One of the most important rituals in Islam, the Hajj is the annual pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia. The Hajj is considered the fifth of the Five Pillars of Islam and a fundamental duty which Muslims should carry out at least once in their lives. Every year millions of pilgrims from throughout the world undertake the journey and travel to Saudi Arabia to perform the devotional rituals of the Hajj, transforming Mecca and its environs into a vast centre of prayer and meditation.
Through its three key strands that focused on ‘the pilgrim’s journey with an emphasis on the major routes used across time (from Africa, Asia, Europe and the Middle East); the Hajj today, its associated rituals and what the experience means to the pilgrim; and Mecca, the destination of Hajj, its origins and importance’, the British Museum exhibition explored various facets of the important Islamic pilgrimage.
Objects sourced from around the world were exhibited as testament to the cultural impact of the Hajj on the institution of faith and the creative imagination. One such object was a seetanah, sourced from Mecca, which covers the door of the Ka’ba. Directly translating as ‘The Cube’, the Ka’ba is the central point and destination of the Hajj, and the building towards which all Muslims must face when they pray. Other significant items included archaeological materials, manuscripts, textiles and historic photographs, all sourced from different parts of the Muslim world, including Malaysia, China, and Turkey.
The exhibition also featured some contemporary artworks which seek to interpret the significance of the Hajj, its related forms and explore its aesthetic potential. Images from Ahmed Mater’s ‘Magnetism’ series, also exhibited in the Victoria & Albert Museum over 2012 and 2013, is one such contemporary art piece which deals with the aesthetic forms of the Hajj, ideas of contrary actions, attraction and force.
The pilgrimage has fascinated many non-Muslims for many centuries. One of the first non-Muslim Europeans to undertake the Hajj, explorer and orientalist Richard Burton, had to disguise himself as an Arab in order to undertake the religious pilgrimage, but his record of the journey, A Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to Al-Medinah and Meccah, established his reputation in the West and introduced the religious fervour of the Hajj to Western audiences for the first time.
For more information about the exhibition please visit the British Museum website.
By Elspeth Black