The current ‘Hajj’ exhibition at the British Museum has been praised by Brian Sewell as ‘an exhibition of profound cultural importance’ and criticised by Mehdi Hasan as a ‘whitewash’. It is both, as it happens, though the former finally outweighs the latter.
The whitewash accusation refers to the fact that there is no mention of the on-going destruction by Saudi Arabia, whose Abdul Aziz Public Library is the British Museum’s partner in hosting the exhibition, of important Muslim historical and cultural sites. Wahhabism, the puritanical form of Islam that dominates in Saudi Arabia, permits the destruction of such sites because they are believed to encourage idolatry. Indeed, the Saud family’s Wahhabi tribes destroyed many sites as they advanced into the Hijaz from the end of the eighteenth century. It is estimated that the vast majority of Mecca’s ancient buildings have been destroyed in recent decades. Nor does the visitor to the exhibition learn that Mecca has been filled with ugly shopping malls, and Mohammed’s birthplace marked for demolition to make way for a new Saudi royal palace.
This is clearly a matter that needs to be addressed by any British cultural institution working with Saudi Arabia. Nevertheless, the importance of this exhibition should not be in doubt. ‘Whitewash’ fully acknowledged – and, after all, many objects in the British Museum were acquired through ‘whitewashed’ colonial exploitation – this exhibition provides a fascinating journey towards an understanding of Hajj. The pilgrimage (one of the many early meanings of hajj is ‘visit’) is undertaken by an astounding three million Muslims every year, who travel to Mecca from all over the world. It is, as one display panel tells us, ‘both a collective undertaking and a deeply personal experience’.