Pilgrim's progress: Journey to the Heart of Islam

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Hajj: Journey to the Heart of Islam at the British Museum attempts to distil a spiritual experience into an art exhibition. Arifa Akbar, who has travelled to Mecca, is impressed

It was not the objects that I saw in and around Mecca that made my pilgrimage such an extraordinary and exhilarating experience.

I went on the hajj in 2006, and then, as now, its meaning did not lie in the physical structures in Mecca themselves – the cube-like Kaaba, or House of God, which is the centre-point of all Islamic worship; the black curtain woven with scripture that is draped across it; the ancient Black Stone encased in glass beside it; the towering pillars of the Grand Mosque that encompass it all.

It lay in the experience of being among the throbbing ocean of worshippers who were treading their way around the Kaaba in circles, like an immense whirling dervish. It was a breathtaking procession in which to be, with its sense of order, meditation and prayer, along with its frenzy, vigour and its edge of chaos. The ritualised encircling had a ferocious momentum. If you imagine a judgment day, it might look like this.

However exquisite the artefacts around the hajj may be, they are not what make the experience of walking among this swarm and swirl of people, who are making the same journey made by pilgrims in the seventh century, at the inception of Islam, dressed in the same unadorned white garments.

That is why an exhibition dedicated to explaining and illustrating the fifth, and final, pillar of Islam – the hajj – is such a tall order. How to distil an experience that rests not just on inner reflection but on movement, from Mount Arafat to Mina to Mecca to Medina, and a crowd flow of three million a year, into the reading rooms of the British Museum?

The danger is that any such show will appear static, antiseptic, merely historic, rather than the lived tradition that it is. This is how the British Museum's Hajj: Journey to the Heart of Islam, first seemed to me.

Yet it is unfair to measure the aesthetic, historic and cultural elements of hajj against the actual experience. The two should be treated separately, and this exhibition reflects the museum's ambition and courage in putting together the world's first comprehensive show of the hajj. Britain has got there before Saudi Arabia, the geographic and historic heartland of the faith.

The process of the hajj has, until now, largely been shrouded in mystery for the Western world. Non-Muslims are strictly prohibited from entering the city of Mecca and visiting the Kaaba so the show is significant in opening up the rituals and meanings behind this most momentous of Islamic events.

It is a clearly constructed exhibition, divided into three parts, which manages to separate faith from politics. Venetia Porter, the exhibition's curator, stresses that the museum is not telling a political story of Islam in any sense, neither touching on the internal politics of Saudi Arabia (and the reported destruction of some ancient sites around Mecca) nor wider international relations. "This is about a deeply profound experience, and the material culture around it." The concept, not to presuppose the faith to be regressive, problematic, or politically dangerous, is utterly refreshing.

Curators seem aware of the challenge of converting the experience of hajj into museum-friendly material, and they make a spirited attempt to give us more than a conventional show. A recorded call for prayer is heard as you enter and the first sight is that of a stunning "sitara", a covering for the door of the Kaaba, which is perhaps a symbolic re-enactment of the moment a pilgrim first glimpses the Kaaba. That these gambits might feel slightly forced, or tinny, is not necessarily a failing. It is a sign of curatorial originality, and a thoughtful attempt at evoking atmosphere.

There are some wonderful highlights: one of the world's oldest Korans features among the jewels of the exhibition. Rarely lent out by the British Library, it dates to the eighth century, and it is unadorned, unlike later, more opulent Korans, and is written in slanting Arabic script.

There are manuscripts depicting hajj that feature colourful pictures of pilgrims, a surprise, given Islam's aversion to figurative art, although there are no contentious representations of the Prophet Mohammed among them. There is the diary of an eminent British female convert, and more sensationally, the documents of the imposter, Richard Francis Burton, a British explorer who disguised himself as a Muslim to smuggle his way into Mecca.

Among the less ostentatious, but no less fascinating material, are a group of grainy photographs of the Kaaba and Mina from the 1880s, and another rare photograph that captures the reconstruction of parts of Mecca that the Saudi state began in 1963 – a seminal moment in the modernisation of the ancient site.

The pilgrimage is an arduous journey that involves ritualised and repeated journeys, including several symbolic walks to and from two mountains, as well as numerous circumambulations around the Kaaba. While Mecca's reconstruction undoubtedly led to a safer and more comfortable experience, arguably even saving some lives, my experience of hajj, at least, felt at times as if the ancient had been hijacked by the ultra modern and the brand spanking new. The shiny polished surfaces and floors were reminiscent of a newly fitted kitchen rather than a site of worship that went back to the Abrahamic age, so it was fascinating to compare the post-1963 look to the older photographs.

The heart of the show is a room filled with a series of Kaaba coverings, dating from centuries ago to the present day. These textiles, with colour and Koranic verse woven into the black cloth, are mostly owned by the Khalili Family Trust – the largest lender for the show. They will doubtless give the show its sense of spectacle, along with the textile from the prophet's tomb in Medina, which is a dazzling blend of greens, reds and golds. As an entertaining aside, there is a corner table that has a collection of souvenirs brought back by pilgrims, some more kitsch than others, from holy water and colourful rosaries to the alarm clocks that sound the call for prayer when a battery is inserted.

Among the ancient artefacts and magnificent objects, there are modern-day depictions of hajj by contemporary artists. Alongside them is a painting of a motorway sign that appears at the approach of Mecca, and points for Muslims to go in one direction, and non-Muslims to go in another.

This could be a metaphor for the show itself, which will give non-Muslims one kind of experience, and Muslims another. The former will receive a thorough education in its history and practice – the ablutions, raiments and logistics of pilgrimage.

For Muslims, there will be other gains. There might be a sense of satisfaction, and delight, in seeing an exhibition that comprehensively captures the dimensions of hajj. I came across a group of middle-aged Muslim women who visited the show in a special community preview last weekend. Most of them had been on the hajj at least once, and while they might not have been enlightened by what they saw, it was, they said, a deeply emotional experience, to see so many ancient journeys to Mecca, and to be be reminded of the passion of their own.

Hajj: Journey to the Heart of Islam, British Museum, London WC1 (020 7323 8181) to 15 April

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