Thirty years ago, Islam appeared an exotic religion of declining significance, while the millennial conflict between East and West was an aspect of the past that was being painlessly eradicated along with whooping cough and the wearing of shorts by teenage boys. Who would have imagined the extent to which every aspect of Islam is now in all our faces.
And of the great building blocks of the Muslim faith, the Hajj – the obligation of every believer to make the pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in their lifetime, if possible – feels the most opaque.
With its ban on non-Muslims, universal wearing of white, proscription on representational imagery and frequent deaths along its arduous routes, the Hajj is a fascinating social phenomenon, though not necessarily promising subject matter for a major exhibition.
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.
We encounter this again and again, in centuries-old maps and diagrams that form exquisite abstract compositions. Yet overall the emphasis of the exhibition is less on the objects’ aesthetic qualities than on what they tell us about the Hajj as a total act and experience. Alongside magnificent illustrated books and a spectacular embroidered mahmal – the ceremonial palanquin that formed the centre of a pilgrim caravan – we are shown the rubber flip-flop sandals typically worn by modern pilgrims (just like any other) and identity cards and wrist-bands designed to stop non-Arabic-speaking pilgrims from getting lost.
We are taken through the various stages and rituals of the Hajj, from departure to homecoming. If there is an occasional sense of taking part in a PR exercise for multi-faith tolerance, or more specifically British-Saudi co-operation (the exhibition is a partnership with the King Abdulaziz Public Library in Riyadh) , the exhibition draws us, apparently effortlessly, into the aims and mood of the Hajj. From ihram, the state of purity, equality and peace in which the pilgrim approaches the pilgrimage, to the immemorial ancientness of the ritual – going back way beyond Mohammed to Adam and Abraham – the Hajj is portrayed as an entirely benevolent phenomenon.
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.