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Reviews

Hajj

Anthony McRoy

RHajj.jpg

Hajj:
Journey to the heart of Islam 
British Museum
Until 15 April
This exhibition is a marvellous aesthetic treat for Muslims and for those with an academic interest in Islam, with various expressions of Islamic art, and indeed modern art forms, such as a magnet standing to symbolise the Ka'abah, with multitudes of iron filings surrounding it, representing the worshippers. There are pieces from the previous covers of the Ka'abah, and a historical note that tells us that the first textiles commissioned by the Muslim Caliphs were produced in Egypt by Coptic Christians. The old manuscripts - Qur'ans, prayer books, accounts of Hajj, etc. - are a historian's delight, but there are also more contemporary items - namely, souvenirs bought in Mecca, such as hats, clocks in the shape of the Ka'abah, etc. Commerce is inescapable in a religious rite of this magnitude, and the exhibition shows Hajj firms in Britain, as well as the trinkets sold in Mecca itself to the pilgrim anxious to bring back some memorial of their pious journey.
There are large and small photographs of the Hajj, films about its enactment, including fascinating newsreels from the inter-war years. The exhibition includes both historical and contemporary accounts of ordinary pilgrims, as well as rulers making the Hajj, and among the former are recent accounts of British Muslims. Many of these accounts, older and more recent, British and other, record how they were moved to perform the ritual by their Prophet appearing to them in a dream. Several testify to the extreme emotion accompanying the sight of Mecca - more than one account talks about tears flowing, not just from the individual giving the report, but by the multitudes accompanying him. 
The British link to the Hajj is more than cursory, and is longstanding. Included in the exhibition are accounts by Lady Evelyn Cobbold, a British convert to Islam in the early 20th century, and by Harold St. John Philby, the former British diplomat, convert to Islam, and father of the infamous traitor, Kim Philby. Furthermore, as the British Empire included a quarter of the globe, millions of Muslims were within its jurisdiction, and so the British Raj in the Subcontinent had to make provision, including health safeguards, for Indian pilgrims, and there are pictures and documents about this, as well as a film from colonial Malaya (which the museum anachronistically calls 'Malaysia' although that federation did not exist until 1963) showing pilgrims departing in 1955. 
Interestingly, there is an exhibit about the notorious Victorian adventurer Sir Richard Burton, who famously disguised himself as an Afghan Muslim to visit Mecca on Hajj, which was very dangerous, considering that the Islamic holy city is off-limits to non-Muslims. A more moving exhibit is that of Joseph Pitts, who in 1678, whilst still a teenager, was captured by Algerian corsair pirates and sold into slavery, forcibly converted to Islam, made Hajj with his master, at which point he was freed, and made his way back to Britain, and recanting his conversion, returned to Christianity. He tells us much about Mecca in his 1704 book A True and Faithful Account of the Religion and Manners of the Mohanmmetans.
Perhaps it is appropriate at this point to raise a moral issue. Given Saudi Arabia's brutal crackdown of internal protestors during the Arab Spring last year, and the regime's even more murderous suppression of pro-democracy demonstrators in Bahrain, was it right to invite the Saudi Ambassador to speak at the opening of this exhibition - especially after the righteous example set by the British Government in disinviting the Syrian Ambassador and the Bahraini Crown Prince to the Royal Wedding, following the repression of the Arab Spring in both countries? Significantly, while Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum and his colleague received applause after their introductory talks, there was no clapping after the Saudi diplomat spoke. Is it really possible to have normal cultural ties with an abnormal society, especially one like Saudi Arabia characterised by sectarian oppression, denial of democracy and human rights and vicious repression of its own citizens and those of its small neighbour? 
One exhibit shows a painting depicting the road sign to Mecca, with one lane warning 'Muslims only', whilst the other states 'For Non-Muslims'. The exhibit demonstrates that sectarian Apartheid is alive and well in the Saudi regime. Anthony McRoy

Hajj: Journey to the heart of Islam 
British Museum, until 15 April

This exhibition is a marvellous aesthetic treat for Muslims and for those with an academic interest in Islam, with various expressions of Islamic art, and indeed modern art forms, such as a magnet standing to symbolise the Ka'abah, with multitudes of iron filings surrounding it, representing the worshippers. There are pieces from the previous covers of the Ka'abah, and a historical note that tells us that the first textiles commissioned by the Muslim Caliphs were produced in Egypt by Coptic Christians. The old manuscripts - Qur'ans, prayer books, accounts of Hajj, etc. - are a historian's delight, but there are also more contemporary items - namely, souvenirs bought in Mecca, such as hats, clocks in the shape of the Ka'abah, etc. Commerce is inescapable in a religious rite of this magnitude, and the exhibition shows Hajj firms in Britain, as well as the trinkets sold in Mecca itself to the pilgrim anxious to bring back some memorial of their pious journey.

There are large and small photographs of the Hajj, films about its enactment, including fascinating newsreels from the inter-war years. The exhibition includes both historical and contemporary accounts of ordinary pilgrims, as well as rulers making the Hajj, and among the former are recent accounts of British Muslims. Many of these accounts, older and more recent, British and other, record how they were moved to perform the ritual by their Prophet appearing to them in a dream. Several testify to the extreme emotion accompanying the sight of Mecca - more than one account talks about tears flowing, not just from the individual giving the report, but by the multitudes accompanying him. 

The British link to the Hajj is more than cursory, and is longstanding. Included in the exhibition are accounts by Lady Evelyn Cobbold, a British convert to Islam in the early 20th century, and by Harold St. John Philby, the former British diplomat, convert to Islam, and father of the infamous traitor, Kim Philby. Furthermore, as the British Empire included a quarter of the globe, millions of Muslims were within its jurisdiction, and so the British Raj in the Subcontinent had to make provision, including health safeguards, for Indian pilgrims, and there are pictures and documents about this, as well as a film from colonial Malaya (which the museum anachronistically calls 'Malaysia' although that federation did not exist until 1963) showing pilgrims departing in 1955. 

Interestingly, there is an exhibit about the notorious Victorian adventurer Sir Richard Burton, who famously disguised himself as an Afghan Muslim to visit Mecca on Hajj, which was very dangerous, considering that the Islamic holy city is off-limits to non-Muslims. A more moving exhibit is that of Joseph Pitts, who in 1678, whilst still a teenager, was captured by Algerian corsair pirates and sold into slavery, forcibly converted to Islam, made Hajj with his master, at which point he was freed, and made his way back to Britain, and recanting his conversion, returned to Christianity. He tells us much about Mecca in his 1704 book A True and Faithful Account of the Religion and Manners of the Mohanmmetans.

Perhaps it is appropriate at this point to raise a moral issue. Given Saudi Arabia's brutal crackdown of internal protestors during the Arab Spring last year, and the regime's even more murderous suppression of pro-democracy demonstrators in Bahrain, was it right to invite the Saudi Ambassador to speak at the opening of this exhibition - especially after the righteous example set by the British Government in disinviting the Syrian Ambassador and the Bahraini Crown Prince to the Royal Wedding, following the repression of the Arab Spring in both countries? Significantly, while Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum and his colleague received applause after their introductory talks, there was no clapping after the Saudi diplomat spoke. Is it really possible to have normal cultural ties with an abnormal society, especially one like Saudi Arabia characterised by sectarian oppression, denial of democracy and human rights and vicious repression of its own citizens and those of its small neighbour? 

One exhibit shows a painting depicting the road sign to Mecca, with one lane warning 'Muslims only', whilst the other states 'For Non-Muslims'. The exhibit demonstrates that sectarian Apartheid is alive and well in the Saudi regime.