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…

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