When we think about pilgrimage, we think of solitude. A lone and tireless pilgrim, an arduous journey, a test of one’s piousness. Pathways winding in different directions, like meandering rivers.
At the end of the pilgrimage, the victorious pilgrim gets rewarded with spiritual growth, and some religious merit to boot.
But pilgrimage was never meant to be the epitome of one’s spirituality. Its roots are more ordinary.
The etymology of pilgrimage derives from the Latin word “per (through) ager (field), conveying the sense of travelling across a distance. Pilgrim is derived from the Latin word “peregrīnus”, which allows for a wide interpretation, meaning anything from “foreigner”, “wanderer”, “exile”, “traveler”, “newcomer” to “stranger”.
What makes a pilgrimage then, is not the pilgrim’s religious identity per se, for he or she could be an exile or a newcomer, but the physical act of travelling itself, the wandering. Which is why we can think of pilgrimage in another light. It is an opportunity for inter-religious understanding. By sharing the oral histories and textual narratives of how particular sites came to be sacred for the community, pilgrims from different religions can contribute to a collective wisdom constituted by their connected histories.
The common ground of Islam, Christianity and Judaism
At first glimpse, Christianity, Islam and Judaism seem to intersect only in antagonistic collisions.
But it is precisely the commonalities in their religious texts that provided fertile ground for prolonged conflicts.
The origins of the three Abrahamic religions can be traced back to Prophet Abraham, their common forefather. Islam acknowledges the Torah and the New Testament as sources of divine revelations; in fact Mary, the mother of Jesus, was cited more times in the Quran than in the New Testament. Jews and Christians, along with Sabians, are also specifically protected in the Quran as “people of the book”, as they have been given revelations from God. All three religions also acknowledge Adam, Moses, and Jesus as biblical prophets whom God has revealed his will to, which explains why inter-religious pilgrimage sites are often tombs or graves of prophets.
Shared past, shared pain
The Old City of Jerusalem, otherwise known as Yerushalayim in Hebrew, or al-Quds in Arabic, is a living archive of the three religions’ histories. Christians, Armenians (who are also Christians), Muslims, and Jews, all reside in this holy city in different quarters, surrounded by highly venerated religious sites: the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Dome of the Rock, al-Aqsa Mosque, Western Wall, and Temple Mount.
Not too long ago, a similar place existed.
After the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) seized it on June 2014, only remnants remain.
Before ISIS, the Old City of Mosul was a bustling city inhabited by a religiously and ethnically diverse population, with notable churches, mosques, monasteries, tombs, and shrines under its care. Its cosmopolitan character harks back to the Ottoman period, where Mosul, then named Mosul Sanjak, served as the gathering place for Arabs, Kurds, Turkmen, Assyrians, Armenians, Sunni and Shia Muslims, Christians, Jews, Yazidis, and Shabaks, who lived in relative peaceful coexistence.
All that changed during the “Fall of Mosul”, as ISIS bombed, razed, looted, and bulldozed Mosul’s architecture and murdered its people over a period of six days.
These actions by ISIS are not representative of Muslims and Islamic teachings, even though it conforms to western media stereotypes of Muslims as terrorists and jihadists. Salafist-jihadists, in which Al-Qaeda and Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) identify with, are a small and extreme offshoot of the ultra conservative Salafi movement, and Sunni Islam.
In fact Muslims were the biggest victims. Ordinary Muslims could only watch helplessly as every aspect of their reality—from the sacred site of the Great Mosque of al-Nuri, to the profane, like schools and businesses—was decimated by a military regime that claimed to be doing it in the name of faith.
This iconoclasm—the destruction of religious idols and places—is justified by the Salafi-jihadi interpretation, which considers any historical artefact that is culturally or religiously alien to be a gateway to polytheism. This interpretation runs opposite to the beliefs of Sunni, Shia, and Sufi Muslims whom have venerated shrines for centuries.
Doing pilgrimages the Sufi way
Much like the burning of books across different periods of human history—from the Qin Dynasty (213 BCE), to the Nazi regime (1930s), and the Cultural Revolution (1966-1973)—the wanton destruction of Mosul’s monuments was a concerted effort to erase and impose a collective forgetting of how interconnected the sites and histories of Islam, Christianity, and Judaism are. Places are repositories of collective memories; by tearing them down, it becomes easier to inscribe a new version of history on a clean slate.
To react to the actions of extremists with intolerance would then prove their point that it is every nation or religion for itself.
This impulse is antithetical to Sufism, the mystical branch of Islam: a core tenet of Sufism is bridging differences by acknowledging our shared humanity. As a result, Sufis often embark on inter-religious pilgrimages in the world.
Its followers go for Christian pilgrimages like the Camino de Santiago trail in Spain, organise peace parades in Cannes and Assisi with Christian, Buddhist and Jewish peoples, and participate in spiritual events such as the Festival of Sacred Music (Le festival de musique sacrée) in Fez, Morocco. At the same time, because of this inherent openness to interfaith understanding, non-Muslims from Milan and Paris also visit Sufi living saints in order to receive miraculous cures for illnesses.
Sufism embodies a kind of fluidness that captures the sense of wandering in the etymology of pilgrimage.
Perhaps the transformative character of pilgrimages do not come solely from completing the route, or seeing the sites.
Perhaps it comes from wandering for wandering sake, so that by opening ourselves up to visiting places that are sacred to people from other religions, we return with a renewed understanding of our faith.