The more liberal aspect of the market also follows this idea of a confessional diversity within the groups. If we look at the guides, it appears that these well-known young preachers circulate easily between different agencies, both traditional and new. I have shown that the Hajj keeps nationals all together, although they may have different ideological orientations. This can be explained by the particular regulation of the market and the market itself. However, valid though this is for the Hajj, this still needs to be tested for the ‘Umrah which has a different configuration and might therefore be different in terms of group-making and collective identities.

[1]  In Great Britain the number of pilgrims has increased consistently since the 1960s with approximately 23,000 pilgrims visiting these holy sites each year..“The Hajj and Europe” by Eileen Kane, Origins, vol.19, issue 12, September 2016,

[2] In 2014, and for the first time, more French citizens performed the Hajj compared to foreign residents. Among the 20,000 pilgrims travelling from France, 60% were French, when they has been only 30% at the beginning of the 1990s. Official sources.

[3] Jean-Pierre Bastian, François Champion, Kathy Rousselet, (dir.), La globalisation du religieux, Paris, L’Harmattan, 2001 ; Thomas Luckmann, « Transformations of religion and morality in modern Europe », in La religion invisible, Social Compass, (2003-09) vol. 50, n. 3, p. 267-343.

[4] For Anthony Giddens, the interpenetration of the local and the global leads to a weakening of social relations and decreases the importance of the territory as a source of identification, Anthony Giddens, Les conséquences de la modernité, Paris, L’Harmattan, 1999.

[5] Saskia Sassen, « Cracked casings. Notes towards an analytics for studying transnational processes », in Ludger Pries (dir.), New Transnational Social Spaces. International Migration and Transnational Companies in the Early Twenty-First Century, Londres et New York, 2001, Routledge, p. 187-207 ; Danièle Hervieu-Léger, « Crise de l’universel et planétarisation culturelle : les paradoxes de la « mondialisation » religieuse », in Jean- Pierre Bastian, François Champion, Kathy Rousselet, (dir.), Op. cit.

[6] Steven Vertovec uses the notion of “transnational identity”, Steven Vertovec, Transnationalism, London, New York, Routledge, 2009.

[7] Florence Bergeau-Blackler, Le marché Halal ou l’invention d’une tradition, Paris, Le Seuil, 2017.

[8] Laurence R. Iannacone and Roger Finke, A Supply-Side Reinterpretation of the Secularization of Europe, Journal of the Scientific Study of Religion, Vol.33, n.3, (Sept 1994), pp.230-252 ; Laurence Iannacone and Roger Finke, Supply-Side Explanations for Religious Change, The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, vol.527, Religion in the Nineties (May, 1993), pp.27-39.

[9] In accordance with the assumption of the relevant literature, the impact of institutions may follow logics of appropriateness (W.R Scott, Institutions and Organizations, Thousand Oaks, Sage, 2001), by way of socialization or the reference to cognitive scripts (DiMaggio and Powell, The New Institutionalism in Organizational Analysis, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1991). The claim that institutions contribute to shape identities necessarily relates to the broader debate about the origins of collective identities that opposes primordialists, instrumentalists and constructivists (A. Varshney, Ethnic Conflict and Civil Society: India and Beyond, in World Politics (53), April 2001).

[10] Jean-François Bayart, L’Illusion identitaire, Paris, Fayard, 1996.

[11] Peter Beyer insists on the necessity to go beyond the Westphalian model to read the « new arrangments » between nationhood and citizenship, Peter Beyer, “Questioning the secular/religious divide in a post-Westphalian world”, International Sociology 28(6), pp.663-679, 2013.

[12] Frederic Barth showed that a group is often formed by external frontiers and languages are majors cultural marks to read groups formation; see F. Barth, Ethnic Groups and Boundaries: The Social Organization of Culture Difference, Bergen/Oslo, Universitetsforlaget, 1969.

[13] Laurent Fourchard, André Mary et René Otayek, (dir.), Entreprises religieuses transnationales en Afrique de l’Ouest, Paris, Karthala, 2005. The traditional divide between local, national and global has sparked an important number of debates in particular in the United States since the begining of the 1990s. See M. Kearney, « The local and the Global: The Anthropology of Globalization and Transnationalism, Annual Review of Anthropology, vol. 24, 1995, p. 547-565.

[14] Donald Forbes and his contact hypothesis, see Forbes, Ethnic Conflict: Commerce, Culture and the Contact Hypothesis, New Haven, Ct, Yale, University Press, 1997.

[15] Jidal is a discussion that leads to conflict.

[16] Olivier Roy, La Sainte ignorance : le temps de la religion sans culture, Paris, Seuil, 2008.

[17] The 11, 12 and 13th days of Dhu al-hijja.

[18] In the Summer 2018 and for the first time, the Saudi authorities have decided to give the Hajj accreditation to new travel agencies. The number of these agencies differs according to the sources but is around 25.

[19] Either the Hajj or the ‘Umrah, the small pilgrimage. While the ‘Umrah is not an act of religious obligation and can be performed in Mecca at any time of the year, the Hajj has to be carried out once a year, at the same place and the same time.

[20] During Summer 2018, 25 new agencies received accreditation (number not confirmed by officials).

[21] Among the 43 accredited agencies I have mentionned, only two were managed by young entrepreneurs: Oscar Voyage and Arianne.

[22] Nathalie Luca and Rémy Madinier (dir), “L’entrepreneur religieux”, Les archives des sciences sociales des religions, no.175, Novembre 2016.

[23] Sean McLoughlin has also noticed this double trend in the case of Great Britain. New agencies are no longer based on ethnic cleavages like the old ones. Although they represent a small but growing and competing segment in the Hajj market, this evolution seems to reflect “the hybridisation of a post-Islamist cultural turn towards consumerism”, Sean McLoughlin,”Organizing Hajj-going from contemporary Britain: A changing industry, Pilgrim Markets and the Politics of Recognition, in Porter V. and Said L (eds) Hajj: Golobal Interactions Through Pilgrimage, Leiden, Sidestone Press and Rijksmuseum Volkenkunde, pp.41-64, 2013.

[24] Olivier Roy insists on this ability to transmit the values of liberalism through social networks.