All Muslim have to abide to the five pillars: to believe in one God (shahada), to pray daily (salat), to fast at Ramadan, to give to the poor (zakat) and to go in pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in a lifetime (hajj). The first four pillars can be shared by people of other faith. The fifth is reserved to the believers. To allow people of all faith to get a sense of the meaning and rituals of the hajj, the British Museum has opened an exhibition: Hajj, journey to the heart of Islam, which will run to 15 April.
“This exhibition – says project curator Qaisra Khan – is the third of a series the British Museum has dedicated to spiritual journeys. This is a unique event because I am not aware of any other similar exhibition done on this scale. We hope visitors will have a greater understanding of the hajj pilgrimage”. In opening the exhibition, Neil Mac Gregor – director of the British Museum – underlined that “when the museum was set up its purpose was to enable visitors to understand the world they were living in. Hajj is one of the great religious phenomena in the world. It is also a key element to understand Muslim’s perception of themselves and of the world, the sense Muslim have of themselves as belonging to a worldwide community”.
The exposition is organized in three sections: the journey towards Mecca; the staying in the holy city, with the rituals and spirituality which accompany the life of pilgrims; and the becoming a hajj, what this journey means for the believer who took part in it.
Each of the sections is developed through narrative, archival material, but also objects, some quite rare. “There are many highlights in this exhibition – says Khan – the mahmal is perhaps the most important single object in display. It is an embroider tent that would protect the Quran in its journey from Cairo to Mecca, and it is a beautiful example, evocative of the journey”. The mahmal is a ceremonial palanquin which was carried over a camel. It was the centrepiece of the pilgrim caravan going to Mecca for the hajj and a symbol of the authority of the sultan over the holy places. Footage showing the procession following the mahmal as it leaves Cairo helps understand the social importance of the journey.
Among the many objects, there is a rare copy of the Quran, on loan from the British Library. This Hijazi Quran is dated from the VIII century, making it one of the earliest in existence. It is written in the ma’il script, a way of writing with a pronounced slant to the right typical of Mecca and Medina and used in all ancient manuscript of the Quran.
“We were able to collect many valuable objects – says Venetia Porter, of the Department of Middle East of the museum and editor of the elegant catalogue of the exhibition – and especially we were able to secure on loan many brilliant examples of textile. We also needed modern art, since the hajj is a living reality which inspires artists even today.
A work that epitomizes the hajj is Magnetism, a art piece by Hamed Mater. I saw photographs of this work years ago, and I knew we ought to have it here at the exhibition. It is a cubic magnet with small filing bits around it and represents the pilgrims bowing before the Kasbah. To me, it encapsulates the heart of the hajj, a central experience in the heart of the faithful. We also have works by Idris Khan, another artist who takes inspiration from the hajj experience”.
The exhibition is well planned and visitors have the opportunity to learn about a great spiritual journey. Muslim will identify with their tradition and, indeed, with their experience. People of other faith will also have the opportunity to approach Islam from a novel way. If we are to understand today’s world, we need to have an informed and balanced understanding of Islam, its faith and cultures. This means to take the distance from the usual negative and suspicious evaluation we are afforded by Western media. This exhibition is a good occasion to discover the other’s spirituality, and perhaps to rediscover our own, whatever our background is.
Mepukori ole Karam