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CHIFFOLEAU Sylvia, Le Voyage à La Mecque. Un pèlerinage mondial en terre d'Islam, Paris, Belin, 2015, 364 p.

Benjamin Claude Brower
p. vol 144

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1Chiffoleau’s work represents the most important French-language book published to date among a resurgence of international interest in the pilgrimage to Mecca. This interest is manifest both in the public sphere with special museum exhibitions in Europe and the Middle East, as well as in the work of scholars. Young historians of European empires writing in English such as Eileen Kane (Russian Hajj: Empire and the Pilgrimage to Mecca, Cornell University Press, 2015) and John Slight (The British Empire and the Hajj: 1865-1956, Harvard University Press, 2015) consecrated their first books to the hajj, producing fine studies of Islam and empire. To this work of emerging scholars comes new books by established historians such as Eric Tagliacozzo (The Longest Journey: Southeast Asians and the Pilgrimage to Mecca, Oxford University Press, 2013), and the re-edition of classic texts such as Suraiya Faroqhi, Pilgrims and Sultans: The Hajj under the Ottomans, 1517-1683 (Tauris, 2014 [1994]). In the Francophone world, Chiffoleau's book joins a growing number of thèses and articles such as those of Luc Chantre who has examined British, French, and Italian policy towards the Hajj in the colonial and imperial era.

2Chiffoleau writes this book both from the perspective of modern global history and as a historian of the Middle East. Specialists from the latter field are relatively rare in the recent hajj scholarship, and this makes Le Voyage à La Mecque stand out with its more exact understanding of the Islamic societies of the Arabo-Ottoman world. Thus the reader will find a nicely detailed first chapter setting out the rites and early history of the pilgrimage, as well the book’s informative final chapters, dealing with modern political movements and the hajj. Here along with the European documents, which form the majority of her sources, Chiffoleau draws information from a small group of early 20th century rihla-s authored by pilgrims interested in Hijazi scholarship and education, as well as an article Rashid Rida published in al-Manar detailing his political discussions during his 1916 hajj. While this reading in the Arabic sources does not yield much in the way of new insights, it does compliment nicely her other sources by adding detail to the documents typically used by historians of the hajj such as European consular reports.

3Like the hajj itself, this book spans many different fields, and it with some difficulty that Chiffoleau places herself in the historiography. The primary task she places for herself at the beginning of the book is understanding how the hajj drove global consolidation in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, or simply “l’émergence du monde modern” (pg. 13). In other words, she takes up the project of Christopher Bayly’s, The Birth of the Modern World (2004) which documents the so-called first era of globalization. In addition, Chiffoleau’s project intersects the work of South Asian, Southeast Asian, and Middle East scholars like Michael Laffan, Seema Alavi, James Gelvin and Nile Green to understand how modern mobility and connectivity transformed Muslim societies (Laffan, 2003; Alavi, 2015; Gelvin &Green, 2014). The hajj is obviously at the center of this new age of interconnectedness for Muslims (Huber, 2013; Jakes, 2015). Nevertheless, the book struggles to put forth a central historiographically relevant argument, with the initial intervention in the field of global history giving way to other priorities as the book moves forward. Indeed it seems that Chiffoleau’s main interest is to produce a “histoire totale” of the pilgrimage in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Thus, in addition to the chapters mentioned above, the book covers the eras of Ottoman, Hashemite, and Saudi control of the Hijaz, as well as the period of European imperial administration and international health controls, along with separate chapters on the hajj during the world wars, and transportation technologies. The structure of the book, more thematic than chronological, may require patience on the part of the reader. There is some repetition, and key parts of the story, namely the 1916 pilgrimage, do not get told until the last parts of the book.

4The most important shortcoming of Chiffoleau’s book is the fact that she avoids most analytical and theoretical interventions to privilege a descriptive account of the hajj. In covering so much material, the book depends on existing frames of understanding and does little to rethink or contest them. Its tone can be less neutral than uncritical, and Chiffoleau tends to read the sources at face value, with their language occasionally slipping into the author’s own voice. (Thus the colonial cliché of unruly natives is taken up in Chiffoleau’s words when she describes Syrians as “ce peuple turbulent,” p. 136). Chiffoleau does not stand alone in this respect within the recent hajj scholarship. Kane and Slight can also be faulted for their lack of critical engagement in understanding imperialism and the hajj. This points to the need for the field to better engage critical theory, postcolonial theory, and other perspectives with more robust hermeneutics of suspicion.

5This reproach should not take away from the many accomplishments of this book. Chiffoleau’s most successful chapter, “L’ordre international,” stands out for its full account of the response to the cholera epidemics which afflicted the pilgrimage in the 19th century. Cholera claimed massive number of lives around the world beginning with the first pandemic of 1831, which spread from India to central Asia and Europe. These epidemics revealed what Chiffoleau calls the “paradoxe de la modernité” (p. 155), or how the steam-driven transportation revolution provided not only greater opportunities for wealth and power but produced new vulnerabilities. In the 1865 global pandemic, the hajj was directly implicated in cholera’s spread. Approximately ninety-thousands pilgrims died in the Hijaz that year, and the disease rapidly spread to Africa, Europe, and North America, claiming hundreds of thousands of lives. When Ottoman and European health officials met in Istanbul to coordinate policy in 1866 they turned squarely on the hajj as a problem, and “ils inaugurent une longue période d’ingérence bien réelle de la communauté internationale naissante dans la gestion du pèlerinage à La Mecque” (p. 161). Working from published reports, Chiffoleau takes the reader through the complex institutions that emerged from this international regulatory movement. These centered on a quarantine system that resurrected the 15th century policies of confinement that had fallen out of use by 1815. Chiffoleau’s critical voice emerges here to some extent when she notes that this neo-quarantine impulse, which by the early 1880s had produced quarantine stations at the northern and southern approaches to the Red Sea, moved “à deux vitesses” (p.163) with its burdens falling unevenly on pilgrims rather than on other passengers or cargo ships transiting through the Red Sea. Moreover, she explains that while it might appear that the two sets of quarantine stations were placed to protect Mecca, in fact they were seen by planners as a double ring of defense to protect Europe.

6If the famous medieval mystic al-Hallaj was correct when he suggested that a proper hajj could be made within one’s own home, then Chiffoleau’s Le Voyage à La Mecque can be said to be one of the best single books for the reader seeking historical understanding of the great pilgrimage. Editors at Belin seem to have appreciated as much, and they have printed more than a dozen high-quality images that are certain to be enjoyed by the general reader. These range from rare archival photograph to images that are widely known, such as Léon Belly's iconic 1861 painting Pèlerins allant à La Mecque that decorates the book's cover (unfortunately misnamed in the book's credits as "Pèlerins allant à la mosquée"). The needs of the specialists are not always squarely met (there is no index, an omission made doubly frustrating by the absence of a searchable electronic version online or an ebook format), but the decade or more that Chiffoleau has devoted to this work has yielded a book of enduring importance.

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Alavi Seema, 2015, Muslim Cosmopolitanism in the Age of Empires, Cambridge Mass., Harvard University Press.

Gelvin James L. and Green Nile (eds.), 2014, Global Muslim in the Age of Print and Steam, Berkeley, University of California Press.

Huber Valeska, 2013, Channelling Mobilities: Migration and Globalisation in the Suez Canal Region and Beyond, 1869–1914, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Jakes Aaron, 2015, “A New Materialism? Globalization and Technology in an Age of Empires,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 47: 369-381.

Laffan Michael, 2003, Islamic Nationhood and Colonial Indonesia: The Umma below the Winds, London, Routledge Curzon.

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Benjamin Claude Brower, « CHIFFOLEAU Sylvia, Le Voyage à La Mecque. Un pèlerinage mondial en terre d'Islam, Paris, Belin, 2015, 364 p. », Revue des mondes musulmans et de la Méditerranée [En ligne], Lectures inédites, mis en ligne le 02 février 2017, consulté le 22 mars 2017. URL :

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Benjamin Claude Brower

Department of History, University of Texas at Austin, Université Paris Ouest Nanterre La Défense

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