Hajj: Journey to the heart of Islam

5th April 2012

The British Museum’s exhibition on the Hajj has had mixed reviews and I was curious to see which side of opinion I’d lean to after I’d seen it. Visitors enter through a narrow corridor flanked by pictures of people on the Hajj and as you walk amongst the people in the pictures visitors listen to the Talbiyya (the prayer Muslims recite before setting off on the Hajj) A clever way to engage the audience into the experience ahead. And that’s exactly how to describe the exhibition an experience. Sights and sounds beautifully melt together as you journey along the Hajj following the different routes of the pilgrims from all parts of the world to Mecca.

Accounts of the different journeys are shared from the Gujarati Maps Indian sailors used to navigate their way, to the tickets issued by Thomas Cook (yep he was around way back in 19th Century) to the letters of Lady Evelyn Cobbold (the first British woman to perform the Hajj in 1933) At the centre of the experience is ‘Mecca’ which has a short film playing that explains the rituals and customs that pilgrims must observe and perform once they have reached Mecca.

A wonderful insight for any non- Muslims. A specially commissioned piece by Idris Khan closes the exhibition. Again sight and sounds came together. You can hear the extracts of pilgrim’s experiences of the Hajj as well as see these extracts stamped on to the canvas.

Critics argue that an exhibition sponsored by Saudi Arabia can only be biased and avoids addressing issues on human rights in the Middle East. For me, Religion was separated from other issues and rightly so, this was simply about Islam’s fifth pillar and as a non-Muslim the exhibition gave me a clear understanding of the Hajj. An exhibition that shares Islam to a wider audience is definitely a positive.

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