As non-Muslims are not permitted to undertake the Hajj, the Western world has always been fascinated by the mystery of this great Muslim tradition. The museum’s director, Neil MacGregor, says: ‘In
particular, the exhibition will allow non-Muslims to explore the one aspect of Islamic practice and faith which they are not able to witness.’ Improving understanding in a continent where many speak of Islamophobia is welcome indeed. Rather than sitting back and thinking about your need to order Propecia, renew your library books or send that birthday card, consider visiting the exhibit and immersing yourself in an aspect of another culture that has previously been closely guarded.
Yet it is not just intended for Westerners and MacGregor says that the exhibition intends to reach to a ‘global audience’. Muslims are indeed among those visiting the exhibition and are invited to give their views on the experience of the Hajj on the museum’s website. Muslim visitors to the exhibition have praised the wealth of artefacts on show of the exhibition, which claims to be the first such exhibition about the Hajj on this scale.
The exhibition juxtaposes old and new. An eighth-century Koran which is thought to be one of the oldest surviving copies, on loan from the British Library, is on display. Yet the exhibition also hosts works by artist and Saudi national Ahmed Mater, who saw a resemblance between the gravitation of iron filings towards a magnet and the draw of many devoted Muslims to the Kabah and has illustrated this in his work – last year the pilgrimage is said to have numbered three million.
Centuries-old accounts of journeys to Mecca are displayed alongside Hajj certificates and tickets for pilgrims issued by Thomas Cook. Another highlight is a striking red silk tent that would have been the centrepiece in a camel caravan carrying pilgrims from Cairo to Mecca. These exhibits focus on the journey itself, reflecting the first of the three aspects of the exhibition, the actual journey that pilgrims had to make to reach Mecca. Other aspects comprising the exhibition are the rituals, experience and meaning of the Hajj to Muslims around the world and, finally, the importance of Mecca itself.
The British Museum worked in partnership with the King Abdulaziz Library in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, to set up the exhibition and Saudi Arabia is among thirteen countries that have loaned artefacts. For example, a seetanah that covers the door to the Kabah was carefully transported to London for the event. The library’s General Supervisor, Faysal Muammar, said he hoped the exhibition would be a source of ‘inspiration and enlightenment’ to all those who visit and attended its opening alongside Saudi officials.
The curator’s exhibition was Pakistan-born British-Muslim Qasira Khan, who actually undertook the Hajj last year as part of her preparation and has included some of her souvenirs in the cabinets. She said that the experience changed her view of the exhibition. She added: “They say that when you go on Hajj it is due to an invitation by God and my invitation must have been due that year.”