- Published on Sunday, 25 March 2012 17:34
- Category: Art
In his letter from Hajj, a spiritual journey for Muslims and the largest gathering of people in the world, Malcom X, once wrote: "Never have I witnessed such sincere hospitality and overwhelming spirit of true brotherhood as is practiced by people of all colors and races here in this ancient Holy Land.”
As one of the five pillars of Islam, Hajj is expected of all Muslims at least once in their lives if they are able. Despite the massive number of Muslims that travel to Mecca each year, the event is still one of the least understood for those outside the Muslim faith.
In an effort to better educate the public on the significance of Hajj and its evolution throughout history, The British Museum of London, in partnership with The King Abdulaziz Public Library Riyadh, put together Hajj: Journey to the Heart of Islam, the third installment of the museum’s curated series that showcases the spiritual journey. Tickets sold out the first week it opened.
“This exhibition will enable a global audience to deepen their understanding of the significance and history of the Hajj,” British Museum Director Neil MacGregor stated on the museum’s website. “In particular, it will allow non-Muslims to explore the one aspect of Islamic practice and faith which they are not able to witness, but which plays such a major part in forming a worldwide Islamic consciousness.”
Through its presentation of historic and contemporary works of art, visitors are invited to examine three major components of the pilgrimage: “the pilgrim’s journey with an emphasis on the major routes used across time (from Africa, Asia, Europe and the Middle East); the Hajj today, its associated rituals and what the experience means to the pilgrim; and Mecca, the destination of Hajj, its origins and importance.” The exhibit features a vast array of artifacts, manuscripts, photos, textiles and artworks, many on loan from key museums in Saudi Arabia and major public and private international collections, including the British Library and the Khalili Family Trust.
“Together these objects will evoke and document the long and perilous journey associated with the pilgrimage, gifts offered to the sanctuary as acts of devotion and the souvenirs that are brought back from Hajj. They include archaeological material, manuscripts, textiles, historic photographs and contemporary art,” the British Museum issued in the exhibit’s press release. “The Hajj has a deep emotional and spiritual significance for Muslims, and continues to inspire a wide range of personal, literary and artistic responses, many of which will be explored throughout the exhibition.”
Mixing historic objects with contemporary artworks not only illustrates an evolved and ever-changing narrative of the pilgrimage of Hajj, it also shows how the relevance of the spiritual journey is as strong today as it was in history. The artifacts range from a 16th century Turkish sundial and qibla indicator that helped pilgrims find the direction of Mecca for praying, to a 19th century Chinese porcelain water bottle filled with Zamzam (holy) water. There is also a 13th century Arab painting called “Al-Harith joins a caravan to Mecca and meets Abu Zayd along the way,” a rare illustration of pilgrims setting out to Hajj, and a 17th century Turkish artwork that depicts the Ka’ba in Mecca as the center of the world.
Saudi artist Ahmed Mater’s presents Magnetism, a photogravure etching made of magnets and iron shavings meant to depict pilgrims walking seven times around the Ka’ba. Ayman Yossri Daydban’s 2010 photograph We Were All Brothers, showing a line of pilgrims walking, all dressed in white, is also a part of the exhibit.
Of particular interest are various accounts from Westerners and non-Muslims performing Hajj. “Words cannot describe the emotions that are created when one looks at the Ka’ba, such a simple object structurally yet so majestic and awe-inspiring,” read a 2006 journal entry by a ten-year-old English girl.
Among these narratives is a book written by Sir Richard Francis Burton, who in 1853 became the first visitor to break the ban that prohibited non-Muslims from enter Mecca when he joined an Egyptian caravan disguised as an Afghan doctor. He described gathering around as one of ecstasy that he shared with the other pilgrims, but clarifies, “To confess the humbling truth, theirs was the high feeling of religious enthusiasm, mine was the ecstasy of gratified pride.” To this day, he remains one of Hajj’s few non-Muslim pilgrims.
Also included are photographs and a letter by Lady Evelyn Cobbold, the first British woman to perform Hajj. In 1933 she made her pilgrimage at the age of 65, years after converting to Islam.
The exhibition ended with audio messages by British Muslims sharing their Hajj experience. Many of them described the trek as holistic, cleansing, spiritual and emotional. After witnessing a step-by-step guide on how the holy pilgrimage was performed, these messages offer visitors a chance to reflect on what they've seen and see how the journey of Hajj influences everyday Muslims’ lives.
Much like the newly re-opened Islamic art exhibit at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, The British Museum’s Hajj: Journey to the Heart of Islam finds its biggest strength as not just an educational look at the Muslim practice of pilgrimage, but more importantly as an act of cultural diplomacy, one that invites both Muslims and non-Muslims to come together in experiencing an otherwise very private world.
Amidst a rapid news culture where speedy headlines are dominant, the exhibit is one where visitors can go to slow down, encounter new artworks and artifacts, erase their misconceptions, and leave having made, to some degree, their own pilgrimages towards a greater sense of cultural understanding and engaged dialogue.
The British Museum’s exhibit Hajj: Journey to the Heart of Islam will be open every day and late on Fridays until April 15, 2012.By Eman Jueid, Aslan Media Content Manager