The sea inside us: Narrating self, gender, place and history in South African memories of the Hajj

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How do Muslims in South Africa recount the experience of pilgrimage? This paper considers the genre of oral and written South African hajj narratives and reflects on the insights they hold about Muslim subjectivity and history in South Africa. Pilgrimage is a complex theme, or, as Barbara Cooper (1999) phrases it, the hajj presents an immensely complex ethnoscope of human movement of tremendous historical depth (p. 103). In this article, I take a literary and historical rather than sociological or quantitative approach to the topic of the hajj and examine one of the earliest published accounts of the hajj from the Cape - that of Hajji Mahmoud Mobarek Churchward, who performed the hajj in 1910, along with oral testimonies about pilgrimage by ship in the 1950s and recently published accounts of pilgrimage by Naeem Jeenah and Shamima Shaikh (2000), Rayda Jacobs (2005) and Rashid Begg (2011). In my analysis I consider the nature of the self and the voice, the relation of the spiritual to the quotidian, and the place of South Africa and South Africanness in these accounts. The article reveals that South African pilgrimage narratives are deeply compelling as an autobiographical practice and as an historical archive. They relate the universality of Islamic religious observance with the particularity of South Africas political and social realities in a seamless and illuminating nexus. I therefore argue that the hajj narrative as literary form offers new insights about the relation of the sacred and the profane, nation and religion, and gender and authenticity in South African Muslim life.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)237-252
Number of pages16
JournalSocial Dynamics
Issue number2
StatePublished - Jun 1 2012

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Social Sciences (miscellaneous)


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