Hajj Experience Stories Essays

The exhibition entitled "Hajj: Journey to the heart of Islam", which runs at the British Museum in London until 15 April, is the first-ever major exhibition to focus on the annual Muslim pilgrimage. Mounted in the museum's iconic Round Reading Room, the exhibition brings together an extraordinary array of 209 items from the British Museum and 39 institutions in the Arab world, Europe, Mali, Malaysia, the USA and Australia.

This ground-breaking exhibition is accompanied by a magnificent 288-page book edited by Venetia Porter, the British Museum's curator of Islamic and Modern Middle Eastern art and co-curator of the exhibition, and her colleague Qaisra Khan.

"Our key purpose in this exhibition is to try to allow everybody – Muslims and especially non-Muslims – to get some sense of what the experience of Hajj is and above all what it means," says the museum's director Neil MacGregor.

The exhibition aims "to present what is a supreme theological, religious experience – and what is arguably the greatest logistical challenge that exists on the planet once a year as nearly three million people gather in the same place to perform the same rituals at the same time. We have tried to show both those elements: the intensely personal religious aspect of the Hajj and the practical side."

Religious and political sensitivities

​​The challenges in mounting the exhibition were considerable. As MacGregor says, the Hajj is "one of the five pillars of Islam that non-Muslims can neither watch nor take part in." Religious and political sensitivities had to be considered, and the cooperation of the authorities in Saudi Arabia – home to the holy cities of Mecca and Medina – was essential. The museum's partner in the exhibition is the Riyadh-based King Abdulaziz Public Library, and the exhibition is sponsored by HSBC's Islamic banking arm, HSBC Amanah.

The exhibits include manuscripts, paintings, archaeological finds, tiles, photographs, Hajj certificates, pilgrim guides, archive film footage and objects taken by pilgrims on the Hajj or brought home as souvenirs. Among the sumptuous textiles are examples of the coverings, panels and curtains made annually for the Kaaba in Mecca.

One particularly eye-catching item is a splendid nineteenth century mahmal – the ceremonial palanquin carried on a camel which was the centrepiece of the pilgrim caravan from Cairo. The rich red silk of the mahmal, embroidered in silver and gold thread, is hung from a wooden frame.

Relating stories about the Hajj

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Among the earliest items on show is a rare eighth-century Arabian Koran. However, alongside the historical material, Porter was keen to include modern art such as Saudi artist Ahmed Mater's striking 2011 composition "Magnetism". The work takes the form of a black cuboid magnet, representing the Kaaba, surrounded by a mass of swirling iron filings symbolizing crowds of circumambulating pilgrims.

Once it had been decided which objects would be shown in the exhibition "it was a matter of working out all the different types of stories we wanted to tell," says Porter. "Wonderful things emerged; for example I didn't know that Thomas Cook arranged the pilgrimage ships in the mid-nineteenth century. There are lots of different kinds of stories that we're able to tell in this exhibition."

Some of these stories are accounts of the Hajj by pilgrims from different times and places. Thanks to an Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) grant, the museum was able to collaborate with Leeds University to collect oral histories of British Muslims' experiences of the Hajj.

Porter is struck by the similarities between the chronicles of early travellers to Mecca – such as Ibn Battuta in the fourteenth century and Ibn Jubayr in the fifteenth century – and the voices of Hajj pilgrims today. "There is that same sense of wonderment when they are standing before the Kaaba. The journey may have changed, but the reason for going, and the reactions to it, haven't changed."

All roads lead to Mecca

​​The modes of travel and routes of the Hajj have been transformed over time. The exhibition focuses on five routes. The first is the Arabian Route from Kufa to Mecca, named Darb Zubayda after the famous Queen Zubayda (died 831), wife of the great caliph Harun al-Rashid. Zubayda so loved the pilgrimage that she made sure wells were dug and rest stations constructed to care for the pilgrims on their arduous journey.

The African route ran from Timbuktu in Mali, via Ghadames and Cairo. In 1324 Emperor Mansa Musa set off with a retinue of 8,000 including 500 slaves, and carried so much gold that the price of gold slumped in Egypt.

The Ottoman Route began in Istanbul and passed through Damascus. The ancient Indian Ocean maritime routes to Jeddah declined with the advent of mass air travel. One present-day route highlighted by the exhibition is the British route, by air from London to Jeddah.

The holding of the Hajj exhibition accords with MacGregor's view that "it has become very clear for all of us in recent years that we can't understand our world today unless we think about the relationship of faith and society."

MacGregor has over the past year and a half initiated a series of three exhibitions exploring this faith dimension. The first was "Journey through the Afterlife: Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead". It was followed by "Treasures of Heaven: Saints, relics and devotion in medieval Europe".

Positive yet critical reaction

​​"Hajj: Journey to the heart of Islam", is the third and final exhibition. Speaking on BBC radio, Mehdi Hasan, senior political editor of the New Statesman magazine, praised the exhibition as "bridge building in an era where there's so much misinformation, misunderstanding and misrepresentation of Muslims in the West." He added: "If it goes some way towards showing here is an amazing spiritual, geographic, theological, historical experience – nothing to do with terrorism, bombs, politics or Middle East wars – that's a good thing."

But Hasan shared the concern of some other critics who, while giving the exhibition a generally high rating, felt that the close Saudi involvement had led to a glossing over of certain aspects of Hajj and the holy places.

For Hasan, the "gaping hole" in the exhibition is the absence both of the politics of Saudi Arabia and of the influence of the austere Wahhabi school of Islam. "Having been on the Hajj, I've seen with my own eyes some of the cultural vandalism that's gone on in Mecca and Medina," Hasan said.

Susannah Tarbush

© Qantara.de 2012

Editor: Aingeal Flanagan/Qantara.de

This column was originally published in the Duke Chronicle. It has been reprinted with permission.

As you read these lines, millions of Muslims in Mecca are going through various stages of their life-changing pilgrimage experience. The billion and a half remaining Muslims who didn't go to Hajj this year are busying themselves in preparation for Eid al-Adha, or "Festival of Sacrifice," which marks the end of Hajj this coming Friday. Eid al-Adha is one of the two most important days of celebration in the Islamic calendar. It is in many ways a Muslim Christmas, for like Christmas it features joyful celebrations in all Muslim-majority societies.

Hajj, the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca that has been going on annually for the last 1,400 years, is one of the five pillars of Islam. It is a once-in-a-lifetime religious duty that all Muslim women and men of all ethnic and racial backgrounds yearn to complete, provided that they are able to do so. So, as part of this great Islamic tradition, millions of believing women and men are travelling to the holiest sites of Islam, following in the footsteps of the patriarch Abraham, his pious and God-fearing wife Hagar and their son Ishmael. Muslims of all possible backgrounds, including thousands of American Muslims, are performing Hajj at this very moment as they connect with one another in the oneness of humanity. Hajj is very often a powerful and transformational, mountaintop kind of experience for people who take this daring journey. People often come back changed for the better, and strive harder to live a more ethical and moral life.

Instead of what Hajj is or is not, I want to briefly reflect on what is to me one of the most powerful Hajj stories that speaks to the heart and spirit of Hajj very eloquently. One American's personal transformation through his Hajj experience changed the course of his personal history, and the history of his community, his country and beyond. I say "beyond" because I have heard this American Muslim's moving Hajj story over and over again, and it has made an impact on my life since my youth growing up in Turkey in the early 1980s.

The charismatic and passionate leader of the Nation of Islam, Malcolm X, took his Hajj journey in 1964 when the United States -- then racially segregated -- was going through the extremely challenging chapters of national racial tension and conflict.

Malcolm left the then-segregated U.S. as one of the most controversial and influential African-American leaders of that time. Even today, Malcolm is accused of having preached black supremacy, racism and violence. His advocacy for total separation of black and white Americans put him in an entirely separate category from the other iconic leaders of civil rights movements. Pre-Hajj Malcolm passionately believed that blacks and whites could not live together harmoniously and that non-violence was not the way to achieve what he thought black Americans deserved as equal but oppressed citizens of the U.S. He never hid his intense anger and resentment toward the white race as he held them responsible for the unspeakable violations of human rights against black people that went on for centuries.

Amazingly, he came back from his Hajj journey as a new Malcolm. The transformational power of Hajj changed him, his convictions and his aspirations. He couldn't wait until he got back to the U.S. to share this change with his followers. In his famous "Letter from Hajj," he informed his followers about the unexpected but irreversible changes that took place in his heart and mind as he went through his spiritual journey at the holy sites of Islam. He expressed his immediate shock and surprise in the following words:

"Never have I witnessed such sincere hospitality and overwhelming spirit of true brotherhood as is practiced by people of all colors and races here in this ancient Holy Land, the home of Abraham, Muhammad and all the other Prophets of the Holy Scriptures. For the past week, I have been utterly speechless and spellbound by the graciousness I see displayed all around me by people of all colors ... from blue-eyed blondes to black-skinned Africans. But we were all participating in the same ritual, displaying a spirit of unity and brotherhood that my experiences in America had led me to believe never could exist between the white and non-white."

In his powerful testimony, he told his fellow Americans what kind of Malcolm he would be upon returning to the United States. "You may be shocked by these words coming from me," he wrote.

"But on this pilgrimage, what I have seen, and experienced, has forced me to rearrange much of my thought-patterns previously held, and to toss aside some of my previous conclusions. ... Each hour here in the Holy Land enables me to have greater spiritual insights into what is happening in America between black and white. The American Negro never can be blamed for his racial animosities -- he is only reacting to four hundred years of the conscious racism of the American whites. But as racism leads America up the suicide path, I do believe, from the experiences that I have had with them, that the whites of the younger generation, in the colleges and universities, will see the handwriting on the walls and many of them will turn to the spiritual path of truth -- the only way left to America to ward off the disaster that racism inevitably must lead to."

His entire letter is worth reading and reflecting upon in this season of Hajj. It still sparks inspiration and wisdom for us all. Post-Hajj Malcolm's amazing impact on our recent history requires another column. For now, may we receive so many more transformed new Malcolms as thousands of American Muslims return from their Hajj journey soon.

Follow Imam Abdullah Antepli on Twitter: www.twitter.com/aantepli

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