THE MAGIC OF FAITH
History and traditions of Muslims’ holiest destination come alive in this book
Understanding Hajj is integral to an understanding of Islam. Every Muslim aspires to make that journey. It is one of the five pillars of the faith. No words can describe the awe and emotion on first coming face to face with the modest cubical structure one has seen in print, film and TV millions of times. However, this book captures the magic of this holy ritual more graphically than any other.
Written by five brilliant scholars of London, it was first published this year by the British Museum Press, intended as a companion to an exhibition on the subject. The exhibition displayed a fascinating range of objects from the key public and private collections drawn together.
It is a very pleasing mix of text, photos and images for Muslims and non- Muslims alike. The intention of covering history, voices and material under one cover is amply achieved.
The chronology starts with the Hijra— migration of the Prophet and his followers from Mecca to Medina— and is, therefore, confined to a concise overview of key Hajj- related events.
Karen Armstrong’s introductory piece “Pilgrimage: Why Do They Do It?” sets the foundation of the book, highlighting the commonalities of pilgrimages across different religions, something that not many consciously think about.
Hajj did not originate with Prophet Mohammad, but thousands of years before, with Prophet Abraham. Most of Hajj rituals are based on the actions of Abraham and his family.
M. A. S. Abdel Haleem delves into the spirit and rituals of the Hajj, from its pre- Islamic origins to the first and only Hajj led by the Prophet Muhammad which fixed the various rites and sequence of events followed to this day.
Hugh Kennedy and Robert Irwin cover the trials and tribulations of hujjaj ( pilgrims) over a vast period in “The Journey to Mecca: A History”. While Muslims who have performed the Hajj in modern times have it easy, from the early days to roughly the beginning of 1900 AD, the logistics involved were mind- boggling; for example: ensuring food and water availability along the route through the desert. “At its height, the
Caliphate ( ed. Abbasid, from 750 AD) had the capacity for organisation and construction on a scale not seen since the Roman empire.”
The water tanks and reservoirs en route, the concept of “economy class passenger” 800 years ago, and the treatment of pilgrims on the way to and from Mecca and during Hajj all make fascinating reading.
Ziauddin Sardar takes us from 1950 to 2012, and the monumental changes made by succeeding Saudi kings due to the vastly increased number of pilgrims resulting from the use of air transport: Impact on the Haram mosque, the sites around Mecca, the rethinking of pilgrims’ modes of transportation during the Hajj period, the coordination with the countries of origin of the pilgrims. To summarise: “The Hajj pushes to the limit every system of organisation known to man,” and the mutation is continuous.
Venetia Porter ends this very commendable joint effort with description and illustrations of “The Modern Art of Hajj and Textiles of Mecca and Medina,” which briefly recount the history of the cloth coverings of the Ka’ba through the ages.
The beautiful illustrations and maps are fundamental to the usefulness of the book and the notes; the references and further reading and the Hajj travel narratives are the cherry on this feast for the eyes and mind. The book is a lot more than a coffee table. For the enormity of the information it contains, besides its weight, the book is best suited for the study table. I wish, however, that the events from the Prophet’s birth to Hijra had been briefly included to complete the backdrop.
BIRD’S- EYE VIEW OFMECCA, BYCARLPONHEIMER, VIENNA, 1803, ENGRAVING
AT MECCAPHOTOGRAPHED THROUGH THE COLONNADE; ( RIGHT) MODERN GUIDEBOOK