Hajj: journeys to the heart of Islam at the British Museum

By Jenni Davidson | 01 February 2012
A photograph of a black cube surrounded by iron filings that look like people
Ahmed Mater, Magnetism (2011). Photogravure etching© Ahmed Mater and the Trustees of the British Museum
Exhibition: Hajj - journey to the heart of Islam, British Museum, London, until April 15 2012

To non-Muslims the Hajj is something of a mystery. It is the only one of the five pillars of Islam that they are barred from taking part in – non-Muslims are not even allowed to enter the holy cities of Mecca or Medina – so a new exhibition at the British Museum may be the closest many of us will come to experiencing the Hajj firsthand.

Hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca, takes place in the last month of the Islamic year, Dhu'l Hijja, and is the fifth pillar of Islam, along with shahada (confession of faith), salat (praying five times a day), zakat (giving away a proportion of your wealth) and sawm (fasting during Ramadan).

A photograph of a red embroidered mahmal
Mahmal. Red silk with green and cream silk appliques and silver wire embroidery.© Nasser D. Khalili Collection of Islamic Art (Khalili Family Trust)
All Muslims who are able to are required to make the pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in their lives and many do it more than once. It is the most important journey Muslims can take, with three million people attending the Hajj every year.

This exhibition about the Hajj is divided into three sections, with the first looking at the journey to Mecca through the ages, the second Mecca itself and the rituals involved in the Hajj, and the third the effects of the Hajj experience on those who have taken part.

Undertaking the Hajj has always been a major challenge and people used to trek for hundreds and thousands of miles, for weeks on end, across North Africa and the Middle East, meeting up at hubs such as Damascus and Cairo before travelling as a caravan across the Arabian desert.

Before embarking on Hajj, pilgrims must be prepared for the possibility of not returning. They say goodbye to their families and settle their debts before they leave, and when you see the routes that people had to take prior to modern transport you can see that possibility of death en route would have been very real. Nowadays, the biggest safety risk is from the huge crowds attending the Hajj.

The exhibition contains travel journals recording journeys to Mecca, including the oldest extant copy of the travels of Ibn Jubayr, a 14th century Hijja (Hajj pilgrim) from Spain, which is the earliest account we have of a journey to Mecca.

There are also the writings of Lady Evelyn Cobbold, a Muslim convert who was the first British woman to go on the Hajj, and Sir Richard Francis Burton, who joined the Hajj from Egypt in 1853 disguised as an Afghan doctor and Sufi dervish.

A photograph of an embroidered curtain panel
Curtain for the door of the Ka'ba (1846-47). Cairo.© Nasser D. Khalili Collection of Islamic Art (Khalili Family Trust)
Once in Mecca, the Hajj itself lasts five to six days and involves a number of rituals beginning with the tawaf, or circumambulation, of the Ka'ba.

The Ka'ba is a huge cube covered in a black cloth at the centre of the sanctuary in Mecca. Muslims believe it goes back to Adam and Eve and was rebuilt by Abraham and Ishmael. It is the most sacred site in Islam and the point towards which Muslims direct their daily prayers. During the Hajj pilgrims walk seven times anti-clockwise around it.

Other rituals involved in the Hajj are drinking water from the Well of Zamzam; sa'i – walking or running between Safa and Marwa; wuquf – a day of prayer on the plain of Arafat; jamarat – throwing special pebbles collected at Muzdalifa at the three pillars of Mina, and the Eid al-Adha, where pilgrims shave their heads and sacrifice a sheep or a goat as a form of ritual cleansing.

The exhibition is both educational and visually stunning. As well as informative text and videos about the Hajj, there are huge embroidered textiles, such as a sitara (the curtain for the door of the Ka'ba), a mahmal (the spectacular ceremonial litter that used to be sent from Cairo to Mecca each year) and qibla indicators, which are a special kind of sundial used to find the direction of Mecca.

A 9th century Qu'ran is one of the oldest copies in existence, standing alongside beautifully illustrated travel journals and guides to Hajj and modern Hajj souvenirs.

The stories of modern British Muslims who have been on the Hajj and art inspired by the Hajj, such as Ahmed Mater's installation, Magnetism, testify that this is still a life-changing personal and collective experience for many today.

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

A photograph of a round ivory sundial and compass
Ivory sundial and quibla pointer made by Bayram b. Ilyas (1582-1583). Turkish© The Trustees of the British Museum
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