Both in the past and in the present pilgrimage practices across the world’s religions have appeared to exhibit some striking similarities: Circumambulation of shrines and other sacred objects is evident not only in Islam but also in Hinduism and Buddhism, for instance. Pilgrims also commonly take some material evidence of their journey back home—perhaps a vial of holy water, an image, or a token. However, we should not assume that actions that look similar from the outside have the same meaning to participants from different cultures and religions. Furthermore, pilgrimages have tended to contain within them—even to foster—conflicts between pilgrims supposedly united by the same religion or between ordinary pilgrims and shrine authorities. Thus, the famous Catholic site of Lourdes, situated on one of the main medieval pilgrimage roads of southern France and commemorating the visions of the Virgin Mary granted to a young girl during the nineteenth century, is enormously popular in the present, attracting millions of visitors a year. Such popularity inevitably creates tensions over the varied motivations of the pious, for instance, between the desire for miraculous healing expressed by the sick who visit the site and the general emphasis on spiritual rather than physical benefits that is promoted by the clergy.
The religious and often political (and even economic) power contained in many pilgrimage sites has often led to acute, even destructive, conflicts. Jerusalem is not the only site of competition between faiths. The pilgrimage center of Ayodhya in Uttar Pradesh, India, remains a site of troubled relations between Hindus and Muslims, resulting not only in violence but also in rivalrous construction and destruction of sacred buildings. Elsewhere in India, the Golden Temple at Amritsar, holiest of shrines for Sikhs, became the center of conflict between religious separatists and the Indian government, leading in 1984 to the storming of the temple by the army and the killing of many people, including pilgrims.
Pilgrimages have also been attacked from within their religious traditions, with critics often denying the value of physical travel or challenging the idea that the divine can be particularly located in a single spot on Earth. The tenth-century Sufi (Muslim mystic) authority Abu Sa’id enjoined his followers not to undertake the hajj on the grounds that they should concentrate on cultivating mystical experiences instead. Within Hinduism some writers have argued that pilgrimage implies too much attachment to the material world. A key aspect of the Protestant Reformation was the iconoclasm that denied the spiritual value of the statues and relics in numerous shrines and that attacked the economic corruption in both the guardianship of sacred sites and the selling of “indulgences”—remissions of punishments for sin that the Catholic Church granted in return for pious acts such as pilgrimage.