London Art Reviews

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Hajj the journey to the heart of Islam at the British Museum

Hajj the journey to the heart of Islam at the British Museum.

David Franchi – Wednesday, 15th February 2012

“Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca”

The exhibition “Hajj: journey to the heart of Islam” is the first ever dedicated to the Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca. The Hajj is the most important spiritual event in the Islamic religion.

The exhibition focuses on the Hajj as one of the Five Pillars of Islam. “Hajj: journey to the heart of Islam” investigates the importance for Muslims and looking at how this spiritual journey has evolved throughout history. It brings together many objects from a number of different collections including important historic pieces as well as new contemporary art works.

The British Museum exhibition is a partnership with the King Abdulaziz Public Library of Riyadh (Saudi Arabia). “Hajj: journey to the heart of Islam” is focused on three main aspects. The first of them relates to the major routes used – from Africa, Asia, Europe and the Middle East – and their development across the centuries. Secondly, the British Museum exhibition focuses on how is the Hajj nowadays, the rituals involved, and what is its significance for the pilgrim. The last aspect focuses on the Mecca, as the destination of Hajj but also its origins and meaning together with its history.

Mecca, known in Arabic as Makka-al –Mukarrama (Mecca the Blessed) is situated in present –day Saudi Arabia, in the Hijaz region. Mecca is the place of birth of the Prophet Muhammad (AD circa 570 – 632). There he received the earliest revelations contained in the Qu’ran, the holy book of Islam.

Mecca is a sacred sanctuary at the earth of which lies a cube- shaped building known as the Ka’ba. Muslims believe that Adam, the first prophet, built the Ka’ba and that later it was rebuilt by the Prophet Abraham (Ibrahim) and his son Ismaele (Ism’il). Prophet Abraham is revered by the three monotheistic religions- Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Muslims believes that the revelation of Islam restored the ancient Abrahamic faith in the One God to the Arab people.

Hajj is the pilgrimage to the Arab Mecca and it is considered the fifth pillar of Islam. It is a religion

Hajj certificate (detail). 17th–18th century AD. © Nasser D. Khalili Collection of Islamic Art (Khalili Family Trust)

duty Muslims should undertake, if they are able, at least once in their lives. Hajj occurs in the months of Dhu’l Hijja, the last month of the Islamic calendar. It involves a series of rituals which take place in and around Mecca over a period of five to six days. The Hajj now attracts about three million pilgrims every year from across the world, when it was 20,000 of such travellers in 1932.

Islam means surrender or submission to God in Arabic. It is based on five key principles established by the Prophet Muhammad known as the Five Pillars of Islam (Shahadah (creed), Salat (daily prayers), Zakat (almsgiving), Sawn (fasting during Ramadan) and the Hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in a lifetime).

Mecca has been a sacred site from ancient times. Even before Islam, Mecca was an important site of pilgrimage for the Arab tribes of north and central Arabia. Although they believed in many deities, they came once a year to worship Allah of Mecca.

Hajj: journey to the heart of Islam” displays an ample range of objects, many loaned, such as historical and contemporary coming from major public and private collections in the UK and around the world. This wide variety of objects bring to mind the difficulties that pilgrims have had encountered in their journeys. Archaeological and contemporary art are present together with manuscripts, textiles and historic photographs. Significant personal and artistic materials on show at the British Museum exhibition are evidences that the Hajj has a strong emotional and spiritual impact on Muslims. Video installations are key points for a better understanding of the phenomenon.

Pilgrims in Ihram at the sanctuary in Mecca, Iskander Sultan Miscellany, Shiraz, 1410-1411 © The British Library

Being non-Muslims, neither Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum, nor Venetia Porter, lead curator, were able to enter at the sites or experience the Hajj rituals. Therefore, organising such an exhibition should have been quite hard for them. However, the purpose of the British Museum is to assist its visitors to understand the world better and “Hajj: journey to the heart of Islam” seems to reach the target.

This exhibition concludes the British Museum’s series of three exhibitions focused on spiritual journeys.

HSBC Amanah has supported the exhibition’s international reach outside the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The British Museum has been awarded an AHRC – Arts and Humanities Research Council – grant to support the research for the exhibition and accompanying publication. The outcomes will include an academic conference on Hajj and collaboration with the Department of Theology and Religious Studies, University of Leeds to explore British Muslim communities’ experiences of Hajj.

At the British Museum, London, from 26th January until 15th April 2012.

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This entry was posted on February 15, 2012 by in Museums, Reviews and tagged , .

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