Hajj: Journey to the heart of Islam, British Museum, London


Islam's holy of holies – by dhow, steamer or jet plane

Trust the British Museum, under the leadership of Neil MacGregor, to grasp the nettle.

There has rarely been a more pressing need in this country to shed light on Islam, and there has never before been a major exhibition dedicated to Hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca which is central to the Muslim faith.

Had you been born a Muslim in India or China before the invention of steam travel, you would have been obliged to make this lifetime's journey by sailing ship or dhow. Had you made the trip from a north-African starting point, a caravan of camels would have been your lot. Whatever your means of conveyance to Mecca, a city in an arid part of what is now Saudi Arabia, the trip was perilous. Little wonder Muslims were encouraged to believe they were guaranteed passage to Heaven even if shipwreck, cholera or bandits got them first.

Today, any number of specialist travel companies offer Hajj packages, relatively risk-free. Look up the British Museum's helpful introduction to Hajj on the net and you'll find them jostling for position. For Hajj has begotten a major industry catering to 3 million pilgrims a year, many of whom want guidance in enacting the six days of prescribed rituals. In addition to donning special clothing and getting special haircuts, these include gathering pebbles from a certain place and travelling to another to throw them, in memory of Abraham fending off the devil.

A challenge for the curators of this show is to gauge how much basic background is wanted. Given the average non-Muslim's ignorance of the Five Pillars of Islam, the crash course on caption boards is essential. Spiritual and emotional aspects of pilgrimage are neatly conveyed by photographs of radiant faces and a short film, though more compelling is the diary of a 10-year-old British schoolgirl, inked in a careful hand, describing the moment she first turned her gaze on the Ka'ba, the holy-of-holies granite cube that some Muslims believe was built by Abraham, others by Adam, and which must be circled on foot seven times at the climax of the Hajj.

The logistics of travel over the ages occupy much of the exhibition, absorbing for those interested in manuscript maps, but otherwise dry. More colourful are the accounts of individual pilgrims such as Mansa Musa, king of Mali, who in 1324 travelled to Mecca on horseback preceded by 500 slaves carrying gold staffs, 100 camels carrying gold ingots (distributed to the poor along the way) and a retinue of 60,000 courtiers and servants.

Non-Muslims have never been allowed in Mecca, though some have defied the ban. Among the most intrepid was Sir Richard Francis Burton, who in 1853 disguised himself as an Afghan doctor and Sufi dervish (how, we do not learn), sailed from Southampton to Cairo and joined the Egyptian Hajj, making copious notes for the National Geographic Society. The venture, which he miraculously completed without being unmasked, made him a celebrity back home.

Those expecting roomfuls of gleaming Islamic art may be underwhelmed by this show. Indeed there is fine calligraphy and embroidery, but the thrust of the experience comes in written form and faded photographs, harder to decode. The mysteries of Hajj are not yielded up lightly.

To 15 April (020-7323 8181)

Exhibition Choice

Photographer Eleanor Farmer's Blood: A Circulation of Curiosities explores the red substance both as a life-enhancing force and signifier of death. The works are candid rather than gory, broaching subjects as diverse as open-heart surgery and the beauty of a mosquito viewed under a microscope. At London's Guy's Hospital (to 9 Mar).

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Christopher Eccleston (centre) plays an ex-policeman in this cliché-riddled thriller

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey looks very serious as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

TV This TV review contains spoilers
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Wiz Khalifa performs on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park in Birmingham

Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury


Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas


Arts and Entertainment


Arts and Entertainment
A shot from the forthcoming Fast and Furious 7


Arts and Entertainment
The new-look Top of the Pops could see Fearne Cotton returns as a host alongside Dermot O'Leary


Arts and Entertainment
The leader of the Church of Scientology David Miscavige


Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence
    Public relations as 'art'? Surely not

    Confessions of a former PR man

    The 'art' of public relations is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for DJ Taylor
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef succumbs to his sugar cravings with super-luxurious sweet treats

    Bill Granger's luxurious sweet treats

    Our chef loves to stop for 30 minutes to catch up on the day's gossip, while nibbling on something sweet
    London Marathon 2015: Paula Radcliffe and the mother of all goodbyes

    The mother of all goodbyes

    Paula Radcliffe's farewell to the London Marathon will be a family affair
    Everton vs Manchester United: Steven Naismith demands 'better' if Toffees are to upset the odds against United

    Steven Naismith: 'We know we must do better'

    The Everton forward explains the reasons behind club's decline this season
    Arsenal vs Chelsea: Praise to Arsene Wenger for having the courage of his convictions

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Praise to Wenger for having the courage of his convictions