British Museum blog

Reflections on my time on the Hajj exhibition


Nina Swaep, volunteer, British Museum

When I started working as a volunteer at the British Museum last September, the preparations for Hajj: journey to the heart of Islam were already in full swing. Luckily, that didn’t prevent ‘team Hajj’ from including me as one of their own. Today’s my last day and I’ve been looking back on my time at the Museum with much fondness!

Being a Dutch MA student in Museum Studies specialising in Islamic Art at the University of Amsterdam, I was absolutely convinced that participating in this project would be the ultimate work experience for me. In Amsterdam, I had already done research on museum objects that related to the pilgrimage to Mecca – one of which is now featured in the exhibition – and I was willing to learn everything there was to learn. I wouldn’t really mind if my job would consist of pouring coffee and copying files, as long as I could get a closer look at the process of exhibition-making…

So you can imagine I was more than happy to find out that my tasks were a lot more challenging and demanded academic and social skills. The curators took me up and patiently showed me how exhibition making works. I could join meetings with them and found out that it’s not just a few people working on projects like these, but an immense organisation that takes years to prepare the exhibition.

Come winter, my work was focussed on the Indonesian section if the exhibition which features objects from Dutch museum collections and, more specifically, the collection of the Dutch arabist Snouck Hurgronje. I had worked before on the Aceh Map (which is on display in the exhibition) when I was in Holland but I had the opportunity to do some more research while here at the British Museum. I found out that, compared to all the other images featured throughout the exhibition, it shows a rather different representation of the Ka’ba. For one it isn’t shown as a cube but as a rectangle, which seems strange because the cubical shape is one of the main characteristics of the Ka’ba. Also, one can see through it, so it is shown without a kiswa, the cloth that covers the Ka’ba. These finding confirmed the idea that the maker of the Aceh Map had never actually been to Mecca – he could never have seen the Ka’ba without its kiswa, since, as one can learn in the exhibition, it is never unveiled.

The most enriching experience I have had whilst working on the project was contrary to all my expectations. It didn’t have anything to do with the glamour of the opening night, nor with the rewarding feeling when the exhibition finally opened to the public. It was a lovely autumn day when I found myself sitting at my desk, being deeply emotionally moved by the short clips of Muslims talking about their own pilgrimage, which I had to edit. I think the feeling of being an individual person amidst the millions of fellow pilgrims, brothers and sisters, must be completely overwhelming and to me the exhibition succeeded in communicating this to its visitors. The exhibition is particularly successful because of the wonderful balance that has been achieved between showing intimacy and the bigger picture of the Hajj being a phenomenon influencing millions of people around the world. It works on multiple levels and is therefore very satisfying.

As my time at the British Museum comes to an end, I can say that this has indeed been the ultimate experience for me; meeting many wonderful people, learning so much. I think the meaning of the exhibition became very apparent to me. Although I cannot go on Hajj myself, like many Hajjis, the Hajj exhibition has certainly changed my life for the better…

Leave a comment or tweet using #hajjexhibition to let us know what you think about the exhibition

This post was updated on 9 March 2012 to clarify Nina Swaep’s role on the exhibition as a volunteer, not an intern as previously stated.

Hajj: journey to the heart of Islam is open from 26 January to 15 April 2012.
Find out more

In partnership with King Abdulaziz Public Library, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

HSBC Amanah has supported the exhibition’s international reach outside the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

Filed under: Exhibitions, Hajj: journey to the heart of Islam

7 Responses - Comments are closed.

  1. David Pavett says:

    I can’t say that I was disappointed by the exhibition because my expectations were not high. I had read the rave review by Karen Armstrong and the hostile review in the Observer by Nick Cohen. I wondered who was right. In the event I think that neither was right. The exhibition is nothing to rave about and Nick Cohen’s criticisms had some basis but were over the top.

    The first think that one sees entering the exhibition is a claim that 10 million Muslims go on hajj annually. Later on one sees a figure of 2.9 million. I just looked up Saudi official government data that puts the numbers at 2.7 million with nearly a million coming from within Saudi Arabia. Such a factual error is not a good way to kick off a major exhibition. Did 10 million not strike anyone as unrealistic? Did no one check? Clearly not.

    The greater part of the exhibition is about the different traditional routes of the hajj. This is of some interest and there are good maps and some interesting artefacts – along with some of less interest (e.g. a remnant of a comb, an animal skull). I am interested in Islamic art and had already seen these maps and seen pictures of artefacts.

    A major feature is the tapestries prepared for the Kaba and they were of some interest.

    I would have been interested to learn more of the history of the hajj but too many of the panels were taken up with Muslim mythology reported as fact: Adam built the Kaba, Abraham rebuilt it and the like. Generally I felt that the exhibition had been set up with an eye to the devotional value of the objects. I was interested in the their objective value.

    P.S. The first panel in the exhibition says that there are 1.6 billion Muslims. Let’s call it 1.4 and assume that the average Muslim lives for 70 years. For every Muslim to go on hajj once in a lifetime this would mean an annual hajj of 20 million. In fact the numbers going from outside Saudi Arabia are less than 2 million. This means that on a maximal interpretation only 1 in 10 Muslims goes on hajj. It might have been interesting to see some discussion about all those Muslims who forgo this “sacred” duty.

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    • The reference to 10 million pilgrims comes from the paragraph by Faisal bin Muammar (General Supervisor, King Abdulaziz Public Library, Riyadh) at the exhibition entrance which states: “Saudi Arabia takes its responsibility towards the ten million Muslims who perform the Hajj and Umrah pilgrimages annually with the utmost seriousness and care”. So this is a combined figure of all the pilgrims who go to the sanctuary at Mecca over the course of the year.

      The figure of 2.9 million was received from the King Abdulaziz Public Library a few weeks before the exhibition opened and was an absolute up to date figure at the time.

      Qaisra Khan, Exhibition Project Curator

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    • Objective observation says:

      …decent review to be fair. With regards to the last point, the ‘Sacred duty’ as you put it is compulsory on all Muslims who can afford to go at some point during their lifetime. When you consider the fact that the majority of the Muslim world is very poor then you can see why not all Muslims go to Hajj. There isn’t really a need for a discussion, perhaps you were not aware that it is only compulsory if you can afford it.

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  2. David Pavett says:

    Thanks for the corrections. I clearly did not read the first board as carefully as I should have done.

    Having tried to check the data I still found it impossible to make the figures tally. I could find no Umrah data on the Ministry of Hajj/Umrah website. Looking up different sources I found a wide variety of figures none of which would suggest that the 10 million total for Hajj + Umrah is accurate. What is the data not on the Saudi Govt website?

    “MAKKAH, (Arab News): Around 3.24 million Umrah visas were issued by Saudi embassies across the world this year, according to statistics issued by the Central Haj Committee in Makkah. The statistics — which cover the period from Feb. 8 until Sept. 5 — show that a total of 3,240,675 visas were issued after the Umrah season began in February. Until Sept. 5, 2,622,408 foreign pilgrims arrived in the Kingdom, of which 2,243,090 pilgrims had left.” (http://www.hajis.co.uk/news-details.asp?news_id=4). [Report of 2008.]

    “MADINAH, 17 Jumada Al-Awwal/8 April (IINA)- The Hajj Ministry plans to establish a big pilgrim reception center in Hijrah at the gate of Madinah at a cost of SR60 million, Hajj Minister Bandar Al-Hajjar announced here yesterday. Speaking to reporters after an inspection tour of Hajj facilities in Madinah, he said the new center is designed to serve more than 7 million Hajj and Umrah pilgrims annually.” (http://iina.me/wp_en/?p=1007752) [Report of 2012]

    “Saudi Arabia already receives millions of religious tourists every year, who visit Mecca and Madina for Hajj and Umrah. Over four million foreign pilgrims will fly into Jeddah in 2011 alone for Umrah, according to Saudi’s Ministry of Haj. “The number of pilgrims coming for Umrah this year will be 700,000 more than last year’s figure,” Saudi’s Haj Minister Fouad al Farsy said earlier this year.” (http://www.thegulfonline.com/Print.aspx?ArtID=3769) [Report of 2011]

    “RIYADH — A record number of Pilgrims are expected to perform Haj this year, the National Committee for Haj and Umrah said. The committee based its prediction after a record five million people performed Umrah during the just-ended season. The Kingdom, according to statistics, issued over 4.8 million Umrah visas this season, registering an increase of about a million pilgrims.” (http://www.muftisays.com/forums/sharing-portal/5907/makkah-news-and-updates.html?pg=11) [Report of 08/092011]

    “RIYADH, Ramadan 21/August 21 (IINA)-The Foreign Ministry abroad has issued over 4.8 million Umrah visas this year, which is one million more than last year, according to Prince Khaled Bin Saud Bin Khaled Bin Massad, Assistant Foreign Minister.” (http://iina.me/wp_en/?p=1004752) [Report of 2011]

    If I can be provided with a link to a better source for the statistics I would be happy to follow it.

    On the question of the Muslim “duty” to go on Hajj the Saudi government website says this

    “Islam has five primary obligations, or pillars of faith, that each Muslim must fulfill in his or her lifetime.” It then defines the Hajj duty as follows.

    “Hajj, the pilgrimage to Makkah, is the fifth pillar and the most significant manifestation of Islamic faith and unity in the world. For those Muslims who are physically and financially able to make the journey to Makkah, the Hajj is a once in a lifetime duty that is the peak of their religious life. The Hajj is a remarkable spiritual gathering of over two million Muslims from all over the world to the holy city. In performing the Hajj, a pilgrim follows the order of ritual that the Prophet Muhammad performed during his last pilgrimage.”

    “The five pillars of Islam define the basic identity of Muslims – their faith, beliefs and practices – and bind together a worldwide community of believers into a fellowship of shared values and concerns.”

    So, it is true that this duty is circumscribed by financial ability which is an interesting limitation on a basic religious duty. And, after all that it remains that the great majority of the world’s Muslims do not participate in this “pillar” which is said to “define the basic identity of Muslims”. Is this not a reason for reflection on the definitions of duty, identity and pillar?

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    • The total number of pilgrims was provided to us by Saudi Government sources, so we are assured it is correct- your final report from 2011 which gives a total of 4.8 million Umrah visas alongside the figure of 3 million Hajj pilgrims totals 7.8 million for 2011, with the report stating that there had been a jump of one million from 2010, it is not impossible that an extra million by 2012 would bring the figure to close to 9 million. The figure from the official government sources may include a local population who don’t need a “visa” to go on Hajj, but can enter the sanctuary on account of being local. For further explanation please feel free to contact the Saudi Arabia embassy in London.

      As for Hajj being a duty, as the comment above rightly states- this is a duty, only if one is able.

      Qaisra Khan, Exhibition Project Curator

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  3. really wanna be there (ka’ba) someday for Hajj..

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  4. great information.. reminds me for my latest umrah.. really wanna be there again. Hope at Hajj next year

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