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Curating Hajj: Journey to the Heart of Islam at the British Museum

Today, in Mecca pilgrims are completing their final rites of the great Hajj pilgrimage which occurs in the twelfth month of the Muslim Calendar, Dhu al-Hijjah. At the same time, we at the British Museum are passing through one of our busiest times in preparation of our forthcoming exhibition Hajj journey to the heart of Islam which opens here on Thursday 26th January 2012.

Hajj: journey to the heart of Islam will be the first major exhibition dedicated to the Hajj and will examine the significance of the Hajj as one of the Five Pillars of Islam, exploring its importance for Muslims and looking at how this spiritual journey has evolved throughout history. It will bring together a wealth of objects from a number of different collections including important historic pieces as well as new contemporary art works which reveal the enduring impact of Hajj across the globe and across the centuries.

The exhibition will examine three key strands: the pilgrim’s journey with an emphasis on the major routes used across time (from Africa, Asia, Europe and the Middle East); the Hajj today, its associated rituals and what the experience means to Muslims around the world and finally Mecca, the destination of Hajj, its origins and importance.

For some, this journey could take months. For those coming from across the Indian Ocean and further east, it could take a year as ships before the age of steam could only travel when the monsoon winds blew in the right direction. Such journeys could be rough and terrifying. The Malaysian Munshi Abdallah wrote in 1854 ‘A rough wind blew as we tried to cross Cape Cormorin. Oh God, oh God, oh God! I can’t begin to describe how horrendous it was and how tremendous the waves were….all the goods, chests, sleeping mats and pillows were flung about…everyone was lost in their own thoughts, thinking nothing else but that death was close at hand.’

The exhibition will focus on a number of travellers like Munshi Abdallah who wrote accounts of their Hajj with great passion and dedication.

Many of the objects will come from similarly far-flung locations as our travellers! Major loans will come from collections across the Middle East including Saudi Arabia, as well as Europe especially from Museums and private collections in the UK itself. These objects include archaeological material, beautifully illustrated manuscripts, Ottoman textiles which once adorned the Ka’ba, early photographs of the sanctuary and contemporary art. The Hajj has a deep emotional and spiritual significance for Muslims, and continues to inspire a wide range of personal, literary and artistic responses, many of which will be explored throughout the exhibition.

Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum, said “The British Museum’s exhibition, Hajj: journey to the heart of Islam, will enable a global audience to deepen their understanding of the significance and history of the Hajj. In particular, it will allow non-Muslims to explore the one aspect of Islamic practice and faith which they are not able to witness directly, but which plays a major part in forming a worldwide Islamic consciousness.” Having been on Hajj myself, last year, I truly believe that for Muslims this is not an exhibition to miss. It has taught me so much about the rich material culture associated with an act which is dear to me, but working on the exhibition has also taught me that over the years, since the 7th century, other pilgrims have felt the same way. It will be a vibrant, enriching and meaningful exhibition.

This exhibition concludes the British Museum’s series of three exhibitions focused on spiritual journeys.

Hajj: journey to the heart of Islam

26th January – 15th April 2012

Supported by HSBC Amanah

For tickets and more information go to www.britishmuseum.org/hajj

Written by Qaisra Khan, Curator of Hajj: journey to the heart of Islam and Project Curator in the Department of the Middle East at the British Museum.