Saturday, 24 March 2012

British Museum exhibition - Hajj : journey to the heart of Islam

The British Museum has an exhibition on the Hajj. This is the pilgrimage to Makkah (Mecca) and at this point I realise that I am going to have to put some things in context.

In the early 1980s I worked in Saudi Arabia for a Saudi company based in the Eastern Province.  This is the Gulf side of the country and not the Hijaz side, where Makkah is located.  Second, the spelling of names which are only truly represented in Arabic can be a problem for those using a screenreader.  I am going to try to use commonly accepted English spellings and will try to give an indication of the sound of the Arabic using Jaws (in American). This may not look attractive to my sighted readers!

The Hajj is one of the 5 pillars of Islam and should be undertaken provided one is able to satisfy certain conditions like finance and health.  Given that the Hajj was underway from the 7th Century AD, I note that I have to explain something else.  The Muslim calendar is based on 12 lunar months and is about 11 days shorter than our solar year.  The British Museum has a policy of using AD and not CE which is sometimes used in academic circles in order not to offend.  My blog is hardly academic but it ought to be obvious that fixed events in the Muslim Calendar do not match the solar calendar; hence the month of Ramadhan occurs earlier every year. 

The Hajj attracts up to 3 million pilgrims from all over the world and the majority arrive in Jiddah (Jeddah) at the Hajj terminal.  Muslims usually have to travel on a Hajj visa accredited to a country of nationality.  For expatriates living in Saudi Arabia there was some control on the frequency of completing the Hajj.  There is also a lesser pilgrimage known as Umra and this is combined with the Hajj for those who are making a first visit. 

When I lived in Saudi Arabia, the Hajj was one of 2 important dates in the year, the other being Ramadhan.  At the end of both there were the Eids or feasts. These are often known in local names in countries such as Turkey but in Saudi Arabia the two Eids were Eid Al Fitr (Eed al fitter) and Eid Al Adha (Eed al Add ha).
The Eid after completion of the Hajj was known as the feast of the sacrifice when it is customary to slaughter a sheep giving some of the meat to the poor. In the 1980s this could be done in person or by purchase of a voucher.  The Hajj rituals follow in much the same pattern of a journey out, ritual, worship, meditation and celebration and the journey back home. 

When I lived in Saudi Arabia there were only 2 TV channels I could receive (the only occasion I have owned a TV) and during prayer times the channels would switch to the sunset (maghrib) prayers and evening (Isha) prayers, and during the Hajj the TV channels were almost exclusively Hajj related.  Channel 1 was in Arabic and Channel 2, which started when I was there, was in English, French and some Asian languages.  Prayers are set by the sun so prayer times in the East of Saudi Arabia were much earlier than those in Makkah.  This meant that TV screens almost always had views of Makkah and the Hajj rituals going on and one became familiar with the ritual, locations such as the Ka’ba, Arafat, Muzdalifa and Medina (Madinah). 

Men have their heads shaved after completing the Hajj and it was obvious that all their friends and colleagues knew where they had been for the Hajj Holidays. Saudi TV also put out notices that the time allowed after the Hajj visit for private business was up and that guests ought to leave the country.  Any expatriate who has worked in Saudi Arabia will have similar anecdotes about the country. 

I had changed planes in Jiddah and when travelling to Jiddah from London (coincidentally it was Easter) I had boarded a Saudia flight and was travelling in Guest (of God) class.  Jiddah airport has a Hajj Terminal to process the many Hajj charter flights.  Over the centuries Jiddah became a cosmopolitan city and many Hajjis (courtesy given to those who have completed the Hajj) did not return to their country of origin.

I was invited to a private view of Hajj:Journey to the Centre of Islam at the British Museum.  Under other circumstances I would have gone on my own but as my mobility is restricted I have based my report on this private view with access to the project curator Qaisra Khan.  I went by cab with a Muslim friend and we were admitted at 6.30 to the
Great Court
and welcomed with Middle Eastern snacks and fruit juices. 

Before leaving I had tweeted mentioning Qaisra and we duly met her and chatted before the brief introduction to the viewing.  Qaisra had gone herself on the Hajj in 2010 and though going as part of her own spiritual journey also went with a curatorial hat on, as well.  The following are my notes I made on returning from the exhibition and the twitter exchanges with Qaisra on getting back home.

-        Circumambulatory in approach to reading room, clockwise before stairs (lift access available). Sounds of Adhan (call to prayer Allah Akbar-God is great) and scenes of pilgrims in Ihram (white pilgrim garb)

-        Kiswah and Sitara  covering of the faces and door (respectively) of Ka’ba in Makkah. This one had the late King Fahd written or rather sewn into the black cloth with silver thread and this gives a filigree appearance on my peripheral vision.  Tradition of covering Ka’ba in pre-Islamic times with different colours.

-        Exhibition divided into three main themes such as :Journey, Makkah and Medina,  journey taken home and souvenirs

-        Queen Mary Tudor atlas for Philip of Spain with map of Arabia.  Mentioning  of Arabia Felix(Yemen) and Arabia Petra(Jordan)  and “Saracen Cathedral.  Muslim atlas same time 16th century showing south at top.

-        Very Old Quran 

-        Cairo Kiswah workshop and black and white film shot in 1918 showing procession of Mahmal mounted on camel and banners of caravan which “started” from parts of Ottoman Empire when Sultan claimed Caliphate.  Damascus and Cairo were traditional starting points.  After formation of Saudi Arabia by Abdul Aziz (Ibn Saud) control of Holy places made by Saudis with Makkah workshops. 

-        Tradition of Egyptians painting houses on return from Hajj. (I have seen this in Luxor)

-        The construction of the Hijaz Railway cut time to 5 days from 40 days. Istanbul (Haydarpasha station on Asian side of Bosphorus)to Medina.(Mad eenat al Moon a war ah) was built and surveyed under some German influence. In the First World War, destroyed in 1918 (Read TE Lawrence of Arabia Pillars of Wisdom) 

-        Compasses for Qibla. Muslims face Makkah and during prayers all face Ka’ba. 

-        The circumambulation before is done in anticlockwise direction.

-        Pilgrimage is associated with travel, accommodation, money exchange and there were many examples of coins, tokens, guidebooks, vouchers and even some Hajj currency issued by the Government of Pakistan (Rupees from 1950s). 

-        Dutch East Indies (Indonesia ) Ache prayer book of local imam who had surrendered to Dutch control.  Different roles in colonial authorities over Arab and Muslim populations.  

-        There are many books with large illustrations on top.  While there are few figurative art works as graven images are “frowned” upon, there are nevertheless examples of Alexander the Great, said to be the Dhul Qarnan mentioned in the Quran.  These books resemble Book of Hours with verse and some illustrations. 

-        Complete mahmal and sitara doors to Ka’ba

-        Keys to door and bag to carry key.

-        Coverings and belts for Ka’ba renewed in Cairo though Kiswah made fresh each year.  The Ka’ba is never left uncovered as the Kiswah is unrolled another is rolled out from the top.

-        Indian Gujarati paintings with Mughal style.

-        The exhibition covers Makkah and Madinah and there is some reference to Jerusalem as the point and direction of prayer in the early years of Islam.  There are engravings of Jerusalem with the Al Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock.  The Night Journey is described in some books and prints.

-        Names of prophets family and descendants are embroidered in large letters and I could make out some of the shorter names such as : Mohammed, Ali, Hasan and Hussein.
The majority of Muslims are Sunni as opposed to Shia.  Much of Shia history is based in Kerbala and Najjaf in Iraq while Iran (Persia) has a majority Shia population.  Following the death of Mohammad, there were disputes resulting in eventual schism after Ali the Caliph and his two sons Hassan and Hussein. Many Shia rituals will celebrate and commemorate events in the lives of Ali, Hassan and Hussein in ways disputed by many Sunni Muslims. 

There are 4 schools of thought or Fiqh in Sunni Islam with some differences in interpretation of Shariah.  There are quite often some marked disagreements over some timings and precedence and this has resulted in friction at the Hajj.  The Saudi King is styled as the “Custodian of the two Holy Places.

-        Verses of the Quran containing the opening words of the Fetiyah  “Bismillah al rahman al rahim” (Biss me la al raha man al ra heem)could be discerned as they are printed on every piece of formal mail.

-        God or Allah has 99 names in the Quran and often the names of men are styled as “Servant of God, using one of the 99 names. Servant is Abd in Arabic so names such as Abdallah, Abdalaziz and abdalrahman can be recognized.

-        There were drawings of the sanctuary in Makkah with diagrams of Haram and sanctuary, some of them drawn in 3D effect.

-        Water takes a leading role in many pilgrimages. Many Roman Catholics treasure water from Lourdes, some Christians would have some water from the River Jordan and Muslims like to take back bottles of Zam Zam water.  Examples of this were shown.

-        One of the delights for me were the mementos of St John Philby.  St John Philby was the father of Kim Philby (the double agent) and had converted to Islam.  He had been an advisor to Ibn Saud and is mentioned in Wilfred Thesiger Book The Arabian Sands.  Philby had the Ford Motor Company franchise.  Philby left a collection of brushes used to sweep the Ka’ba.


For me this was a memorable visit as I was able to discern many objects I had seen only on Saudi TV or in the form of images. The serendipity element was also there with items from St John Philby and the Hijaz Railway. (There is a stop on the Hijaz Railway at Madain Saleh and this is a famous Nabatean (Petra) site in the peninsula.) The mahmal was a complete surprise and as it is so large I could not miss it.  There is also something about a black and white film played on a flat screen and I could make out a lot.

One of the insights Qaisra mentioned was that the original installation of the artists impression of the Jeddah-Makkah highway sign (advises non-Muslims to exit now!) had pointed to the emergency exit and so had to be relocated! I had never seen this sign but know many who have driven there.  

The books are mainly printed on paper and I could make little of them but the British Museum has placed large prints or drawings of some of the illustrations.

Before the exhibition I had some twitter exchanges over the value of buying a catalogue at all and one reviewer suggested that one ought to buy the catalogue and skip the exhibition altogether. There has also been some criticism of the British Museum pandering to the Saudi Authorities. Having been to the British Museum and having enjoyed the Persians exhibition this had been arranged with the loan of the Cyrus cylinder to Iran and it appears that with diminished Iranian contact the British Museum can rise above diplomatic and political intrigues.  The Cyrus cylinder has been returned to the British Museum following an exhibition loan in Iran.

As a visually impaired person I found a lot to enjoy and I was given much additional information by Qaisra at the event.  I have mentioned before that the British Museum is usually able to offer some extra assistance if you contact them.  There are tactile and large print guides available as well as an audio tour, which is free for the visually impaired.

I have not used the following websites but these may be useful.Related websites of interest:

Mysteries of the hajj revealed as British Museum opens exhibition on Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca

The Twitter Exchange with Qaisra Khan is as follows:

Looking forward to visiting #HajjExhibition tonight with a talk by @QaisraKhan to guide us on our way round.
@ProfWhitestick it was an absolute pleasure to meet you at the #hajjexhibition I hope you enjoyed it- I had a wonderful evening.
@QaisraKhan It was a surprise how much detail I could detect on kiswah on peripheral vision #hajjexhibition A great evening, thanks

@ProfWhitestick that's absolutely wonderful! Am so pleased!

Many thanks to Qaisra for guiding us round and for sharing some insights.