The Hajj-Journey to the Heart of Islam

The first major exhibition to explore the traditional pilgrimage to Mecca which is central to the Muslim faith, the Hajj exhibition at British Museum concluded on Sunday 15th April 2012, it was one of the venue’s series of shows that focus on spiritual journeys.

Drawing together artefacts from collections in Saudi Arabia as well as public and private archives in the UK and around the world, ‘The Hajj-Journey to the Heart of Islam’ exhibition at British Museum featured everything from archaeological material and manuscripts to photographs, textiles and contemporary art. The exhibition also included gifts left at the sanctuary in Mecca as acts of devotion, as well as souvenirs brought home.

The exhibition which was organised in partnership with the King Abdulaziz Public Library Riyadh examined three key strands.

These were, the pilgrim’s journey with an emphasis on the major routes used across time, 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 show took visitors on a journey that starts with how Muslims prepare for the pilgrimage, including settling outstanding debts and asking for the forgiveness of others.

Many pilgrims also make wills before they depart, reflecting the belief that they should be prepared for the possibility they may not return home.

Loans on show at the exhibition included significant material from Saudi Arabia including a seetanah, which covers the door of the Kaaba, as well as other historic and contemporary artefacts from key museums in the Middle East. Other objects came from major public and private collections in the UK and around the world, among them the British Library and the Khalili Family Trust.

The exhibition brought together exquisite artefacts tracing four ancient pilgrimage routes – across Arabia, North and West Africa, the Ottoman Empire and the Indian Ocean, the latter including a map of the Indian Ocean made by a seaman from Kutch, annotated in Hindi, Gujarati and English, as well as prosaic items such as tickets for a Thomas Cook Hajj ship and an example of a Bengali embroidered rumal cloth, shipped over the Indian Ocean to be traded at Mecca and taken home by Indonesian pilgrims as a souvenir. The fifth pilgrimage route depicted was the contemporary journey made by 20,000 odd British Muslims every year from Heathrow airport. At the exhibition’s end was an audio exhibition playing some moving testimonies from British Muslims of their Hajj pilgrimages, recorded by anthropologist Sean McLouglin from Leeds University.

An estimated 60,000 British Muslims visited the Hajj exhibition since it opened in January. The first museum show anywhere in the world to focus on the pilgrimage, in less than seven weeks it exceeded the museum’s target of 80,000 visitors.

By the end of the exhibition 119,948 adult tickets (under-16s get in free) had been sold at £12 each, with all advance tickets sold out and the museum opening for longer hours to accommodate the extra demand.

Though the museum does not monitor the religion of its visitors, director Neil MacGregor estimated that more than half were Muslim, an unprecedented number. “We’ve had groups coming in coaches from Birmingham, Manchester – all over the UK,” said Qaisra Khan, the exhibition’s project curator.

Khan said the museum was surprised at how popular the show had been, although they had deliberately targeted Muslims over the two years it took to plan and market it.

First, Khan contacted Maqsood Ahmed, then senior adviser to Muslim communities in the Communities and Local Government department.

“He pulled together the umbrella organisations and groups around the UK who had a good reputation and were moderate, and who would understand what we were doing with the exhibition, take it to their congregation or members and post information on their sites.”

The groups included the Council of British Hajjis and the Association of British Hujjaj, both of whom helped organise the Hajj for British Muslims.

The museum also invited local Muslim community groups to previews of the show to create a word-of-mouth buzz. “Once one group was able to say ‘we really recommend this’ it spread like wildfire,” said Khan.

The exhibition has been contentious, however, with commentators including the Observer’s Nick Cohen claiming that it has been compromised by the involvement of the Saudi Arabian regime.

The state lent exhibits, including the seetanah, which covers the door of the Kaaba, while the exhibition was partnered with the King Abdulaziz Public Library and sponsored by the Islamic bank, HSBC Amanah.

The museum responded that the Saudis had “not contributed funds to this project or had any curatorial control over the content of the exhibition”.

“I think most of our audiences recognised what we were trying to do, which was to display and demonstrate this very personal, spiritual journey,” said Khan. “It wasn’t about the politics of it.”

Having tapped into a new audience of British Muslims, Khan said that while no further exhibitions along the lines of Hajj were planned, she was confident they would return to the British Museum, whose Islamic gallery is run by the show’s curator, Venetia Porter.

As non-Muslims, neither the director of the British Museum, Neil MacGregor, nor the lead curator, Venetia Porter, can ever set foot at the sites or experience the rituals the exhibition describes. “In a way that’s the point of the exhibition,” MacGregor said. “The hajj is the fifth pillar of Islam, and the only one which non-Muslims are not welcomed to observe or share. The purpose of the British Museum when it was founded was to enable its visitors to understand the world better, and this must surely meet that objective.”

MacGregor described the hajj as “the high point of the intersection between theology and logistics”.

The exhibition also traced the suppliers of travellers’ provisions, the organisers of camel caravans, the queen who left a legacy of a chain of wells and rest houses, and the builders who constructed railways specially for the pilgrims.


? The hajj is one of the largest spiritual pilgrimages in the world and was embraced by nearly two million people last year alone.

? Many make the journey to Mecca, in Saudi Arabia, as it is laid down in the Holy Qu’ran that the journey is a duty that must be carried out at least once by every able bodied Muslim, provided they can afford it.

? It takes place during the last month of the Islamic year, known as Dhu’l Hijja and once there pilgrims are required to walk seven times around Mecca’s most sacred site, the Kaaba, a cuboid shaped building in the centre of the holy city.

? Although pilgrimages to Mecca are thought to date as far back as 2000 BC, it is believed that the first hajj, in which the Prophet Muhammad(PBUH) led his followers from Medina to Mecca, was performed by Muslims alone in the 7th century.

? Once there Prophet Muhammad(PBUH) is said to have cleansed the Kaaba and re-ordained the building as the house of God.

? From this point the Hajj became one of the Five Pillars of Islam.

? The other four pillars are Shahadah–a statement recited in Arabic, the Salat– five daily prayers, the fasting during the month of Ramadan and paying Zakat–a charitable donation for the needy.

Asad Mirza, Editor of Britain Today visited the exhibition on his recent visit to the UK

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