Today’s opening of “Hajj: Journey to the Heart of Islam” marks in the most spectacular way one journey completed and another beginning. It is the culmination of years of work to bring to fruition in an appropriately sensitive way, and with a spread of artifacts supporting the central “journey” theme, the largest exhibition anywhere or in any time devoted to the subject of Haj.
“This exhibition is about a journey that has one purpose which is to reach the heart of Islam,” said Venetia Porter, exhibition curator.
As the visitor enters the circular Reading Room of the museum, chosen to reflect the circumambulation of the Kaaba carried out by pilgrims, the first thing they see is a huge sitra (an ornately embroidered cloth that covers the door to the Kaaba) that implies the circularity of the journey. The Kaaba symbolically is where the journey began one and a half millennia ago, and this is where it ends for every Muslim who journeys to Makkah.
Many of the 200 plus exhibits from 13 countries have themselves made long journeys to the British Museum and are on show having never been seen in the Western world before. Many come from Saudi Arabia and the holy cities of Makkah and Madinah, but others reflect the range and diversity of the Islamic ulema with exhibits from Turkey, Egypt, Malaysia and Timbuktu.
Setting up the exhibition, which is due to run from Jan. 26 through April 15, 2012, involved some delicate negotiations with Saudi diplomats, the Kingdom’s authorities and the King Abdulaziz Library in Riyadh who needed to be sure that the artifacts would be displayed with due sensitivity. Locally, advisers from London’s Regent’s Park Mosque also provided valuable input.
Organizing the show has entailed a year of discussions between the Museum’s Director Neil MacGregor, and his team of Middle East curators, and Saudi diplomats to ensure it was conducted in an appropriate manner.
The team also traveled to Saudi Arabia with a list of artifacts that they sought to borrow. The result is an exhibition that is visually stunning, and for anyone with the slightest awareness of Islam through to the devout, it presents the riches and diversity of Muslims and their devotion in written, physical and photographic form.
As they are strictly forbidden to enter either Makkah or Madinah and even tourist access to Saudi Arabia is limited, the exhibition will appeal to non-Muslims who wish to encounter Islam in a form that explains much more than their more conventional encounter with Islam through media sources. In an ideal world, those with no knowledge of Islam or who are antagonistic to it should visit; it would allay a few fears and demonstrate the commitment and devotion that is central to 28 percent of the people on this planet and has contributed so much to both Western and Eastern civilization over the centuries. This sadly, however, is not an ideal world.
Haj remains shrouded in mystery to many in the West as is the significance of Makkah and the Kaaba, but this exhibition is an important step toward demystifying some of the more esoteric aspects of the religion and its adherents.
The exhibition is divided into three related sections, each exploring a different aspect of Haj: The pilgrim’s journey, with an emphasis on the main routes used through history; the Haj today and its rituals; and the origins and importance of Makkah.
Particular highlights of the exhibition include a 9th century Qur’an, a 19th century Ottoman mahmal, a camel-borne silk tent that carried a single copy of the Qur’an on Haj; and Pakistani “pilgrim notes” from the 1950s, which were used as travelers checks in Saudi Arabia.
Also on display are the travel diaries of Scottish aristocrat Lady Evelyn Cobbold, a convert to Islam and the first British woman to go on Haj, as well as the diaries of Sir Richard Francis Burton who traveled to Makkah in disguise. Particular delights are the dairies of Ibn Battuta, the 14th-century Moroccan traveler and diarist whose journeys are well known to a Western audience. His detailed and candid accounts of and reflections on his two or more decades of travel through the ancient world as far east as China have been the basis of many books.
This landmark exhibition is a remarkable event both as a serious attempt to present Islam in a studied and researched manner yet accessible to the non-Muslim wishing to understand something more of the religion.
Its real power, however, lies in the quality of the exhibits and what they represent. That is the intensity of devotion and the sincerity of belief of the adherents of this great religion that has produced works of lasting beauty and significance. These, in turn, convey the message to the knowledgeable and casual viewer alike the richness and depth of this incredibly important cultural movement and its solid establishment as a great religion.