Where and What to Touch on Hajj: Early Islamic Debates on Haptic Pilgrimage Rituals

In a widely-attested report, the Islamic caliph ʿUmar b. al-Khaṭṭāb declares aloud to the sacred Black Stone set into the Kaʿba at Mecca: “I testify that you are a stone and that you can neither harm nor help … Had I not seen the Messenger of God touch and kiss you, I would never touch nor kiss you.” The report, and other like it, gesture towards important issues related to early Islamic attitudes towards pilgrimage rituals, their institutional roles, and their power. Discussions among seventh- and eighth-century Muslims include voices—such as ʿUmar’s—that are critical of the potentially idolatrous connotations of touching and that often associate haptic rituals with religiously marginalized groups. Yet the Black Stone was only one of many sacred objects/spaces that stood as spots of intense devotional activity for early Muslims while on hajj. Rather than “popular” practices, these haptic rituals were carried out and approved by many prominent early Muslims, who understood these acts as central to performing Islamic identity. This paper will examine the debates found in early Islamic literature about a fundamental component of ritual performance at pilgrimage spaces: the act of touch. Early Islamic texts reflect contentious disagreements regarding the appropriate ways of interacting with, being in, and “sensing” sacred space. Bringing these sources into conversation with scholarship on the construction of religious identity through ritual, and on the ontological roles of the senses, this paper will highlight the contested role of touch in demarcating correctly Islamic pilgrimage practices.

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