Hajj: Journey to the heart of Islam
Last week the British Museum opened the doors of its new exhibition “Hajj Journey to the Heart of Islam” to the public. Of course, some glaring questions came to mind prior to visiting the exhibition. How could anyone curate an exhibition focusing on a religious ritual – and, really, what’s the point?
Observing a ritual and being part of it are two completely distinct experiences. Although we might be able to speculate, analyse and interpret the meaning of rituals, we cannot grasp their significance to believers unless we experience them ourselves. And a museum is hardly an ideal setting for understanding a grand, cultural and religious phenomenon such as the Hajj.
By their very nature, museums set things apart and create a glaring detachment between the observer and the observed. Walking about an exhibition of ancient Egyptian artefacts, for example, inspires awe and wonderment rather than understanding, hardly granting an insight into the ancient civilisation on show. I’ve always felt that placing an object in a museum says more about the object’s significance to our own society, rather than the society which produced it.
Given that an exhibition of a religious ritual seemed so counter intuitive, I was pleasantly surprised by the innovative way in which the British Museum presented it. Venetia porter, the curator, explained that the exhibition was arranged according to three themes; the pilgrim’s journey to Mecca, the pilgrim’s stay in the holy city, and the return home. Arranging items this way meant that each section of the exhibition was a true mishmash of the medieval and modern.
While this might sound awkward, I couldn’t think of a better way to showcase the Hajj. The Journey to Mecca and back in itself is part of the religious experience. The influence of this aspect of the Hajj cannot be stressed enough. For example, it is because of the Hajj that very soon after the rise of Islam, travel writings developed into such a great literary genre in the Muslim world. The exhibition effectively highlights this. We are often presented with an image of religious rituals as performances which remain overly convoluted and stagnant, never evolving with time.
The exhibition therefore, makes an important point: while the rituals and obligations of the Hajj remain unchanged since the Medieval period, the ways in which pilgrims experience this journey has changed dramatically. From Medieval compasses to colonial prayer guides and to present day road signs and airplanes, the Hajj has never ceased to evolve. The viewer grasps a sense of the Hajj as a dynamic phenomenon and not something rigid which belongs in history. In fact I only ever seem to hear about the Hajj from the popular media when a stampede takes place and tragedy is involved.
This layout of the exhibition was accompanied by an impressive use of sound which helped make the experience that much more intimate. Prior to entering the space, as you walk through a narrow corridor, the chanting of the Talbiyya is heard, this is part of the prayer which Muslims recite before setting out for the Hajj journey. Within the exhibition itself the Azhan (Muslim call to prayer) can be heard faintly in the distance. And finally, just before leaving the exhibition, there is a quiet little corner in place for people to sit and listen to British Muslims’ accounts of their own Hajj experiences. This clever use of sound which mirrors the journey and return from Mecca helps museum-goers understand the experience a little more.
The link between Britain and the Hajj is not only explored by these British Muslims. The exhibition is scattered with British experiences of Hajj from items which reveal how Thomas Cook was responsible for organising ships to Mecca in the colonial period, to letters written by the first ever British woman to perform the Hajj in the year 1933, Lady Evelyn Cobbold. This demonstrated just how involved Britain was with this seemingly distant and mysterious ritual.
Personal accounts such as these are found throughout the exhibition floor and yet another intriguing addition comes in the form of modern works of art such as Ahmed Mater’s ‘Magnetism’ and Idris Khan’s ‘Seven Times.’ The works highlight the ways in which the Hajj continues to influence discourse, collective imagination and creativity today.
The British Museum has also produced a fascinating publication on the Hajj. Written by some of the leading academics and writers on Islam such as Professor Hugh Kennedy, Karen Armstrong and Professor M.A.S Abdel Haleem, this publication is not to be easily dismissed. Not only does it discuss key aspects of the ritual which the exhibition may not touch on, such as the political significance of the Hajj, it also provides a reference to some of the fascinating objects on display, including Lady Cobbold’s letter to her grandson. The book and the glossy images are undoubtedly gorgeous. So, if for some incomprehensible reason you’re not interested in what the academics have to say, there’s always the aesthetics.
If you’re looking for an experience which helps approach the various aspects of the Hajj in a number interesting ways, this exhibition will surely not disappoint. But for actually knowing what the Hajj is or what it feels like, you’d probably be better off booking a flight to Saudi Arabia. Still, exploring the Hajj comes as a welcome addition to public discourse at a time when Islamic rituals are portrayed so negatively by the media. The British Museum should be commended for its efforts to generate cultural understanding.
Hajj: journey to the heart of Islam is open 26 January – 15 April 2012
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Photo Credits: Rukia Begum Exclusively for The Platform
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