Hajj at the British Museum

In Exhibitions on March 20, 2012 at 10:12 am

As previously hinted at, I actually made two visits whilst at the British Museum. The second was to Hajj, the newly-opened exhibition in the Reading Room.

Very, very quick “Hajj 101” for those who do not know what it is – Hajj is one of the five pillars of Islam. It requires that every able Muslim makes a carefully-structured pilgrimage to Mecca, the birthplace of Mohammed. Unlike the Umrah pilgrimage, which can be made to Mecca at any time of year, the Hajj must be made during the last month of the Islamic calendar (which is shorter than the Gregorian calendar by 11 days, so the annual date of the Hajj is not fixed in that sense).

The BM claim that this is the first ever major exhibition on the Hajj, and it is undoubtedly fascinating subject matter. No non-Muslim is allowed to enter Mecca, and so of course, the Hajj is completely inaccessible. As a non-Muslim myself, I really enjoyed the chance to learn more about something I’d known the rudiments of since GCSE Religious Studies, but had never really understood much of. The BM puts on a solid display of textiles, and conveys the huge scale on which Muslims partake in this tradition. In 5 days, Mecca receives around 3 million people – 25,000 from the UK alone – and accidental deaths and injuries from this massive overcrowding are sadly far from uncommon.

That last fact, however, comes from my own post-exhibition research. I enjoyed this exhibition far more than previous ones I have seen in the BM, but it still let me down a bit. The posters around London promise that you’ll find out more about the logistics of the Hajj, which I thought was fascinating. One small city and one even smaller Mosque are inundated with millions of people for five days – where do they buy food? Where do they sleep? Once they have made their seven trips around the Kaaba, getting closer and closer with each circuit, how on earth do they fight their way back out of the thousands-strong crowd?! The BM’s definition of logistics seems to be maps on a wall, showing (Indiana Jones-style) how Muslims from all over the world make their way to Mecca, which wasn’t terribly enlightening. It’s hardly amazing to learn that in ye olden times, most would face a gruelling journey on foot that would take weeks or months, but now most people fly.

Another thing that I found disappointing was the lack of input from Hajji or Hajja, the men and women who have actually made the pilgrimage. There was one boxy corner of the exhibition where modern British Muslims spoke of their experiences on the Hajj, but the sound quality was dreadful, and the poor placement of what appeared to be a solitary speaker meant that what sound that did emerge was drowned out by the rest of the exhibition. The most interesting part of the exhibition (apart from the magnificent textiles that once covered the Kaaba itself, which are beautiful), was unfortunately not of the BM’s  doing. It was the incredible IMAX film about the Hajj journey, which does give more of an idea of how Hajji and Hajja feel about the pilgrimage, and how it actually happens. Like I say, however, this isn’t original.

Hajj: Journey to the Heart of Islam costs £10 (Free entry for Museums Association Members, British Museum Members or National Museum employees). It’s in the Reading Room, and runs until 15 April 2012. It’s a bit of a missed opportunity, but a step in the right direction.

  1. After being very disappointed at missing this exhibition on the weekend, this post has made it all better! Thank you Laura, your blog is fab- can’t wait to read more! Helen

    • Thanks Helen! It was an ok exhibition, but as someone who has studied Islam at a postgrad level, I very much doubt you would have found anything new or enlightening in there! It is always worth either getting to the BM when it opens to get a timed ticket or booking ahead online for the weekends – they have learned from past mistakes with letting too many people in I think, and have become very strict about ticketing the reading room.

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