One of the five pillars if Islam is hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca that all Muslims are expected to undertake at least once in their lives. The British Museum’s reading room has been home to Egyptian books of the dead, terracotta warriors and other relics of misunderstand empires and now it is the turn of the historical tradition of still-living Islam to be subjected to the exhibition treatment.
I’ll admit to walking in as something of an ignoramous. I knew that hajj was a pilgrimage but I didn’t know anything at all about the rituals or about the expected length of time they take to complete. It hadn’t really occurred to me to wonder exactly when or why this pilgrimage became so important either. Any visitor will certainly leave better informed about the former than the latter. The requirements of hajj from booking with a designated operator to the final actions in Mecca are documented well, and quite beautifully illustrated with modern and historical photographs, diaries from all points in the past and various reference objects. For the latter it is possibly best not to be too inquisitive: this exhibition is part-funded by Saudi Arabia and whilst there is some exploration of the context of hajj a lot is taken on trust that one will understand that to be a good Muslim is a good thing inofitself and one probably won’t want to dig too deeply into the religion’s antecedents.
With that in mind this is still a deeply moving and surprisingly inspiring exhibition. The sight in particular of men who at home are quite possibly family patriarchs humbling themselves and losing their personal identities within a wider community of thousands of other supplicants is thought-provoking. That this is placed within the context of the sacrifices demanded by both the hajj in particular and proper Muslim life in general is even more challenging to stereotypical perceptions. That women have an equal, albeit different, role within the hajj likewise doesn’t sit easily with preconceived notions. It is possible to not believe a word of what these people are praying to and yet feel that overall the fact that they are praying at all like this is not a bad thing. It’s just a bit sad that no real word of dissent finds its way into the exhibition.
The material gathered though is of the highest quality beginning with the rather wonderful slide show at the start through to the incredible film showing (thankfully) edited highlights of the full ordeal that pilgrims must go through. In between are diaries, images and photos from both observers and participants both contemporary and historical as well as descriptions of five specific routes pilgrims take to reach Mecca. I also liked the photographic recreation of the praying at Mecca by using a magnetic block and iron filings. It’s not a huge exhibition but there’s a lot to take on board and digest.
Given the highly sensitive nature of Islam in Britain the British Museum might almost be considered brave for putting on this exhibition – and there was security in a way that I’ve not seen at times of normal threat before. The money from Saudi Arabia possibly soothed their concerns. But it doesn’t do to be too cynical, if there is one thing to be learnt from watching pilgrims in white become one with the crowd it’s that the world would be a hell of a lot nicer if tolerance, respect and understanding were the default position from which we should all start whether we’re on the hajj or observing its followers.