C. Snouck Hurgronje (1857?1936) was a famous Dutch orientalist as well as the main architect of the Dutch colonial policy towards Islam in Indonesia, which, under his directions, was much more interfering in the internal affairs of the Muslims than the British policy in the Indian sub-continent.
In those days when colonialism and slavery used to be justified by Christianity, the general attitude of Europeans, and especially the Christian missionaries, was predominantly contemptuous in regard to the affairs of their colonial subjects, their religion and civilization.
In that age of empire and mission, Hurgronje?s writings on Islam show a rare specimen of (comparative) objectivity and honesty. He is at some pains to defend the genuinely praiseworthy elements of Islam from the unjustified criticism of the Christian missionaries, as well as from the distortions of some of the Muslim scholars alike.
His writings, however, were a product of his age and need to be studied today while keeping in mind his position as the highest advisor to the colonial Dutch government, and that his foremost objective was the safeguarding the interests of the Dutch in her Muslim colonies. This consideration has obvious effects on his objectivity.
The following extract of his is concerning the Hajj, presented here for the information of the readers:
In Mecca yearly two or three hundred thousand Moslims from all parts of the world come together to celebrate the hajj, that curious set of ceremonies of pagan Arabian origin which Mohammed has incorporated into his religion, a durable survival that in Isl?m makes an impression as singular as that of jumping processions in Christianity.
Mohammed never could have foreseen that the consequence of his concession to deeply rooted Arabic custom would be that in future centuries Chinese, Malays, Indians, Tatars, Turks, Egyptians, Berbers, and negroes would meet on this barren desert soil and carry home profound impressions of the international significance of Isl?m.
Still more important is the fact that from all those countries young people settle here for years to devote themselves to the study of the sacred science. From the second to the tenth month of the Mohammedan lunar year, the Haram, i.e., the mosque, which is an open place with the Ka’bah in its midst and surrounded by large roofed galleries, has free room enough between the hours of public service to allow of a dozen or more circles of students sitting down around their professors to listen to as many lectures on different subjects, generally delivered in a very loud voice.
Arabic grammar and style, prosody, logic, and other preparatory branches, the sacred trivium; canonic law, dogmatics, and mysticism, and, for the more advanced, exegesis of Qor?n and Tradition and some other branches of supererogation, are taught here in the mediaeval way from mediaeval text-books or from more modern compilations reproducing their contents and completing them more or less by treating modern questions according to the same methods.
It is now almost thirty years since I lived the life of a Meccan student during one university year, after having become familiar with the matter taught by the professors of the temple of Mecca, the Haram, by privately studying it, so that I could freely use all my time in observing the mentality of people learning those things not for curiosity, but in order to acquire the only true direction for their life in this world and the salvation of their souls in the world to come.
For a modern man there could hardly be a better opportunity imagined for getting a true vision of the Middle Ages than is offered to the Orientalist by a few months’ stay in the Holy City of Isl?m. In countries like China, Tibet, or India there are spheres of spiritual life which present to us still more interesting material for comparative study of religions than that of Mecca, because they are so much more distant from our own; but, just on that account, the Western student would not be able to adapt his mind to their mental atmospheres as he may do in Mecca. No one would think for one moment of considering Confucianism, Hinduism, or Buddhism as specially akin to Christianity, whereas Isl?m has been treated by some historians of the Christian Church as belonging to the heretical offspring of the Christian religion. In fact, if we are able to abstract ourselves for a moment from all dogmatic prejudice and to become a Meccan with the Meccans, one of the “neighbours of Allah,” as they call themselves, we feel in their temple, the Haram, as if we were conversing with our ancestors of five or six centuries ago. Here scholasticism with a rabbinical tint forms the great attraction to the minds of thousands of intellectually highly gifted men of all ages.
The most important lectures are delivered during the forenoon and in the evening. A walk, at one of those hours, through the square and under the colonnades of the mosque, with ears opened to all sides, will enable you to get a general idea of the objects of mental exercise of this international assembly.
Here you may find a sheikh of pure Arab descent explaining to his audience, composed of white Syrians or Circassians, of brown and yellow Abyssinians and Egyptians, of negroes, Chinese, and Malays, the probable and improbable legal consequences of marriage contracts, not excepting those between men and genii; there a negro scholar is explaining the ontological evidence of the existence of a Creator and the logical necessity of His having twenty qualities, inseparable from, but not identical with, His essence; in the midst of another circle a learned muft? of indeterminably mixed extraction demonstrates to his pupils from the standard work of al-Ghaz?li the absolute vanity of law and doctrine to those whose hearts are not purified from every attachment to the world.
Most of the branches of Mohammedan learning are represented within the walls of this temple by more or less famous scholars; and still there are a great number of private lectures delivered at home by professors who do not like to be disturbed by the unavoidable noise in the mosque, which during the whole day serves as a meeting place for friends or business men, as an exercise hall for Qor?n reciters, and even as a passage for people going from one part of the town to the other.
In order to complete your mediaeval dream with a scene from daily life, you have only to leave the mosque by the B?b Dereybah, one of its twenty-two gates, where you may see human merchandise exhibited for sale by the slave-brokers, and then to have a glance, outside the wall, at a camel caravan, bringing firewood and vegetables into the town, led by Beduins whose outward appearance has as little changed as their minds since the day when Mohammed began here to preach the Word of Allah.
Extract taken from: Mohammedanism, Chapter iv: “Islam and Modern Thought”, New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1937.