While I was in London last week, Elisabeth Sabaditsch-Wolff and I went with a group of people to see “Hajj: journey to the heart of Islam”, a feature exhibit that runs until April 15 at the British Museum.
Before the visitor buys his ticket and enters the inner sanctum, he is given a foretaste of the Hajj with this “installation” by Idris Khan in the atrium of the museum:
Which is made up of lots of these:
If that whets your appetite sufficiently, you’ll want to buy a ticket and enter the exhibit itself.
Despite paying £12 to see the Hajj material, we discovered that visitors were not allowed to take photographs. I was sure the museum’s website would have more, but when I got home and took a look, there wasn’t much available.
And, truth be told, there wasn’t really that much to the exhibit. The sitara — the curtain for the door of the Ka’aba, on loan from King Abdul Aziz Public Library in Saudi Arabia — was the prize artifact, and it was impressive indeed. There were numerous other beautiful objects on display, plus a lot of calligraphy, descriptive texts, photos, drawings, engravings, etc.
We saw plenty of images of devotees circling the black cube (counterclockwise) or kneeling to pray, but no contemporaneous materials from the 7th or 8th century. There was no ground plan from the original Mecca as determined by archaeological excavation, nor any artifacts dug up at the site. There’s good reason for that, of course, since no archaeological activity is allowed at any of Islam’s holy sites.
This makes the Hajj exhibit a rather paltry affair in comparison with, say, the magnificent Egyptian and Assyrian galleries at the British Museum. It’s all hype and puffery and public relations, an expensive and elaborate sales campaign bankrolled by the Saudis and designed to supplant the beating heart of Western culture with the austere emptiness of Islam.
Or, as Elisabeth said when we walked through the door, “This is da’wa!”
I asked her to write her impressions of the exhibit, and this is what she had to say:
It is not usually my style to spend a whopping twelve pounds Sterling of my hard-earned money in order to visit the British Museum’s special exhibition on the Hajj, especially in view of the fact that my knowledge exceeds that of most non-Muslims (I actually venture to say that I know more than most Muslims). The reason I decided to enter the tomb that represents Islam is simply to see what the exhibition organizers were able to make out of nothing.
For example, how can one claim to show the history behind the Hajj when there is no historical evidence of Islam on the Arabian peninsula? And so there was very little to show about the Hajj except copies of the Koran, hajjis’ reports about the Hajj, intricately stitched prayer carpets, and movies about the experiences of those who completed the Hajj. As expected, it wasn’t much, because there isn’t much.
What I did notice, however, was not only the high number of non-Muslims who walked through the exhibition, but also the many school classes. Most of them were made up of very young children, many of whom were eight- or nine-year-old girls in hijab.
Looking at them, I felt my heart ache. No one can tell me that these girls willingly donned the hijab and the long dresses when they entered school. What galls me even more is that by covering up, these girls are being sexualized, for this is what the hijab tells us, the non-Muslims: “Do not touch these girls, they belong to us. They are our property.” As soon as a girl reaches puberty — which according to Islamic tradition is when Mohammed married Aisha and consummated the marriage — she is seen as marriageable.
As I wandered through the exhibition, I had the sensation of walking through a tomb that is called Islam. Everything exuded gloominess, as gloomy as the faces of many devout Muslims walking in the streets.
One can imagine how refreshed I felt upon returning to the — as yet — non-Muslim world, to the sunshine, to relative freedom.
Before we delve any further into the surrounding issues, let’s take a look at what the British Museum has to say about its glitzy da’wa extravaganza:
One of the five pillars of Islam central to Muslim belief, Hajj is the pilgrimage to Mecca that every Muslim must make at least once in their [sic] lifetime if they are able. This major exhibition charts the history of this deeply personal journey.
Examining the extraordinary travel logistics involved and how the wider operation of the event has changed over time, the exhibition compares how pilgrims over the centuries negotiated this often monumental undertaking and how it continues to be experienced by people from all corners of the globe today.
Beautiful objects, including historical and contemporary art, textiles and manuscripts, bring to life the profound spiritual significance of the sacred rituals that have remained unchanged since the Prophet Muhammad’s time in the 7th century AD.
This is an accurate description, as far as it goes. But Neil MacGregor, the director of British Museum, explains the real point of the exercise:
‘This exhibition will enable a global audience to deepen their understanding of the significance and history of the Hajj. In particular, it will allow non-Muslims to explore the one aspect of Islamic practice and faith which they are not able to witness, but which plays such a major part in forming a worldwide Islamic consciousness.’
That is, the Hajj exhibit is designed to accustom non-Muslims to Islam by presenting them with images and stories which they will find palatable, and even uplifting.
That’s what makes it da’wa.
Visitors to the British Museum who have no knowledge of Islam are presented with pictures of pilgrims in shining white robes who display their devotion to Allah through their journey to Mecca. Their religious practices seem austere, yet somehow beautiful and inspiring, images to lift up the souls of the faithful.
That’s what the infidel is allowed to see in the British Museum. However, as we all know, there is a lot more to Islam. For a starter, there’s this:
Non-Muslims are not welcome in Mecca. In fact, the Hajj exhibit acknowledges this fact by reproducing in a work of art the famous traffic sign in Saudi Arabia that directs non-Muslims away from the road to the holy shrines.
Why is this all right with the British Museum? How would the esteemed intellects on its board of directors feel if an exhibit about the Vatican featured a sign that said “Non-Christians Not Allowed”?
Well, we all know the answer to that. And we also know that Islam is special. It gets a free pass for its exclusion, for its discrimination, for its intolerance of the infidel. Its special status also grants it permission to conceal a lot of truths about itself, truths that might awaken resistance among the former Christians it is colonizing, if only they were aware of them.
The violence and brutality of Islam are not only endemic to it, they are canonical — they are written up in its core texts for anyone to see, and have been there since its founding in the 7th century.
As Emmet Scott writes in Mohammed and Charlemagne Revisited (pp. 240-241):
We have found that in the years after 600 classical civilization, which was by then synonymous with Christendom, came into contact with a new force, one that extolled war as a sacred duty, sanctioned the enslavement and killing of non-believers as a religious obligation, sanctioned the judicial use of torture, and provided for the execution of apostates and heretics. All of these attitudes, which, taken together, are surely unique in the religious traditions of mankind, can be traced to the very beginnings of that faith. Far from being manifestations of a degenerate phase of Islam, all of them go back to the founder of the faith himself. Yet, astonishingly enough, this is a religion and an ideology which is still extolled by academics and artists as enlightened and tolerant. Indeed, to this day, there exists a large body of opinion, throughout the Western World, which sees Islam as in every way superior to, and more enlightened than, Christianity.
You will see none of these unpleasant truths in the Hajj exhibit. The “journey to the heart of Islam” is a journey into only those things that Islam wants non-Muslims to see.
Nothing about slavery, or violence against women, or cousin marriage, or the cutting off of infidel heads, or female genital mutilation, or the death penalty for heretics and apostates.
None of that. Just the shining white robes, the pure hearts of the faithful, and the enormous crowd circling the black cube in the center of Mecca.
Close by the exit from the Heart of Darkness was a guest book in which visitors were invited to leave their impressions and comments. Elisabeth pointed to it and said, “Hey — are you going to speak out there? Maybe tell the truth?”
I replied, “I dunno… they’ve got CCTV all over the place here. I’m not sure this is a good time to go on the record.”
But I couldn’t resist the siren song of that book, so I made a tactical decision to use deep irony — to maintain an absolute deadpan. As nearly as I can recall, this is what I wrote:
Many thanks for this most excellent da’wa. The Princes of the House of Saud are to be commended for their zeal in funding this devotional exhibit. May it bring the Light of the True Faith to the hearts of the non-believers of Britain!
After we left the exhibit we went to the gift shop, which was well-stocked with Hajj paraphernalia and bric-a-brac.
Plenty of books were available for readers who were curious about Islam.
There hadn’t been too many visibly enriched visitors in the exhibit itself, but there were quite a few spending their money in the shopping zone.
We found this, a book written by a well-to-do Englishwoman who must have been a convert to the pure faith:
Interestingly enough, “Cobbold” is apparently a variant spelling of the modern German word kobold, which is related to both “cobalt” and “goblin”, and whose Common Germanic root meant “demon of the mine”.
Finally, consider the ironic juxtaposition of images in this photo:
If Oscar had ever found his way to Jeddah, they’d have toppled a wall on him. It would have made Reading Gaol seem like an afternoon at Wimbledon.
As Elisabeth mentioned above, the Hajj exhibit has a dark and lugubrious air about it. I’ve had about as much gloom as I can take, so we’ll finish up on a lighter note with the Vlad Tepes/KGS production that inspired the title for this post: