Hajj: Journey to the Heart of Islam

23 February 2012

Hajj: Journey to the Heart of Islam

Review by Mohammed Elshimi

This article was first printed in emel, Issue 90: March 2012

Hajj, the fifth pillar of Islam, is the only practice of Islam non-Muslims can’t experience for themselves. It is significant therefore that the first ever exhibition on the Hajj pilgrimage opened at the British Museum. A space has now been created to tell one of the many beautiful practices and stories of Islam in an accessible and visual way.

Hajj is a religious duty every Muslim must undertake, if they are able to, at least once in their lifetime. Hajj occurs in the month of Dhu’l-Hijjah, the last month of the Islamic calendar, and involves a series of rituals, which take place in and around Makkah over a period of five to six days. It is both a deeply personal as well as communal practice. In the exhibition we are reminded therefore of the story of British explorer Richard Burton who managed to disguise himself as a Muslim pilgrim in order to join the Hajj and enter Makkah in 1853.

Richard Burton spent many years preparing for his adventure, and in part, his story encapsulates the Western fascination for Hajj and its mystery. This is why the exhibition is so promising: it brings the rituals of Hajj, in all its manifestations, to everyone.

The historical focus of the exhibition is a notable strength; the objects, textiles, and manuscripts are cleverly laid out to echo the meandering history of Hajj. Indeed there were little pearls of delight that grabbed my imagination. The most striking for me was a copy of one of the earliest dated Qur’ans (750-800 AD) in the world. The early text had no diacritical (i’jam) points, vowels (tashkil) signs, or any demarcations of verses, and thus looked different to present days Qur’ans. Equally impressive were the maps showing the many different travel routes dotted around, globally connecting faraway places to the holy city of Makkah. Also interesting is the fact that Thomas Cook in 1886 was the official travel agent for the Hajj from the Indian sub-continent. Contemporary views on the meaning of Hajj were also available to viewers. For example, British artist Idris Khan’s oil painting splendidly captured the incredible energy of Hajj using the words spoken by the pilgrims to represent the footsteps taken towards the gravitational pull of the centre, the Ka’ba. These priceless objects and beautiful artifacts do well to evoke and capture the physical and spiritual journey of Hajj, how it evolved throughout history, up to the present day.

A criticism that should be levied at the exhibition is the way in which it prevaricates some of the current problems of Hajj today. Examples include the logistical, administrative, and security challenges the pilgrimage of three million people entails; wider issues about the controversial destruction of historical and religious sights of Islam across Saudi Arabia under the guise of rooting out “corrupt” Islamic practices; and not least the unfortunate emergence of sky-scrappers and commercial outlets in Makkah. These changes, which emulate the trappings of modernity, stain the physical landscape of Makkah and compromise the spiritual message of Hajj. Moreover, in light of the Arab awakening in the past year there are serious political and social questions about Saudi Arabia and its role in the region.

Whatever your view on these omissions, it is nevertheless important to recognise that the Hajj Exhibition does away with the politics, fear, and angst that has characterised coverage on Islam and Muslims in the last decade. The peaceful and beautiful narrative of Hajj is given a platform. This must be welcomed.

This is not a typical art or history exhibition. Whilst there is a palpable eagerness to show off the beautiful artefacts of the Islamic heritage; and the exhibition successfully provides an educational and historical insight to viewers unfamiliar with the mysteries of Islam’s fifth pillar; it is not that type of exhibition. It is neither an isolated artistic spectacle coveting appreciation, nor is it a window into a bygone historical era that has been reduced to the sum of its treasures and the impersonal gazes of museum-goers. This visual representation of Hajj does more. It vividly illustrates how the present community of a billion plus Muslims globally remain strongly connected to history through the ritual of Hajj. It also shows how the Muslim consciousness remains committed to the sacred and the divine in our age of modernity-an age marked by the absence of the sacred and a zealous obsession with the material at the expense of beauty and spirituality. This is why this not-so-typical exhibition is splendidly executed and why it promises to be an educational, and captivating experience.

Ahmed Mater (b. 1979). Magnetism. Photogravure etching. 2011 © Ahmed Mater and the Trustees of the British Museum