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In the Supreme Shrine

Hajj: Journey to the Heart of Islam

an exhibition at the British Museum, London, January 26–April 15, 2012
Catalog of the exhibition edited by Venetia Porter
Harvard University Press, 288 pp., $39.95
Shadia Alem
In God’s Eye, by the Saudi Arabian artist Shadia Alem, showing Muslim pilgrims around the Ka’aba, the black cube believed to have been built by the Prophet Abraham that stands at the center of the Meccan sanctuary, 2010

The pilgrimage to Mecca, the Hajj, is the supreme expression of global Islam. This year more than 2.5 million Muslims will undertake the journey from towns and villages around the world; during their absence, they will be in the thoughts and prayers of a much larger circle of family and friends. Setting out in their own national dress, speaking different languages, and espousing widely varying versions of Islam, by the time they arrive at Mecca these Indonesians, Afghans, and Nigerians will, in important ways, have become one. While in the sanctified area of Mecca and its neighborhood, wearing identical garb (the men at any rate, in lengths of seamless white fabric), they will speak the same Arabic prayers, perform the same rituals, and abstain from the same chores and pleasures. For many, including large numbers of women, these five days of spiritual and social togetherness will be the most important time of their lives.

Pilgrimage is not, of course, unique to Islam. Other faiths have found a place for it—as a means of connecting with some historical or mythical event, or of symbolically “ascending” (by climbing a ziggurat, for example) toward God. What sets Islam apart from other religious traditions, including Judaism and Christianity, is that its founder elevated a pilgrimage into a binding obligation for all able-bodied believers who can afford it. As a test of religious mettle, the Hajj is clearly more arduous than the other obligations laid down by the Prophet Muhammad—the declaration of faith, the ritual prayer, alms-giving, and the Ramadan fast.

The Hajj is composed not of one ritual but several, some of which predate the holy word that is believed to have been revealed to Muhammad and that we know as the Koran. By incorporating these earlier rituals, and “purifying” them of any pagan accretions, Muhammad demonstrated Islam’s authority over all religious experience that preceded it. The Hajj is typically conducted at a high spiritual pitch, with pilgrims describing a transcendent calm while performing rites alongside countless thousands of others. Many concentrate on the Ka’aba, the black-draped cube, made of stone, at the center of the Meccan sanctuary, which is believed to have been built by the Prophet Abraham, and which is the symbolic and physical focus of Islam. In the words of Ali Shariati, a prominent Iranian preacher of the 1970s, to circumambulate the Ka’aba is to “forget yourself…you have been transformed into a particle that is gradually melting and disappearing. This is absolute love at its peak.”

But the Hajj does much more than answer a need for spiritual obliteration. It has a declamatory function, and that is to state the political and historical truth of Muhammad’s mission. The Hajj is a summons to orthodoxy and a reminder of Islam’s ownership of its origins. With the passage of centuries, its unchanging aspects have become an implicit rejection of certain values that we consider “modern.” The prohibition of non-Muslims from the holy precincts, for instance—any who are identified are summarily ejected by authorities—is an uncompromising assertion of superiority. The guardians of the holy city, i.e. the administrators appointed by the House of Saud, do not permit scientific analysis that might show the natural origins of the numinous black stone that is embedded in the Ka’aba, and that is said to have come down from heaven.

The diversity of the participants, the combination of personal fulfilment and theological and historical meaning—all this has given the Hajj a unique importance. Whoever controls Mecca and its fellow holy city, Medina—where Muhammad set up the first Islamic government, and where he was buried—has a claim to some kind of authority over all Muslims.

An exhibition at the British Museum, “Hajj: Journey to the Heart of Islam,” sets a new precedent in the depiction of Islam in the West. Over many decades, innumerable exhibitions and gallery spaces have attracted an educated Western public by concentrating on Islam’s artistic legacy. (The Metropolitan Museum’s refurbished Islamic rooms are a recent example.1) By showing Islamic art and architecture and their often fruitful interactions with our own, these institutions have conditioned the generally sympathetic attitudes that many non-Muslims have toward Islam as a force of considerable creative power. These attitudes have even survived more recent attempts, particularly after September 11, to denounce Islam as a violent ideology.

This view of Islam as a frame for creativity may be attractive and well-intentioned, but it is incomplete. To devout Muslims, Islam is primarily a faith and only after that a civilization. In fact, the cultural artifacts can often obscure the faith they are meant to adorn. An appreciation of this distinction runs through the British Museum show, which was put together by Venetia Porter, the museum’s curator of Islamic and modern Middle Eastern art. Beautiful objects abound, but they seem to have been selected less for their aesthetic value than because they help explain the rituals, which an outsider may find arcane or impenetrable, that make up the Hajj. Equally, quite banal or tacky objects drawn from the modern pilgrimage—blue plastic flip-flops worn by pilgrims; a ring-bound guide for English-speaking pilgrims, entitled Hajj and Umrah Made Easy—are displayed prominently and without irony. This approach alerts the visitor to the idea of Islam not as an art repository but as a vast, living religion. This, of course, is exactly what a lot of non-Muslims don’t like about it.

The Prophet Muhammad performed the Hajj just once, at the end of his life, in 632. (Two years earlier, after an eight-year absence from the city of his birth, he had persuaded the Meccans to submit to him.) The first Hajj is the template for the pilgrimage that takes place today, during which Muslims affirm their faith, receive forgiveness for their sins, and relive the efforts of their distant forebears to please a severe and demanding God.

It begins on the eighth day of the lunar month Dhu’l Hijja (which this year falls on October 24). Pilgrims begin by going seven times around the Ka’aba. They approach as close as they can to the black stone within it. They hurry to and fro along a corridor that follows the route taken by Abraham’s exiled concubine Hagar, whose terrible thirst reduced her to rushing about in search of water. They drink from the miraculous well, Zamzam, just to the east of the Ka’aba, which saved her and her son Ismail from certain death.

Later in the Hajj, the pilgrims pray in a vast multitude on the plain of Arafat, eleven kilometers from Mecca. Here, according to Muslim tradition, Adam was reunited with Eve after their expulsion from Paradise, and Muhammad preached his final sermon. They hurl pebbles at three stone pillars representing Satan, who tempted Abraham to defy God’s order that he sacrifice Ismail (according to the Bible, the putative victim was Ismail’s half-brother Isaac). They pass hours in prayer and contemplation, often in the open air, and sacrifice an animal—usually a goat—again, emulating Abraham. Accommodation in Mecca ranges from the most luxurious hotels to doss houses—although the night preceding the ceremonies at Arafat is spent under canvas in the desert.

The exhibition has been staged in what was the reading room of the British Library, with a black cube reminiscent of the Ka’aba as its focal point. This round, domed room works surprisingly well; the visitor almost circumambulates around the exhibition space.

The initial displays establish the importance of the parched desert town and its black cube to the Muslim worldview. The Ka’aba occupies the center of paintings that adorn a seventeenth-century version of Hajj Made Easy, and of an Ottoman map showing the discovery of the Americas. It seems appropriate that the names of great cities like Baghdad and Constantinople should lie at the edges of an ivory compass showing the direction to Mecca from every Muslim region of the world.

The show emphasizes the international nature of the Hajj—all roads lead to Mecca, as it were. There is a seventeenth-century South Indian painting of the mosque at Medina (which many pilgrims also visit while they are in Arabia) and a nineteenth-century travelogue, complete with a sketch of the Meccan sanctuary, by an eminent Chinese scholar of Islam. To the holy cities, pilgrims brought their own eye—and, for many, a disregard for the orthodox injunction against reproducing the human form in art. Pilgrims from Mughal India have left us evocative miniatures of pilgrims sacrificing a camel and collecting pebbles to hurl at the Satanic pillars. A nineteenth-Indian watercolorist has included human figures in his detailed Meccan cityscapes.

Many pilgrims have died en route and some divorced their wives even before setting out. The effect of exposure to Mecca was often to reinforce orthodoxy in far-flung places, as well as the universality of Arabic as the language favored by God. It is striking to find fragments of Arabic in Hajj literature from as far apart as Mali and Sumatra. Souvenirs might take the form of a receptacle of some kind containing Zamzam water, and the show includes a porcelain flask of Chinese manufacture side by side with a bottle brought home by a Dutch Orientalist—both from the nineteenth century. The most poignant object in this section is a helmet that was owned by the Indian prince Tipu Sultan, which, since it had been dipped in Zamzam water, was believed to be impenetrable. He must not have been wearing it when he was killed by the British in 1799.

The exhibition takes us along several of the land and sea routes that were followed by pilgrims during the early centuries of Islam, when Mecca was controlled by caliphs in Damascus, Baghdad, or Cairo. Perhaps the most impressive contribution to the safety and comfort of pilgrims was made by the Abbasids of Baghdad, whose road linking the capital to Mecca, built in the late eighth and early ninth centuries, in part by the wife of Harun al-Rashid, was one of the great political statements of the age. This partially paved roadway ran through desert and lava fields, but the dauntless Abbasids built reservoirs for collecting rainwater and run-off, besides fire signals for night travel (more comfortable than sweltering under the sun) and milestones. An eighth-century milestone showing the distance to Kufa, in southern Iraq, is one of the most evocative pieces in the show.

Maintaining security was another challenge. As long as the caliphate was rich and strong, the Bedouin tribesmen along the route could be paid the tribute they demanded, or else smacked down with military force. During periods of political instability, however, the Hajj could be lethal. In 1757, the tribesmen reacted savagely after being denied their usual tribute; some twenty thousand pilgrims died of a combination of Bedouin assaults and the heat. Later, as pilgrim numbers increased, the Hajj acted as a vehicle for contagion. This is what happened in 1865, when cholera originating in the Far East and carried to Mecca spread worldwide after the pilgrims’ return home.

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    See Peter Brown’s review of the Met’s new Islamic galleries in The New York Review, December 8, 2011. 

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