The British Museum’s major new exhibition, Hajj: Journey to the Heart of Islam, is being hailed as a milestone in the “public recognition and acceptance of Islam at the heart of British life.” As British Museum Director Neil MacGregor notes, the exhibition will “enable a global audience to deepen their understanding of the significance and history of the Hajj. 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.”
As part of our ongoing relationship with the British Museum, we’ve just published the North American edition of the beautiful book designed to accompany the exhibition. Ventia Porter, the book’s editor and a Curator in the Museum’s Department of the Middle East, explains in her preface that the book is meant more as a companion to the exhibition than as a conventional catalogue:
Our intention has been to gather the history, the voices of pilgrims and the material culture associated with the Hajj together in one place. We felt this was greatly needed because the story of Hajj crosses so many very different disciplines, from religion, history and archaeology to anthropology, travel and art history, each of which often forms the subject of self-contained publications. We therefore brought together a group of distinguished scholars who themselves take us on a journey and help us delve deeper into the subject. Karen Armstrong invites us to look at Hajj within a broader context of pilgrimage; M.A.S. Abdel Haleem explains the rituals of Hajj and their meaning and also gives us an insight into the experience of a Hajj in rural Egypt. Hugh Kennedy explores the history of the Hajj in early Islam and then focuses on two key travellers. Nasir-i Khusraw and Ibn Jubayr, whose fascinating accounts provide such insight not only into the practicalities of the journey but the deeper meaning of why they undertook it. When you compare the writings of these early pilgrims with those of today it is clear that, although the method of travel and Mecca itself may have changed over time, the act of pilgrimage—that need to touch the holy place, the reactions to seeing the Ka‘ba at Mecca for the first time—have not changed at all. Robert Irwin picks up the history in the thirteenth century and, in a veritable tour d’horizon, he introduces us to more travellers and tells the story of Hajj during the Mamluk and Ottoman periods, though into colonial times and up to the twentieth century. It then falls to Ziauddin Sardar to bring us up to the present day: he looks at how the enormous growth in numbers has changed Hajj in the modern era and demonstrates how it is organized today.
Running in parallel with the history of Hajj is the story of the material culture that surrounds it, whether paintings evoking the journey; archaeological finds from the Hajj routes; manuscripts, historic photographs and tiles illustrating the holy sanctuaries at Mecca and Medina; certificates and pilgrim guides commemorating the direction of Mecca. In addition, there are the objects taken by pilgrims on Hajj or brought back as souvenirs, and the beautiful textiles made annually especially for the Ka‘ba. The works of photography, painting and sculpture by contemporary artists add a further dimension to the art of Hajj. All of these complement and personalize the history, allowing us to glimpse the experience through individuals, deepen our understanding and see how art has been used in the service of Islam. These objects, many of which are included in the exhibition, are illustrated throughout the book; some are highlighted in themed spreads on subjects such as “sacred geography,” the tiles of Mecca and Medina, the Futuh al-Haramayn manuscripts and the sacred textiles. There is also a focus on particular Hajj routes, with detailed maps: across Africa, from Syria and Cairo, and that remarkable endeavor, the Hijaz Railway.
You can get a sense of both the power and the beauty of the material included in the exhibition and book from this short video produced by the British Museum: