Hajj: The British Museum journeys to the heart of Islam

By Jennie Gillions | 27 January 2011
a photo of a golden leafed book cover
Single-volume Qur’an, copied by al-sayyid Muhammad Shakir© Nasser D Khalili Collection of Islamic Art, Nour Foundation. Courtesy Khalili Family Trust
Exhibition: Hajj, Journey to the Heart of Islam, British Museum, London, until April 15 2012

There are an awful lot of adjectives that could be applied to this exhibition, but let's start with "important".

Hajj is a profoundly spiritual pilgrimage to Mecca that every Muslim, if they are able, has a sacred duty to undertake at least once. It is one of the Five Pillars of Islam (the others are Iman – faith; Salah – prayer; Zakah – financial obligation; and Sawm – fasting), and the only one that non-Muslims are not permitted to participate in.

It requires the leaving behind of family, friends, worldly goods and day-to-day concerns. Pilgrims must settle all their debts, make provision for dependents and seek forgiveness from family and friends before they leave; many make a will.

In his welcome speech the Saudi Arabian ambassador, representing exhibition partner the King Abdulaziz Public Library, Riyadh, said of Hajj, "We submit ourselves totally to God's will...it is the most important journey taken by Muslims during their lifetime", but even this statement cannot do it justice.

And that actually isn't a problem. Museum Director Neil MacGregor has acknowledged that gaining a complete understanding is impossible for non-Muslims; incomprehensibility adds a sense of awe and wonder appropriate for the exhibition's subject matter.

Curators chose to focus on three key strands of the Hajj: the journey; the Hajj today; and the origins and significance of Mecca, but in spite of the focus there is a lot to take in. Photographs, archaeological materials, books, paintings, luxurious textiles, models, personal artefacts and manuscripts all vie for attention.

Central pieces include a gorgeous Qur'an, dated AD750-800, and a sumptuous mahmal, a square litter used to transport (by camel) a copy of the Qur'an to Mecca.

The displays on the journey itself are fascinating. One photograph shows a family departing Heathrow – a significantly easier journey than the routes mapped out on another wall, where a huge display shows the five main routes pilgrims took/take. Visitors are left in no doubt that historically the journey was perilous.

One account comes from an unlikely source – Sir Richard Francis Burton, an English non-Muslim who disguised himself and went on pilgrimage in 1853. There is also the account of Lady Evelyn Cobbold, the first European woman to be given permission to go on the Hajj.

In addition to the history of Mecca itself, visitors are told the lovely story of Queen Zubayda (who died in AD 831) who, fearful for the safety of pilgrims, ordered the construction of a designated route across Arabia. The route, Darb Zubayda, still exists, and archaeological excavation in 1979 found evidence of Al-Rabadha, a city that grew up en route.
MacGregor says that understanding the world today is "impossible" without exploring faith and society. Words, photographs and an audio loop of British Muslims, interviewed in late 2011, are used to explain what the Hajj means today, how important it remains and how it fits into day-to-day lives.

The exhibition ends with a piece of art by Idris Khan – an absorbing piece entitled You and Only You, made up of hundreds of lines of text all drawn to a single central point. It's simple, but seems to sum up the importance of Hajj, as both a personal journey and a great leveller, better than any words could.

  • Open 10am-5.30pm (8.30pm Friday). Admission £12 (free for under-16s, concessions available). Book online.
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