3 April 2012

Review: Hajj – Journey to the heart of Islam

By Helen Mears
Keeper of World Art, Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove

'We were all brothers' by Ayman Yossri Daydban. Copyright: Mohammed Hafiz, Saudi Arabia

'They asked me what about the Hajj had impressed me the most … I said, the brotherhood! The people of all races, colors, from all over the world coming together as one!' - 
Malcolm X, 1964 [quote reproduced in the exhibition]

This British Museum exhibition about the pilgrimage to Mecca, a religious duty that all Muslims should undertake once in their lifetime, is awe-inspiring. Beyond the impressive range of  material and visual culture associated with the pilgrimage assembled, the most astonishing aspect of the exhibition is the pilgrimage itself and the huge numbers of people who undertake it – nearly 3 million in 2011. The exhibition's designers and curators encourage this feeling of awe and large images of pilgrims in their multitude - embarking on their journeys, standing in contemplation and prayer at Arafat and circumambulating the Ka'ba - feature throughout the exhibition, including a jaw-dropping cinematic feature created for Imax.

The exhibition also emphasises the extent to which the Hajj symbolises the diversity of Islam. Pilgrims come from almost every part of the world - West and North Africa, South Asia, South East Asia and the Middle East – and represent every section of society. The exhibition traces the historic routes and arduous journeys undertaken by pilgrims in the past underlining the huge commitment the pilgrimage entailed. In describing 'an intensely personal experience as well as a collective public act' the exhibition also makes extensive use of first-hand accounts and most text panels include direct quotations helping non-Muslims gain an insight into the huge spiritual importance of the pilgrimage to Muslim people. Especially moving amongst these is an account of the Hajj handwritten in an exercise book by a young Shi'a pilgrim in 2006. Of her first sight of the Ka'ba she writes 'words cannot describe the emotions'. The book is accompanied by mementoes of her pilgrimage including a key fob and ID badge.

Curtain for the door of the Ka'ba in the name of Sultan Abd al-Majid Khan. Cairo, 1846-47. Copyright: Nasser D. Khalili Collection of Islamic Art (Khalili Family Trust)
In every sense the exhibition encourages the visitor to feel that they are joining the pilgrimage, aided by the shape of displays, which are fitted into the round reading room. The exhibition entrance is via a corridor along the curved side of the room and at the climactic centre of the exhibition a Ka'ba-shaped structure presents a number of stunning examples of kiswa, sumptuous, heavily-embroidered textiles made to cover the Ka'ba. Like the community that make the Hajj, the exhibition's visitor profile was refreshingly diverse. On the busy Saturday that I attended, Muslim families and Saturday faith school groups formed a large part of the audience. Against a backdrop of unfailing national suspicion about what it means to be British and Muslim there could be no better indictment of the positive aspects of a faith which unites communities across the globe.

'Hajj - Journey to the Heart of Islam' is at the British Museum until 15 April 2012.


  1. Wonderful colors and organic natural forms. Reminds me of a painting like Rainy landscape, by Russian painter Kandinsky, http://EN.WahooArt.com/A55A04/w.nsf/OPRA/BRUE-8EWL66, that I saw at wahooart.com, from where one can order a canvas print of it. Really good place to browse the painter’s work and other work similar to your style of painting.

  2. Another great article. I like that you are very honest and direct to the point.

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