Dženita Karić, Bosnian Hajj Literature: Multiple Paths to the Holy (Edinburgh University Press, 2022).

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Dženita Karić (DK): If you were to visit a typical Bosniak house, you would notice that it usually has at least one framed picture of Mecca and Medina, a prayer rug some last year Hajji brought together with tiny vessels of kohl and oud, and—unless they disappeared in the horrors of the last war—many black and white photos of old family members passing through Istanbul and Damascus while on their holiest journey facilitated by the bus transport of the socialist Yugoslavia. Some Bosnian Muslims even cultivated the tradition of writing about the pilgrimage in the form of diaries, itineraries, or travelogues, which remain unpublished to this day. The nurturing of the attachment to the Hajj goes far back in history; many manuscript libraries around the world contain treatises and guidebooks in Arabic and Ottoman Turkish hailing from sixteenth to nineteenth centuries, which were written by Bosniaks. And throughout the twentieth century, the Hajj was a frequent topic in newspapers and journals, of interest to both Muslim and non-Muslim audiences. All this shaped the pilgrimage discourse well beyond the strict religious and communal boundaries.

Thus, my motivation to write the book was primarily the realization that the Hajj is omnipresent in Bosnian written, oral, and visual culture, and that the attachment to the pilgrimage remains constantly present among Bosniaks despite political and social upheavals that Bosnia faced, especially in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. This does not mean that the way the Hajj was experienced by Bosnian Muslims remained untouched by these external factors, but that its structure proved to be flexible enough to sustain a continuous appeal even among those who could never visit Mecca and Medina. Furthermore, the Hajj is a stable link between different nodes of Islamic geographies, and a unique mobility connecting the Balkans with Turkey and the Arab world. The process of writing this book was not without its challenges, especially because the study of Bosnian Islamic history does not fall neatly in the existing boundaries of area studies or even Islamic studies. One additional challenge was that working on Hajj literature implied working from textual and generic margins; this is the material which is mostly overlooked by historical and theological studies, yet can convey multitudes regarding the meanings humans give to a ritual and a mobility.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

DK: The central premise of my book is that the Hajj literature mediates between the historical context and the attachment to the transcendent. From this many other topics ensue: the way Bosnian Muslims embedded the ritual with meanings, as well as how they connected with other religious neighbors and non-Muslims in the Middle East and beyond. It also speaks about the role of the state in the cultivation and control of Hajj discourses for political purposes, particularly in the twentieth century.

The book analyzes literature on the Hajj written in three languages (Arabic, Ottoman Turkish, and Bosnian) and of a range of genres—from fada’il and khutbas to travelogues and essays—in a longue durée perspective from the sixteenth to the twenty-first century. Thus, it includes a diverse range of material in order to show different facets of Bosnian understandings of the pilgrimage. The book progresses diachronically from the first writings on Mecca and Medina by Bosnian ulama residents in different cities of the Ottoman Empire, through explorations of travelogues of ordinary Ottoman Bosnians who candidly wrote about their experiences and the people they encountered, to overwhelming transformations in transport and print in the modern times which brought many new authors onto the Hajj writing scene. 

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work? 

DK: I was trained as a literary historian, as well as a philologist, and my first book project, which I completed as a part of my research at the Oriental Institute in Sarajevo in 2011, dealt with Arabic literature, and more specifically the authors Ghassan Kanafani and Jabra Ibrahim Jabra, whose works I analyzed in the postcolonial framework. This book zoomed in on a particular corpus in a limited time span, which is quite different from my latest book which spans centuries and does not necessarily focus on a single author but rather on a conglomerate of different texts.  What is similar between the two books, however, is the analysis of historical and social context that underpins the literary works. In my recent work, I focus on religious writings and the ways in which the historical context shapes them, as well as how this type of literature can push the discussions on the role of religion in society forward. In a parallel manner, the book on Ghassan Kanafani and Jabra Ibrahim Jabra underlined the power of literature to affect the political and social reality. 

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

DK: I wrote Bosnian Hajj Literature with multiple audiences in mind. Since it is an interdisciplinary work, I hope it will find readers in Islamic, Middle Eastern, Ottoman, religious, and area studies, as well as, importantly, in the budding field of Bosnian studies (for a delineation of this field see the new edited volume by Adna Karamehić Oates and Dženeta Karabegović).  It is also important to notice here that my book falls into the rising field of Hajj studies, and thus could be of interest to researchers working on other geographical areas. Yet, when I was writing this book, I had wider non-academic audiences in mind, and I hope that many will pick this book to read more about Bosnian Hajjis throughout the centuries.

I hope that this book will help in turning attention to Bosnian history in conversation with theoretical and practical discussions in the Middle Eastern and Islamic studies. Bosnia is, to use the phrase David Henig mentions in his book, a “badly parked car,” its history usually seen in the light of the Serbian aggression and ensuing post-transitional economic despair. Most tragically, it is seen as unrelated and unconnected—in other words, irrelevant—to what is happening in other “more central” regions. This is a discussion which is long overdue, and one of the goals of my book is not to erase the horrendous ruptures created by wars and aggressions, but to point to the mechanisms of continuities that survive these and bind Bosnian Muslims to their co-believers in other regions. 

J: What other projects are you working on now?

DK: I am currently working on early modern Ottoman devotional piety, focusing on the prayer books and treatises related to Prophet-centered piety and cultivation of emotions. In that, I am particularly interested in the mobility of ideas and practices and their circulation from Arab provinces to the Balkans and back.

J: What did the Hajj signify for Bosnian Muslims?

DK: While the vast majority of Bosnian Muslims—like Muslims elsewhere—were unable to go on a pilgrimage both in the past and in the present, the Hajj still figured prominently in their lives. This was at least partly due to pervading Hajj discourses consisting of a range of texts (as well as sensory objects that constituted that Hajj habitus). The Hajj was more than a pure act of obedience. In Sufi texts, it was embedded with an internal dimension, which made pilgrims into guests of God. The Hajj was also conceived as a grand journey which included ziyaras to tombs of saints across Anatolia and Sham. In the modern period, the Hajj is mobilized in a variety of political programs and becomes a way to conceptualize Islamic answers to modernity. This led to its co-optation by the Yugoslav state after World War II, where small Hajj delegations were sent in an effort to find allies among the postwar Arab governments. Finally, with the Serbian aggression from 1992 to 1995, many Bosniaks found the Hajj to be a reward for their struggles for identity and religion and a place to show their sacrifice to other Muslims.


Excerpt from the book (from the Introduction: Writing about the Hajj through the Centuries, pp. 1-4)

In the hot summer of 1981, two Bosnian women decided to go on the Hajj, driving a Volkswagen Beetle all the way to Mecca. One of them, Hidajeta, was a housewife, and the other, Safija, worked for Energoinvest, a gigantic energy corporation and the pride of the socialist Yugoslav state. The two pilgrims were friends; however, they were also bound by a subversive link: in their youth, both of them had been members of the women’s branch of the Young Muslim Movement, and in the late 1940s Safija had even spent several years in prison, for her political and social activities that were deemed unacceptable by the new post-World War II communist rule. By the time they decided to go on the Hajj, the Yugoslav communist leader Tito was no longer alive. The purges of the early decades seemed to belong to a different era. Yet, Safija thought it would be wise to keep quiet about her journey in order to avoid troubles at work: ‘We won’t hide but we won’t spread the news either’, she said. The journey by car – and not by plane or bus, as Yugoslav Hajjis were by then accustomed to – meant to mask their true intention and to present the trip as any other tourist adventure across the Middle East.

More than three decades later, Hidajeta’s children wanted to publish the diary in which she had jotted down the impressions and descriptions of her journey. Hidajeta was no longer alive, and Safija – in 2014 a lively octogenarian – decided to write an introduction and add photos to serve as documentation and means of remembrance. Hidajeta’s family printed the diary in several copies. Since the community knew me as a person working on Hajj narratives, I was given a copy which I reviewed in Preporod, a local religious biweekly newspaper, published in Sarajevo and distributed across Bosnia and the Bosnian diaspora abroad. The review stirred great interest in the diary, which was not readily available to readers. Moreover, over the ensuing years, various stories about local pilgrims and curiosities regarding their travels continued to appear in the media, presenting a most popular topic especially during the Hajj season.

Hidajeta’s diary consists of a series of entries which were written at different points of the journey, describing the trip and also the Hajj ritual itself. The diary reads as instructions for future pilgrims, the account of a very unique embodied experience placed in a concrete time and place, as well as a narrative that signals the Islamic ethical virtue of unity in diversity under one God. In all these aspects, the Hajj is revealed as a central event over the course and entirety of a believer’s life, and as main motivation for the specific and in many ways unprecedented act of writing. While the former remains bound to the singularity of Hidajeta’s life, the latter concerns everyone who read, heard, saw, or engaged with the text, often transcending Hidajeta’s original intention. After all, the diary was published posthumously, mediating her religious experience to readers unbeknownst to her, while simultaneously rendering her present beyond the limits of human mortality.

As far as we know, Hidajeta never wrote anything even remotely resembling her Hajj diary, but she was certainly not alone in this once-in-a-lifetime endeavour. As part of a global phenomenon manifest across vastly different Muslim societies throughout history, many Bosnian Hajjis wrote about their pilgrimage experiences in a range of forms and genres, mediating them to even larger audiences of Muslims and non-Muslims without access to the holy places of Mecca and Medina. Writing about the Hajj is arguably the ultimate democratic medium, allowing both highly educated and semi-literate, rich and poor, women and men, to instruct, show, or share different facets of knowledge about the Hajj. At the same time, this medium served devotional purposes, thus connecting individual believers vertically with God, while also expanding their religious experience beyond the performance of the pilgrimage to include interactions with people and places.

This book is about Hajj writings as a medium between the pilgrimage and the world, between striving for the transcendent and material demands of Bosnian Muslim lives shaped by a range of factors. It investigates the ways in which such textual practices reflect the influence of the socio-cultural circumstances on religious experience, and, in turn, the effect that the Hajj (as a ritual and a journey) has on conceptions of the world itself. Writing about the Hajj encompasses different genres, by no means unified by any formal criteria except for the central focus on the pilgrimage and the holy places of Mecca and Medina. Pilgrimage, in textual sources and as living, embodied practice for its participants, includes travel. Where possible, the extension of the pilgrimage to include both the journey and the ritual in the context of a vast Hajj literature allows for a detailed observation of the dynamics between the relationships to different spaces, as well as for showing how the lines between the mundane and sacred are blurred.

By focusing on the Hajj literature created by Bosnian Muslims over the span of five centuries, this book examines socio-cultural influences and changing observations of holy places and the pilgrimage, in order to demonstrate the overwhelming importance of the Hajj as a multi-faceted experience, motive and symbol. The analysis turns to two aspects that affected the rise and ongoing importance of Hajj literature throughout the long period between the sixteenth and twenty-first centuries. Firstly, where possible, it observes the socio-material predispositions in terms of mobility, literacy and ideological pressures in order to see how they shaped the pilgrimage, in terms of both experience and expectation. Secondly, it evaluates the inner structures of religious expressions about the Hajj and shows how they participate in constructing an Islamic discursive tradition. Both of these overlap in the question of writing, which falls under both the influence of socio-cultural factors (such as the fact that the choice of a language or script is often predetermined by education) and the workings of a discursive tradition with its own genres, expectations and mechanisms for adaptation and change. A wholesome view of both intertwined perspectives indicates that the Hajj was never an isolated, atemporal practice devoid of external – even non-Muslim – influence; rather, it simultaneously retained a particular discourse inspired by Islam, which shaped the way in which Muslims saw and experienced the pilgrimage.