The Longest Journey: Southeast Asians and the Pilgrimage to Mecca
New York: Oxford University Press, 2013, ix+356p.
In The Longest Journey: Southeast Asians and Pilgrimage to Mecca, Eric Tagliacozzo presents a magisterial historical survey of the “undertaking of the Hajj from Southeast Asia to Arabia from earliest times to the present” (p. 3). The journey to Mecca required of all Muslims not only surpasses most other religious pilgrimages in size, number, and geographic extent, but also comprises one of the largest annual human migrations on earth—religious or otherwise. In turn, it should be no surprise that one of the biggest sources of Hajjis is Southeast Asia. Tagliacozzo weaves fragmentary extant scholarship and original new research into a compelling narrative of this “enormous phenomenon that draws in literally millions of people and spans the width and breadth of the Indian Ocean” (p. 7).
The Longest Journey is notable for its ambitious chronological sweep, the eclecticism of its methodology, and the range of its subject matter. Tagliacozzo organizes his book into three overarching parts that correspond with the precolonial, colonial, and postcolonial periods, gliding from Marco Polo’s thirteenth century accounts of Hajjis to the machinations of early twentieth century colonial officials like Snouck Hurgronje all the way to the oral testimonies of present-day pilgrims in the twenty-first century. The Longest Journey embraces this longue durée approach without sacrificing the granular richness of Hajji histories or succumbing to an overly deterministic analytic framework. By making use of “archeology, archival history, literary criticism, sociology, epidemiology, political science, and ethnography” (p. 7), Tagliacozzo illuminates the myriad and often idiosyncratic aspects of this enormous movement of people, including some that might surprise readers. Individual chapters cover topics ranging from ancient pilgrims to the management of the Hajj by postcolonial states, from the involvement of sultanates in Hajji routes to surveillance and cholera outbreaks among pilgrims, from literary representations of Hajjis in Joseph Conrad’s work to the experiences of people who made the journey from minority Muslim nations like Thailand and the Philippines. Through this diversity of approaches and topics, Tagliacozzo mirrors the multifaceted nature of this religious procession.
A significant contribution of The Longest Journey lies in its collection, compilation, and collation of a staggering array of historical documentation pertaining to the Hajj. Tagliacozzo not only incorporates classical Malay texts, European literary works, colonial records, statistics, Hajji memoirs, and oral accounts into his work, but also makes these diverse sources accessible to the reader. For instance, the book highlights many firsthand historical accounts as self-contained insets, among them a journal entry from a Javanese Regent about his time in quarantine en route to Mecca and a narrative of sickness among Hajjis by an English traveler (pp. 142–143, 148). Beyond reproducing individual sources, Tagliacozzo deftly encapsulates entire document collections through tables and lists. At one point, he spares the reader the laborious undertaking of poring through the two volumes, thousand-plus page compendia of official advice from Snouck Hurgronje by distilling it into a digestible list of 24 thematic “rubrics,” such as “costs of the Indies Hajj,” “caravan safety,” and “economic effect of the Hajj” (p. 163). Likewise, The Longest Journey provides a comprehensive list of all known classical Malay texts to mention the Hajj between the fourteenth and nineteenth centuries—thus furnishing a sense of the scope of extant indigenous documentation (p. 89). These thoughtful presentations of sources enrich the reading experience for students and scholars alike.
Tagliacozzo also brings analytic sharpness to this treasure trove of documentation by locating the Hajj amidst its political and economic contexts. Although the “Hajj is first and foremost a religious ritual,” Tagliacozzo observes that “devotion cannot be divorced from the ways and means of performing it, namely, the financial wherewithal of undertaking a pilgrimage that may be thousands of miles from one’s home” (p. 63). The Longest Journey illustrates the interweaving of Indian Ocean trading networks with the Hajj while also highlighting surprising historical facts, such as the great profitability of the pilgrimage for European steamship companies. Similarly, Tagliacozzo illustrates how inter-imperial competition and cooperation in the Indian Ocean and Red Sea arenas shaped the contours of the Hajj. Indeed, European projects for controlling their Muslim subjects streaming into Arabia included an interlocking system of consulates in the coastal city of Jeddah and an international sanitary station at the Red Sea island of Kamarin intended to monitor pilgrims as vectors of disease. Much of this analysis also helps to draw out the fundamental paradox that the Hajj burgeoned as an institution at the precise moment that it fell under the control of non-Muslim Europeans. Stimulated by the colonial expansion of commerce and shipping while simultaneously posing a subversive threat to the new imperial order, it was this paradox that drove the projects of surveillance and control described in Tagliacozzo’s book.
Yet, even as The Longest Journey meticulously documents the material underpinnings and paradoxical operations of the Southeast Asian Hajj, it is also careful not to ignore the profound spiritual meaning it holds for believers. Leaving behind the colonial archives, Tagliacozzo devotes his last three chapters to Hajji memoirs and over 100 oral interviews, which he sees as an invaluable resource for retrieving the history of pilgrimage “from the inside” (p. 271). Indeed, this research yields a textured portrait of sojourns to Arabia that would otherwise be inaccessible to many, as “the holy cities of Mecca and Medina are forbidden to non-Muslims” (p. 272). Among other things, Tagliacozzo’s Southeast Asian interlocutors discuss their experience of “holiness and contemplation” at sites like the Plain of Arafat, the feeling some had of being “clean” for the first time in their lives after circumambulating the Ka’ba, as well as recollections of interactions with diverse co-religionists from places as far away as Afghanistan and Africa. Through these stories, the reader can glean an understanding of “what it means to fully give one’s self over to devotion on a journey that lasts a few weeks or even several months but that resonates for a lifetime” (p. 288).
It is perhaps inevitable that a book of such ambitious breadth includes some minor shortcomings. Tagliacozzo’s thesis that the pilgrimage evolved from an individual experience in precolonial times to a “state-sponsored” enterprise in the colonial era does not fully wrestle with the question of how the colonial archives might have concealed journeys that did not conform to Dutch or British expectations. Likewise, Tagliacozzo could better explore the implications of what it meant for the Hajj to go from the jurisdiction of non-Muslim colonial states to majority Muslim post-colonial states—a signal transition that Tagliacozzo only touches upon in Chapter Nine. However, The Longest Journey cannot chronicle every aspect of Hajji history, and the small gaps that do exist serve mainly to underscore promising avenues for future research. Tantalizing glimpses into the Arab reception of Southeast Asian Hajjis, for example, such as when Holy City shopkeepers learned basic Indonesian, is suggestive of possible work on local Meccan engagements vis-à-vis Southeast Asian Hajjis, Arab media representations, and Saudi state machinations. In this way, The Longest Journey not only embodies the promise of an interactive, trans-regional history of the pilgrimage, but also charts the path for deepening and extending this research agenda in the years ahead.
Indeed, small quibbles in no way detract from Tagliacozzo’s formidable achievement. Juxtaposing archival and ethnographic research with a strong commitment to accessibility and jargon free prose, The Longest Journey will serve both as an important resource for scholars of Islam in Southeast Asia as well as an indispensable primer for anyone who wants to learn more about the global history of the Hajj.
Asia Research Institute, National University of Singapore