Let's start from the premise that reason and religion are two different things. The only common dominator between them is Man, qua human! As the apex of the chain of creatures in Nature, he's also the agent of change and thus reflection. History is the record of those changes and reflections.
Among the many customs and practices that determined who he's, the rituals, religious and otherwise, are the more to reveal his true deep constitution and believes. Those collective acrobatic outbursts are the most immediate to tell what kind of being he/she is.
Social manifestations have their role to play. Among others, they solidify the cohesiveness of the group and may even work as the cementing agents that keep the fragile aggregate together. When communication and social interactions were limited, these 'shows' served many purposes: from amnesia to catharsis, commemoration to revelry, all forms of renewal, just as the old fertility ceremonies. As time goes on, many of these rites ideally would undergo what society at large goes through. Since no society is a static entity, some of these rituals get forgotten, others replaced and few others survive. Those which survive are worth examining, to paraphrase Socrates unexamined rituals are not worth the practicing.
Many religions have rituals intended to "purify" the body or the soul or both, as for example, Hindus's bathings in the scared waters of the river Ganges or Muslims's annual gatherings in Mecca. Christianity and Judaism advise their followers to tread down the roads where many of the prophets and their apostles had trekked before, to re-imagine -or re-enact!- the first beginnings!
It's also true every religion has a place where "men became gods," or "man met God," or "God became Man," and "God talked to man." The locations where such events took place, the sacred spaces: Thebes and Memphis, Babylon, Teotihuacan (Aztecs), Delphi, Varanasi (Benares), Jerusalem, and Mecca became the "Omphalos" ( the sacred navel) of the world, the "Rocks" on which the main Temples were founded and thus became the "Cradles of the Faiths".
To test the commitment to the Faith and to strengthen the mutual bonds among the faithful, religions are in the habit of encouraging their followers to take the "journey of exile" as the founders did, that's, to walk the walk, to contemplate the landscape where the prophets walked, talked, lived, and died. The incitement oscillates between mere advice to outright compulsory duty -though with some qualifications as affordability, for example.!
In the age when secular social rituals are aplenty, from the nation-state rituals to the annual summer exodus to resorts, to the various international fairs and sport games, religions's rituals seem to make less sense when viewed carefully from inside but especially from the outside without a good dose of imagination. For, without the necessary imaginative firing up, the spiritual odyssey comes more as the set-up which verges on a comic strip riff than a voyage of discovery; a journey of sorts though starting in the known its purpose is to trace the roots of the unknown. These jaunts were part of the lore which fed the imagination and enriched the culture of those left behind and thus enlarged their confined physical boundaries. But in the age of instant communication what was once benign is turning into sometimes tragic spectacle. On turning the tube-screen only to see millions of Hindus jostling each other in skimpy clothings to immerse their bodies in the "holy" waters of the Ganges, what would one think? Flipping the remote, perhaps few months later, to find the same thing happening again, though in different location, where millions upon millions are climbing up, in meager clothings, the rocky hills of the 'Blessed Mountain,' or jostling to "stone the Devil," or circumambulating around an empty Cube! What would one, again, think? How rational such a behavior appears?
If the Hajj, in its essence, means "to continuously strive to achieve one's goal," then this goal, from time to time, must be renewed, if not re-defined. Is it an imaginative goal or some other still rarefied goal? If it's the first then perhaps we should stop and ponder what does that mean remembering also what the poet Federico Garcia Lorca had said: " the imagination hovers above the ritual." Are we not getting into a deep and murky waters here? Many thinkers through the ages attempted to elucidate such quandary. The 11th century Abu Hayyan al-Tawhidi wrote, a now lost text by the title: "Understanding the Mental Pilgrimage when Physical Pilgrimage is Impossible." One presumes the gist of his argument was one can still take the journey by imagining him/herself walking at the footsteps of those early prelates from Adam & Eve to Mohammed seating in their comfortable homes. Such an argument was further elaborated by the 13th century mystic Ibn Arabi in saying that pilgrimage, as the glorifying of God, resides more in a caring heart than the swarming around a hollow Cube.
What does imaginative means? Perhaps to look around and see what are the persistent priorities these days. How can I and what better serve my fellow citizens, the Muslim community, and thus the world at large? How better to come to terms with a millennial tradition than to direct it into a positive contribution? Say the estimated $3,000 to 8,000 -the costs of a Pilgrimage trip to the barren valley and its surrounding rocky hills- were collected and directed toward some needy community or a noble cause. What would happen, if we take (an average cost of $ 4,000 by the 2.5 million pilgrims attending this year's round) the $10 billion of very hard cash and use it as a political tool? [Actually the estimated revenues to the Saudi coffers are higher, closer to $11 billion. Why add all this money, from poor Muslims, to the coffers of the most corrupted kleptocracy on the face of the earth, the princes of the Al Saud family and clan?] And contemplate, for a moment, what all this money will do if given to some of the many devastated areas in the so-called "Best of Communities," the Islamic world: to earthquake victims in Kashmir, drought and war-torn Sudan, Tsunami hit areas in the Indian Ocean, refugee camps in Palestine and surrounding states, or the destroyed and bleeding Iraq, et cetera, etc.? There're no shortages of places where such money can do a lot of good instead of re-enactment of some "Age of Ignorance," pre-Islamic, heathen practice? Say $ 10 billion were given to one country to modernize its education system, health system, build a public library or just be donated to a college or an university to initiate and support research in one of the areas that still plagues the human race and is hard to crack: the causes of many diseases, alternative energy sources, desertification, water problems, environment hazards, etc.
One may ask how dare to suggest to forgo one's religious duty for such mundane terrestrial nincompoops as literacy, health, research, or just pure food and water for the aggrieved multitude? Well, if pilgrimage was intended as a form of charity for the strapped folks in the barren valley of Mecca, now that valley is rich with the "Black Gold," and is, no more, in need of the faithful's charity. And as the cliche goes charity starts at home, and if home is in no need, then there're plenty of places where Muslims and other creeds live still in dire need of help.
History as such is made only when there's change; without change there's no history either. Every new life is a fresh beginning and each generation comes to age only when it sifts through the received lore. By renewing rituals society renews itself and directs its energies toward more pressing needs and urgent tasks. It's time to end the stretching of hands to accept the crumps from the rich nations and to take care of our own problems if Muslims want to be taken seriously and looked at with admiration. Otherwise they will only be the raging-angry fanatics, the usual victims of heartrending poverty, and the joke butts and luaghing stock of humanity.