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Tuesday, 21 February 2012

A show of peace and harmony


In London, the British Museum puts on an exhibition on the haj and all aspects of the pilgrimage through the ages. Nearby, artifacts of Buddhist and Hindu kingdoms are on show. It is a place that unites people of diverse faiths and backgrounds.
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MECCA is a city of surprises. The landscape may be bleak, but everything changes once you’re within the city as the extraordinarily rich texture of the Muslim world unfolds around you, from the sleek magnificence of the Masjid al-Haram to the liveliness of the street markets and souks.

Ten years ago, when I first visited the Holy Land for an umrah swiftly followed by the full haj a few months later, I remember being enthralled by the amazing diversity of my fellow pilgrims: their weather-worn faces were redolent of history, romance and drama.

There were dignified-looking Persian clerics in their long flowing black gowns, ebullient West African traders who were tall, big-boned and wearing white robes, deeply tanned Tajiks and tens of thousands of Bangladeshi villagers.

Regal Sudanese rubbed shoulders with Baluch and Pathan tribesmen, haughty-looking Cairo housewives, Levantine shopkeepers, Javanese and the occasional European or American.

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There was a moment when I felt as if the entire world was alongside me as I circumambulated the Kaaba.

Even back then, the city was undergoing tremendous change as increased prosperity in the Muslim world fuelled the number of pilgrims.

Roads and tunnels were being blasted into existence; buildings were being torn down or hastily constructed — a mishmash of styles that left me wondering what the originals looked like.

All of this came back to me as I walked around the British Museum’s very elegant exhibition titled Hajj: journey to the Heart of Islam (open until mid-April).

For anyone interested in understanding the haj, the exquisitely-curated show (in partnership with Saudi Arabia’s King Abdulaziz Public Library and sponsored by HSBC Amanah) is a superb eye-opener.

The haj is one of the Five Pillars of Islam, something every Muslim must do at least once in his or her lifetime if possible.

For many Muslims, it is one of the most important events in their lives, a journey to save and sacrifice for.

Last November, it’s estimated that more than three million Muslims converged on Mecca for the five-day ritual, one of the largest annual human assemblies in the world.

The British Museum’s exhibition is thorough and thought-provoking. Located inside the museum’s iconic Atrium, the exhibition focuses on all aspects of the pilgrimage through the ages.

The displays ranged from the haj’s origins and rituals, down to the long (and often perilous) journeys that the pilgrims were forced to take.

Indeed, much of the exhibition is devoted to the great distances and dangers that the pilgrims were forced to brave – crossing the Sahara and Gobi deserts or traversing the Indian Ocean.

Despite the diversity, there remains an underlying unity, an inexplicable oneness of sorts.

Of course, the ihram (white pilgrims’ robes) and the starkness of the landscape reinforce a sense of purity and simplicity of purpose.

But then again, maybe it’s also present in the determination and resolute faith of those undertaking the haj – a fixity of purpose that unites pilgrims whether they’re from Mali, Azerbaijan or China, not to mention the rich and the poor.

Having had my fill of the exhibition, I wandered out of the Atrium and onto the Asia exhibits in the gorgeously laid-out Hotung Gallery.

Artefacts imbued with faith were also on display here: Thai and Khmer sculptures of the Buddha stood next to bronze statues from Hindu temples in southern India.

And yet for some reason, I, as a Muslim from South-East Asia also felt very much at ease as I strolled past these historic items.

Could it have been because they were also part of my heritage and my past?

I also found it profound that the haj and Islam – a faith of complete submission to Allah – should be so celebrated in a museum, the product of the humanistic enlightenment with its opposing and single-minded focus on mankind.

Another thought struck me: the majority of the visitors to the exhibition were clearly non-Muslims, people of many different faiths who were eager and sufficiently open to want to learn more about Islam.

It occurred to me that I would have to wait a very long time to see a similar exhibition on, say, Easter or Hindu rituals at a major museum in a majority-Muslim city such as Cairo, Karachi or even Kuala Lumpur and this thought saddened me.

So, in a corner of London not far from the traffic of Oxford Street and the echoing courtyards of the Inns of Court, I came across an exhibition that united peoples of diverse faiths and backgrounds – uniting them all momentarily in a quest for knowledge, as a museum became a haven of harmony and peace.

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