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  • Print publication year: 2015
  • Online publication date: November 2015

3 - The Early Hajj: Seventh–Eighth Centuries CE



By Foot or by Donkey

Queen Zubayda (d. 216/831) and her husband (and first cousin), the famed Abbasid caliph Hārūn al-Rashīd (r. 170–193/786–809), are two of the most iconic figures associated with the early Meccan pilgrimage. Zubayda performed the Hajj on at least five occasions, and Hārūn nine times. They would travel to the Meccan sanctuary from the palatine city of Baghdad, which Zubayda's paternal grandfather, the caliph al-Manṣūr (r. 136–158/754–775), had founded. From the many public works that Zubayda sponsored along the route, the desert path from Iraq through the Arabian Peninsula came to bear her name, known popularly as the way or path (darb) of Zubayda. While the journey was no doubt arduous, the royal family was joined by a large entourage of high-ranking administrators, court companions, military officials, and servants.

Hārūn is famously said to have once performed the pilgrimage on foot, accompanied by Zubayda, in fulfillment of a vow. The story of carpets unfurled beneath their feet as they made their journey across the desert appears in medieval Arabic belletristic sources. It also features prominently in nineteenth-century European accounts of the Hajj as an expression of the costly extravagance of oriental despotism. As with much of the material on the early Abbasid pilgrimage, this particular event is enmeshed in the courtly imagination of later generations. First, there is some confusion over the date of the pilgrimage in question, though 173/790 appears to be most likely. According to the historian al-Ṭabarī (d. 310/923), Hārūn is said to have led the pilgrimage that year, having left Baghdad in a state of ritual consecration. This may well have been the germ for later anecdotes, which offer differing explanations for the oath, ranging from a vow uttered on the deathbed of a beloved concubine to a humorous account of a promise the caliph made to one of his ministers.

This literary tapestry of telling and retelling is ripe for further expansion. Such is the case with the anecdote preserved by the Andalusi courtier Ibn ʿAbd Rabbih (d. 328/940): as carpets were unfurled before the pair day after day, Hārūn grew increasingly fatigued.