art & photography

British Museum – Hajj: journey to the heart of Islam

I was briefly in London yesterday dropping off chocolate brownies at Pan Macmillan’s offices, and decided to head to the British Museum. The last time I was there, I didn’t have time to see the main exhibition, but saw that it was still running. That was Hajj: journey to the heart of Islam.

One of the five pillars of Islam central to Muslim belief, Hajj is the pilgrimage to Mecca that every Muslim must make at least once in their lifetime if they are able. This major exhibition charts the history of this deeply personal journey.

The British Museum is the first of any museum in the world to focus on this epic pilgrimage and, as a non-Muslim, I’d not be able to witness the Hajj in real life.

I’ll admit my knowledge of Islam in general was also not up to scratch really. We in the west are given a funnelled view of it, so I also knew that I couldn’t really trust my instincts on the matter. I went in with an open mind and was rewarded by seeing some remarkably profound items, and by leaving with a greater understanding of Islam.

The exhibition began where many parts of modern life have their roots: in antiquity. Old routes for the pilgrimage were mapped out in the context of former empires, and one can only imagine what this must have meant to those Muslims on the journey. It wasn’t the case of stepping on a jet plane back then, but epic treks from – literally – Timbuktu and beyond. People crossed continents and seas. Cities sprung up on route because of these routes to Mecca, and at these sites a phenomenal number of objects had been uncovered and were on display: from antique compasses to locate East, to old books, coins, combs, as well as beautiful textiles. It was remarkable to see the transition of the pilgrimage over time, yet of course, the fundamentals and rituals have remained unchanged ever since the early 7th Century.

Personally, one of the more lingering points was seeing hypnotic time-lapsed footage of modern day pilgrims walking around the Ka’bah, the black cube structure that has remained on site for centuries, and the centre point of the Hajj. It’s captured resplendently in Ahmad Mater’s Magnetism, which is the artwork you can see at the top of this blog post, and which was one of the lasting images of the exhibition. It shows so perfectly the notion of the overwhelming crowds and their faith, as well as the deep sense of love and peace embedded within the religion.

If the aim of the British Museum is for people to better understand the world, then there is no more suitable exhibition than this. At a time where our often sabre-rattling media would willingly portray Islam in a negative light at every opportunity, this remains a stark and poetic contrast, and rewards an open mind. It is certainly well worth your time (though you’ve not got long left to visit it).

By Mark Newton

Born in 1981, live in the UK. I write about strange things.