The Hajj — the pilgrimage to Mecca — is central to Islam, yet as only Muslims are allowed to perform the Hajj, it remains a mystery to most people. The British Museum seeks to remedy this by offering a unique insight into the origins, history and rituals of the Hajj. A wealth of information is on display alongside artefacts ranging from the lavish banners carried by pilgrims, to the more mundane items such as the cups that they drank from.
In the Reading Room, the British Museum has arguably one of the premier exhibition spaces in the country and it has been used to great effect here. You begin to hear the adhan (the call to prayer) before you’ve even entered the exhibition and this immerses you in the reverence that is afforded to the Hajj.
There are many magnificent artefacts on display, from a delicate and ornately decorated quran to an opulent mahmul (a ceremonial palanquin). However, the focus of this exhibit is on the journey to Mecca itself and the weight of detail available makes this exhibit truly fascinating — from the life threatening challenges faced by the pilgrims through to the many famous historical figures who completed the Hajj.
The stories of modern British pilgrims and what the Hajj means to them helps present this ancient pilgrimage in a modern light, making it easier for the uninitiated to understand why it inspires such revelatory experiences amongst modern Muslims.
Some minor quibbles are that the exhibition is not as logically structured as it could have been and goes off on tangents a few too many times. Though these tangents usually result in some remarkable stories, it does give the exhibition a slightly disjointed feel.
You don’t need to be interested in the Hajj or Islam to find this exhibit both eye-opening and fascinating, though you should set aside at least ninety minutes to assimilate all the information on display.
In a time when most people are curious about Islam, this exhibition does an excellent job of shedding some light on one of its least understood rituals.
By Tabish Khan
Hajj: Journey to the Heart of Islam is on at the British Museum until 15 April 2012. Tickets: £12, free to BM friends. Concessions available.