The Ka'aba, Mecca

The Hajj

By Christopher de Bellaigue
New York Review of Books, April 26, 2012

Edited by Andy Ross

Hajj: Journey to the Heart of Islam
British Museum, London, England
January 26 to April 15, 2012

The pilgrimage to Mecca, the Hajj, is the supreme expression of global Islam. This year more than 2.5 million Muslims will undertake the journey.

The Prophet Muhammad elevated the Hajj into a binding obligation for all able-bodied believers who can afford it. He laid down five obligations for Muslims: the declaration of faith, the ritual prayer, giving of alms, fasting during Ramadan, and the Hajj.

The Hajj is typically conducted at a high spiritual pitch, with pilgrims describing a transcendent calm while performing rites alongside countless thousands of others. Many concentrate on the Ka'aba, the black-draped stone cube at the center of the Meccan sanctuary, which is believed to have been built by the Prophet Abraham, and which is the symbolic and physical focus of Islam.

The pilgrimage is a summons to orthodoxy and a reminder of Islam's ownership of its origins. The prohibition of non-Muslims from the holy precincts is an uncompromising assertion of superiority. The guardians of the holy city are administrators appointed by the House of Saud.

The British Museum exhibition sets a new precedent in the depiction of Islam in the West. The exhibits seem to have been selected to help explain the rituals that make up the Hajj. This approach alerts the visitor to the idea of Islam not as an art repository but as a living religion.

The Prophet Muhammad performed the Hajj in 632 CE. That first Hajj is the template for the pilgrimage that takes place today, during which Muslims affirm their faith, receive forgiveness for their sins, and relive the efforts of their distant forebears to please Allah.

Pilgrims begin by going seven times around the Ka'aba. They approach as close as they can to the black stone within it. They hurry to and fro along a corridor. They drink from the miraculous well, Zamzam. Later they pray in a vast multitude on the plain of Arafat. Here Muhammad preached his final sermon. They hurl pebbles at three stone pillars representing Satan. They pass hours in prayer and contemplation and sacrifice an animal.

The exhibition centers on a black cube reminiscent of the Ka'aba. The names of great cities like Baghdad and Constantinople lie at the edges of an ivory compass showing the direction to Mecca from every Muslim region of the world. Pilgrims followed several land and sea routes during the early centuries of Islam, when Mecca was controlled by caliphs in Damascus, Baghdad, or Cairo. The Abbasids of Baghdad built a road linking their capital to Mecca.

The British Museum enjoyed the cooperation of the Saudi authorities in staging the exhibition.

Hajj Hit

The Guardian, April 13, 2012

Since it opened in January, the Hajj exhibition has attracted huge numbers of visitors. Over 120,000 adult tickets (under-16s get in free) have been sold at 12 each, with all advance tickets sold out and the museum opening for longer hours to accommodate the extra demand. Museum director Neil MacGregor estimates that more than half were Muslim. Many group visits were organized by the Council of British Hajjis and the Association of British Hujjaj, both of which help British Muslims perform the Hajj.

AR  I shall not travel to London in time to enjoy this exhibition.