Saturday 4 February 2012

British Museums Hajj Exhibition: Media Coverage

The media has been covering the British Museum's newest exhibition Hajj: Journey to the heart of Islam, quite extensively:

The Guardian - Prejudices about Islam will be shaken by this show
Like Hindus, Buddhists, Jews, Christians, Sikhs and secularists, some Muslims have undoubtedly been violent and intolerant, but the new exhibition at the British Museum – Hajj: Journey to the Heart of Islam – is a timely reminder that this is not the whole story. The hajj is one of the five essential practices of Islam; when they make the pilgrimage to Mecca, Muslims ritually act out the central principles of their faith. Equating religion with "belief" is a modern western aberration. Like swimming or driving, religious knowledge is practically acquired. You learn only by doing. The ancient rituals of the hajj, which Arabs performed for centuries before Islam, have helped pilgrims to form habits of heart and mind that – pace the western stereotype – are non-violent and inclusive.

Daily Mail (26 January 2012) - Mysteries of the hajj revealed as British Museum opens exhibition on Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca
"A major exhibition devoted to the annual pilgrimage to Mecca aims to lift the veil on a ritual that has remained a mystery to many in the non-Muslim world.
'Hajj: journey at the heart of Islam' has arrived at the British Museum and curators hope an insight into the historical and spiritual journey will draw in both Muslims as well as non-Muslims.
I think what the exhibition does is to talk about the one facet of Islam we don't know much about and that it's very much about peace"

Financial Times (27 January 2012) - Pilgrims’ Progress
The British Museum’s new exhibition on the Hajj is the most complete such enterprise yet undertaken. In a story that stretches from ancient beginnings to modernity, many of the rituals are unchanging, even if the infrastructure surrounding the trip has transformed dramatically. What was once a perilous voyage with serious risk of illness or loss of life is today administered by specialist travel agents who offer packages with visas and vaccinations included. It is just as well: annual visitors are estimated to top the 3m mark in the next few years. It is a testament both to the enduring hold of the Islamic faith and to the ability of this remarkable event to adapt with the times.
The historical section of the show is a tale of progress forged by continuing devotion (and serves as a corrective to the western assumption that modernity and secularism go hand in hand). There are fabulous accounts of the journey that are, if nothing else, important documents of sociology. The pilgrims of the 19th century, for example, were the first to notice the disparity between their modest surrounds and the wealth, and growing imperial ambitions, of western powers.

Wall Street Journal (27 January 2012): The British Museum's Pilgrimage
A clearer understanding of Islam has become an urgent priority for the West. And this may very well be the closest guide to experiencing one of its central rituals—and, as the exhibition demonstrates, ideas of community, trade and shared knowledge—that any non-Muslim will be able to obtain, since the Hajj itself is reserved for the faithful.
As the exhibition shows, the practicalities of organizing the Hajj are astounding. While the manuscripts and etchings of the 19th century had already identified it as a marvel, the development of first steamships, and then the railways and air travel, made it what Mr. MacGregor calls "on a planetary scale, one of the more remarkable things humans do." A timeline on one wall points out that, while there were around 30,000 pilgrims in the early 1930s, almost three million people now visit Mecca for the Hajj each year.

The Telegraph (04 February 2012) - Hajj: Journey to the Heart of Islam, British Museum, review
The first thing confronting you as you step up beneath the old reading room dome is an extraordinary aerial photograph of the Ka’aba, the sanctuary in the centre of Mecca, surrounded by perfect concentric circles formed by hundreds of thousands of praying pilgrims, filling not just the immediate courtyard, but the surrounding terraces and vast squares. It looks at first disconcertingly like some huge piece of devotional performance art – if I can say that without being remotely offensive. And at the same time it brings home the fact that with its emphasis on unitary oneness, Islamic art is in essence abstract.
Among many intriguing exhibits, my favourite was an exercise book containing the Hajj diary of a London schoolgirl, written in a rounded girlish hand: “words cannot describe the emotions that are created when one looks at the Ka’aba, such a simple object structurally yet so majestic and awe-inspiring it is difficult to take your eyes off it.”
The sentiments are Islamic, the means of expression a product of the British education system. If this was Britain’s contribution to the vast culture of the Hajj, it made one feel oddly proud.

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