British Museum blog

Understanding art in religion

Robert Bracey, curator, British Museum

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The term ‘religion’ covers a diverse range of thoughts and beliefs. Some people understand their religion to prohibit all acts of violence, even to the smallest animal, while others believe their religion compels them to go to war. For some people religion is central to their identity and infuses every aspect of their life while for others it is something that relates to a particular place on a certain day. Religion’s diversity makes it hard to define though we all feel we recognise religiosity when we see it.

Over two days in June this year, a group of staff from the British Museum and guests took on the problem of trying to define religion and think about how religion affects, or is affected, by the sort of objects that make up the British Museum’s collection. This seminar took place as part of the Empires of Faith research project funded by the Leverhulme Trust. The project is about comparing religious objects from different cultures in the first millennium AD. This is a hugely important period for the religions we know today. Christianity and Islam both began in the first millennium, and the beliefs and rituals of many other religions (Hinduism, Judaism, Zoroastrianism, Jainism and Buddhism) took the form we recognise today at this time.

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It is very easy to let preconceptions get in the way of thinking about big ideas like religion. To help the members of the research team break out of their comfort zone we invited five guests with very different expertise to speak about the topics. Averil Cameron (University of Oxford) is well-known for her work on Byzantine history. Matthew Canepa (University of Minnesota) is an art historian and expert on the Sasanian world (ancient Iran). Simon Coleman (University of Toronto) is an anthropologist and an expert on pilgrimage. Bruce Lincoln (University of Chicago) works on the history of religions. Joan Pau Rubies (Universitat Pompeu Fabra) studies the history of European missionaries. Such a diverse range of expertise helped push everybody to think in new ways.

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This wasn’t a conventional seminar with formal lectures. Instead, it was a discussion, sometimes a debate, about ideas that could shape the project. So, although the project team will write lots of research over its course, there will be no book of the seminar. The participants agreed instead to let their ideas and discussion be ‘sketched'; a new concept for most of us. The artist Clarice Holt sat quietly in the corner while we talked at, argued and harangued each other. Clarice prepared eighteen sketches of the meeting, encapsulating different points that were raised during the discussion. You can see the full sketches in the slideshow at the end of this post.

Not often is one’s mind stretched so far and in so many captivating directions. I hope very much that the images I created for the Empires of Faith Project will allow a wider range of people access to what is a vibrant and relevant area of historical research, and to gain insights into this weird and wonderful area.

Clarice’s reflections on the seminar.

The first day of the seminar was spent trying to find a way of defining religion. One of the disagreements was about whether a single definition of religion was useful or if what was, or was not, religious had to be defined for each historical period. The single definition makes sense to us because we live in a world where there are sharp divides between the religious and non-religious (or secular). Some people, and some places, and often certain days are ‘for’ religion but in the past religion was part of everyday life. People saw the world as constantly shaped by magical or divine forces beyond their control. Thinking ourselves back into that perspective is very hard and that made these days very useful for the project as a whole.

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The second day was about objects and what they tell us about religion. One topic that was discussed was the ambiguity of images. The Empires of Faith team is very interested in how the same image can represent different gods in different places. So, for example, an image of the Greek god Hercules found in modern Pakistan would probably represent Vajrapani, the protector of the Buddha, or in Iran it could be the divine being Verethragna. What did the people who made the images, or used them, think about the relationships between these different gods?

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The two days were tiring but enlightening. Everyone came away with plenty to think about and some more questions that the project will try to answer in the future. Can objects shape what you believe? Can they be more important than doctrines and scripture? Does a sacred object possess some intrinsic quality that sets it apart, or does sacredness only exist in our perceptions?
Traditionally the study of religion in the ancient world has focused on what people wrote about regarding their beliefs or practices. The Empires of Faith project is seeking to balance that by looking at how visual culture and religious artefacts relate to religion. It feels appropriate that the thinking from our first seminar was recorded not as a series of written articles but as a set of images.

Click on one of the images below to view as a slideshow

More about the Empires of Faith project on the British Museum website.

Filed under: Empires of Faith, , , , , , , , , , ,

Altaf’s Hajj: Preparation

Altaf Abbas and his wife Rashida are going on Hajj this year. They will be blogging about their experience over the next two weeks. For information about the exhibition Hajj: journey to the heart of Islam


Altaf Abbas
We are a married couple, Altaf and Rashida Abbas with three children. We live in Leyton, East London very near the Olympics. We were both born in East London and have been married for 22 years. Both our parents are from Pakistan and came to the UK in search of work in the late 1950s. I work as a Construction Project Manager on the new extension of the British Museum which is currently underway and my wife Rashida works in the local Muslim school. We are going to Hajj on 30 Oct 2011 inshallah (God willing).

We have been planning to go for a number of years but became serious and made the commitment last year after speaking to some friends who had made the journey and described how it was such an amazing feeling. It is also one of the five pillars of Islam, the other four are believing in one god, fasting in Ramadan, paying charity and establishing regular prayer (five times a day). We are travelling on a package deal which includes flights, transfers, hotel and a trained guide.

I thought it was going to be a complicated process, however it was very easy. We just paid our deposit, got our vaccinations and posted our passports to the travel agent to get the visa. Three weeks later we paid the balance and collected our documents, at which point it became a reality that we were on our way.

Altaf buying fabric

Altaf buying fabric

The preparation that I have done is mainly background reading and lots of discussion with family and friends about their personal Hajj experiences to gain any tips about what to expect and things that I will need. The only real item that I needed to buy was the ihram which is the two unstitched white sheets that the men have to wear which signifies the shroud that Muslims are buried in, thus during the 10 days of Hajj everyone is equal.


Rashida Abbas
I have been told that I will need a huge dose of patience! I have watched lots of Hajj videos on YouTube and I am still not sure what to expect, but I think I will be in awe when I see the Ka’ba (black cloth covered building). My preparation has been to train my mind to be strong and be prepared for any hardship or difficult situation due to the huge crowds. Physically I have been walking two miles each day for the last four weeks as we will be walking a lot and I want to be fit and ready for it.

I have so many mixed emotions running through my mind. I’m excited, happy, scared and anxious as I am not sure what to expect on the day. But I do know it will be a spiritually uplifting experience.

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

Hajj: journey to the heart of Islam


Venetia Porter, exhibition curator

Hajj: journey to the heart of Islam will tell the story of a remarkable religious phenomenon – the annual pilgrimage to the sacred city of Makkah (Mecca), the birthplace of Islam. This is the British Museum’s third exhibition in a series exploring the idea of spiritual journeys – following the ancient Egyptians’ journey through the afterlife and the Christian pilgrimages undertaken throughout medieval Europe.

The Ka'ba. AP/PA

The Ka'ba. AP/PA

The exhibition will focus on three main stories: the journey, the Hajj itself, and what it means to have performed Hajj. There will be fascinating and beautiful objects – ranging from archaeological finds to modern art – from many different public and private collections.

All Muslims, wherever they live, are obliged to complete this pilgrimage (known as Hajj) if they are able, at least once in their lives. Hajj takes place every year, starting on the eighth day of the month of Dhu’l-Hijjah (the last month in the Muslim calendar) and involves a sequence of rituals that must be followed over a period of five days.

When we consider the journey of Hajj it is important to imagine a time before modern travel – and it immediately becomes clear why the Arabic word Hajj conveys a sense of striving toward a goal.

The exhibition will explore four key historical routes that lead to Mecca – from Baghdad, from across the Sahara and via Cairo, from Istanbul through Damascus, and from across the Indian Ocean arriving at Jedda, the port for Mecca and where pilgrims arrive today – many by plane.

For some, this journey could take months. For those coming from across the Indian Ocean and further east, it could take a year as ships before the age of steam could only travel when the monsoon winds blew in the right direction. Such journeys could be rough and terrifying. The Malaysian Munshi Abdallah wrote in 1854 ‘A rough wind blew as we tried to cross Cape Cormorin. Oh God, oh God, oh God! I can’t begin to describe how horrendous it was and how tremendous the waves were….all the goods, chests, sleeping mats and pillows were flung about…everyone was lost in their own thoughts, thinking nothing else but that death was close at hand.’

Many of the objects will be coming from similarly far-flung locations, but their journeys will be much less perilous. Major loans will be coming from collections across the Middle East, from Egypt and Saudi Arabia, as well as from Mali, Indonesia and Europe. A significant number of objects are being lent by the Nasser D. Khalili Collection of Islamic Art (Khalili Family Trust).

Certain objects, however, will merely be making the short trip from neighbouring galleries in the Museum, or from the Museum’s store rooms. With a global collection, the British Museum is well-placed to cover a subject that links so many different areas of the world.

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, , ,

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