Bringing Mecca to the British Museum

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Bibliothèque Nationale de France

A detail from the Catalan Atlas, attributed to the Majorcan Jewish cartographer Abraham Cresques, 1375

Over the next two months the great domed interior of what used to be the British Museum’s reading room, where Marx researched Das Kapital and Bram Stoker (creator of Dracula) was a reader, is host to Hajj, a remarkable exhibition that celebrates the most sacred event in the Islamic calendar, the pilgrimage to Mecca. The exhibition seems more than a cultural event—a milestone, perhaps, in the public recognition and acceptance of Islam at the heart of British life. Conceived by British Museum director Neil MacGregor and the museum’s Islamic art curator Venetia Porter with assistance from the Saudi Arabian government, it is an unusual collaboration between a museum dedicated to secular learning and the current rulers of Islam’s holiest sites, who have lent many important works.

Presiding over its opening in late January were Prince Abdulaziz bin Abdullah, deputy Saudi foreign minister and son of the Saudi King, and Prince Charles—the heir to the British throne. There was a pleasing irony in the ceremony’s being held (with soft drinks only) in the gallery devoted to the eighteenth century Enlightenment with the princes reading their speeches in front of a Roman statue of the goddess Minerva. Prince Charles, who will presumably be the next Supreme Governor of the Church of England, spoke of the show’s “timeless truth that all life is rooted in the unity of our Creator.” Prince Abdulaziz—by Saudi standards an enlightened figure who sponsors translations of scientific texts into and out of Arabic—referred to his country’s “tangible efforts to spread peace all over the world,” a comment that raised few eyebrows from the assembled ranks of the British establishment, despite recent Saudi efforts to help the ruling Sunni dynasty in Bahrain suppress demonstrations by mainly Shiite protestors.

But while there were political implications, this was not in any strict sense, a political forum and in any case British royals, including Prince Charles, appear more comfortable with the hereditary rulers of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf, whom they regard as kindred spirits, than the uncertainties unleashed by the Arab Spring.

Hajj was organized in partnership with the King Abdul Aziz Public Library in Riyadh, which facilitated the loan of objects from Saudi Arabia, and helped with some of the texts, as Porter explained. (Funding came from the HSBC Amanah bank and the British government’s Arts and Humanities Research Council.) And while Saudi Arabian officials had no role in the choice or presentation of other objects loaned from more than thirty other collections, the organizers have clearly gone to some lengths to accommodate Saudi sensitivities and to undergird the monarch’s role as Guardian of Islam’s two holiest shrines (namely Mecca, where Muhammad was born and Medina where he is buried).

One of five obligatory “pillars” of the Islamic faith, the Hajj unites Muslims from all classes, backgrounds and traditions. It includes the ritual circumambulation of the Ka‘ba, the cubular building that stands at the center of the Grand Mosque in Mecca, in the direction of which Muslims in all parts of the world face during daily prayers, as well as other demanding rituals conducted in the neighborhood of Mecca.

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Abdel-Haleem Said

Graffiti depicting the Hajj on a house in al-Asadiyya, Egypt, 2010

The Ka’ba is a somewhat stark flat-roofed structure, fifty feet high with a forty-foot façade and slightly shorter side walls, constructed from the layers of the grey-blue stone found in the hills surrounding Mecca. As the captions in the exhibition state, Muslims believe it was built by Abraham (Ibrahim), the original monotheist and with his son Ishmael (Ismail) ancestor of the Arabs). Abraham is said to have instituted monotheism and ordained the pilgrimage at God’s command, but later generations fell away, allowing idol worship to prevail until Muhammad “restored” the true religion of Abraham. The show does not mention the scholarly questions that have been raised about the Abrahamic account. The Encyclopedia of Islam—the canonical source for non-believers, states that “aside from Muslim traditions, practically nothing is known of the history of the Ka‘ba,” although Mecca (under the name Macorba) is mentioned in Ptolemy’s Geography, so it is assumed that the shrine existed in the second century CE.

In imitation of the tawaf (the ritual of circumambulation around the Ka’ba, which is performed by pilgrims by walking seven times around it in a counter-clockwise direction) the visitor to the beautifully-designed exhibition glides up a curving gallery, to encounter a series of displays showing the history of the Hajj through the ages. A Saudi lady, who had performed the pilgrimage several times, told me the experience brought tears to her eyes: “When you enter this exhibition you feel you are entering Mecca”—a city forbidden to non-Muslims, including the British Museum people who curated the show. The exhibits include artifacts, maps, textiles, documents from some forty collections, including those loaned from Saudi Arabia, notably the great kiswa, the black silken hanging embroidered with gold calligraphy, that covers the building.


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Nasser D. Khalili Collection

Mahmal, red silk with silver and gold thread on a wooden frame, Cairo,

Until the Saudi occupation of Mecca in 1926 the kiswa was sent annually from Cairo in a richly decorated camel-borne palanquin known as the mahmal, of which the exhibition has a superb example. Archive footage from 1918 shows the pomp with which this august aniconic symbol of Islamic devotion began its journey.. An edited version of Journey to Mecca, a recent Imax film, conveys some powerful images of Islamic faith in action: the ritual of prostration, honed over fifteen centuries – as the believers bow in perfectly coordinated movements in circles that radiate outwards from the Ka‘ba; the standing at the sacred mount of Arafat outside Mecca, which the white-robed pilgrims cover completely, like some vast colony of sea-birds; and a speeded-up view of the tawaf, where the Ka‘ba stands majestically—like the mysterious black monolith in Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001—an otherworldly symbol surrounded by the blurred gyrations of the worshippers.

The impression is underscored by a striking statement about the merging of individual identities in the mass by the Shiite intellectual Ali Shariati, who died in 1977 two years before the outbreak of the Iranian revolution he helped to inspire: “As you circumambulate and move closer to the Ka‘ba you feel like a small stream merging with a big river. You have been transformed into a particle that is gradually melting and disappearing. This is love at its absolute peak.”

The skeptically-minded will find some significant gaps in the show’s presentation of its subject. For example the caption for the mahmal footage is somewhat reticent, pointing out only that the practice of sending the embroidered palanquin from Egypt was discontinued in 1926. No mention is made of the trouble that erupted between the Egyptian pilgrims and the Saudi Wahhabis who had recently taken over the holy city. Leadership of the Hajj and protecting the pilgrims from marauding beduin were the foremost prerequisites of Islamic legitimacy and were reflected in contests over Mecca, the ritual center of the Islamic world. In 930, for instance, ultra-radicals of the Carmathian sect wrenched the sacred Black Stone from the south-eastern corner of the Ka‘ba and took it back to their stronghold on the Gulf near modern Bahrain. It was only returned – in pieces – more than two decades later, after the Abbasid caliph had paid a massive ransom. Given its historic and ritual significance, it would have been useful to have had a display showing the stone’s interesting but mysterious provenance. The captions relate only the Muslim belief that the stone, said to have been brought by the Angel Gabriel, was originally white, but became blackened by its contact with sinful humanity.

Some observers, including the English travelers Richard Burton who visited Mecca disguised as an Afghan in 1853 and Eldon Rutter who made the pilgrimage in 1926 considered it to be meteorite, others a fragment of rock created by meteorite impact. Such theories point in the direction of an object rendered sacred by reason of its extra-terrestrial origin. Fortunately some of the exhibition’s omissions are filled in the catalog, which contains informative articles by Robert Irwin and Ziaduddin Sardar. (My own contribution to the catalog, over-generously acknowledged, was limited to providing minor editorial suggestions, although I will have the opportunity to discuss some of the anthropological dimensions of the pilgrimage at an event scheduled for March 23).

Irwin’s essay balances the exhibitions wholesomely positive displays by pointing out how the pilgrimage had the disastrous side-effect of spreading cholera during the nineteenth century; while Sardar mentions several recent disasters, including the deaths of more than 1400 pilgrims in a stampede in 1990 and more than 300 when fire swept through a camp in 1997. Sardar also acknowledges the astonishing “improvements” being made to the holy site by its Saudi beneficiaries, which include the Royal Clock Tower, a replica of Big Ben five times the size of the London original. No surprise, perhaps, that this astonishing testimony to the taste of Saudi Arabia’s princes finds no place in the British Museum’s hallowed precincts, though images are freely available on the Internet.

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Bibliothèque Nationale de France

A painting from the Maqamat of al-Hariri by Yahya al-Wasiti, Iraq, 1237 C.E.

In part, the exhibition’s unskeptical approach seems also to reflect the fact that it is dedicated to a living religion, not an antique belief system. It lays out Muslim beliefs without exploring the archaeological and anthropological matrices from which they issue. The question this raises is: should a scholarly and secular institution refrain from such exploration in order to accommodate religious sensitivities?


In this regard it may be noted that the lead essay on the early Hajj was commissioned from Hugh Kennedy, a “safe” medieval historian, rather than a scholar of religion such as G. R. Hawting. In line with the views of some western revisionists Hawting suggests that the “idolatry” against which Muhammad inveighed may not have been an actual practice, but a rhetorical trope used in arguments between rival monotheists.

On the other hand, the exhibition’s endorsement of orthodox Muslim beliefs conveys an important public message. Within a week of the exhibition’s opening nine Muslim men including seven British citizens, received prison sentences of 12 to 13 years after pleading guilty to a series of terrorist offenses, including plots to place a bomb in the toilets of the London Stock Exchange. Inspired by Anwar al-Awlaki, the US citizen and al-Qaeda leader killed in a drone attack in Yemen last year, the group epitomizes the alienation felt by many young Muslims from mainstream British society. An exhibition that celebrates the Islamic faith inside Britain’s foremost institution of culture must serve to counter feelings of exclusion.

Numerous schools with Muslim pupils have signed up for group visits to the show, not to mention coach loads of visitors from cities with substantial Muslim populations. The exhibition, with its blend of history, culture and the art that speaks to faith, and arises out of it, takes the British Museum beyond its traditional remit of preserving the past and puts it at the heart of the public debate about Islam and the place of Muslims in British society. Tactful, non-critical references to the beliefs held by Muslim majorities seems a reasonable price to pay for this bold initiative which MacGregor sees as serving the Museum’s “guiding principle of using objects and the forum of an exhibition to try to understand the complex world in which we live”. Minerva’s owl may fly at dusk but for Islam’s active believers, and the petrodollar Guardians of the Holy Places, this is still mid-afternoon.

Hajj is on view at the British Museum through April 15.

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