It is the largest mass movement of people on Earth—yet a highly selective one.
Only Muslims, of course, are allowed to take part in the Hajj, the annual pilgrimage to Islam’s holiest city, Mecca.
But there is nothing to stand in the way of the largest exhibition about the Hajj ever mounted. Entitled Hajj: Journey to the heart of Islam, it will run next year at the British Museum from Jan. 26 to April 15.
Museum Director Neil MacGregor announced plans for the exhibition at a news conference in London on Tuesday. He noted that the remit of the museum from its beginning was to illustrate the link between faith and society.
“This exhibition is a central part of that ambition,” he said. The purpose, he said, was to pay homage to one of the great religious and cultural phenomena of the Islamic world and to lead non-Muslims to a better understanding of its spiritual significance.
Museum Curator Venetia Porter, the chief organizer of the exhibition, said it would include archeological pieces, textiles, manuscripts, contemporary art and quotations from the Qur’an and the Hadith (sayings attributed to the Prophet Muhammad).
There will also be quotations from ordinary visitors and from such luminaries as the late Malcolm X, an American convert to Islam who took the name El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz. He was assassinated in New York in 1965.
Items in the exhibition have been gathered from all over the world, with some of the most important lent by the Khalili Family Trust. Nasser David Khalili, a British-Iranian property developer, art collector and philanthropist, owns 20,000 items of Islamic art, the largest such private collection in the world, as well as thousands of items from other cultures.
The exhibition has been funded by HSBC Amanah, the global Islamic financial services arm of the HSBC Group of banks. Mr. MacGregor said one reason an exhibition of this scope has not been mounted before was the huge cost involved, and without HSBC it would not have been possible.
Approximately three million people participate each year in the Hajj, which takes place in the last month of the Islamic year, known as Dhu’l Hijja. The obligation of Muslims to make the journey to Mecca at least once in their lives, if they are able, was prescribed by God and its rituals have never changed.
It was in Mecca that the Prophet received his first revelations in the early 7th century. At the heart of the sanctuary at Mecca lies the Ka’aba, the cube-shaped building that Muslims believe was built by Abraham and his son Ishmael.
Ms. Porter said the exhibition will trace the route to Mecca from four locations: Kufa, a historic city in Iraq that has special importance to Shia Muslims; Cairo, a focal point for pilgrims coming from as far away as Timbuktu; Damascus, a center of the Ottoman Empire, and India.
Water systems had to be built along some of these routes for thirsty pilgrims. Inside the Grand Mosque is the Well of Zamzam, regarded by Muslims as a miraculously generated source of water from God. Abraham’s son Ishmael was said to be thirsty and kicked at the ground, at which water gushed forth and has continued to flow since.
Millions of pilgrims drink from the well each year.
The exhibition also will include reference to the Hejaz Railway, built by the Ottomans to connect Damascus and Medina. It was repeatedly attacked and disrupted during World War I by guerrilla forces led by British Col. T. E. Lawrence—Lawrence of Arabia.
The novelist Joseph Conrad commemorated, in Lord Jim, the deaths of thousands of pilgrims who came by ships from India that never reached their destination.
Ms. Porter said that colourful textiles used to decorate the Ka’aba are changed each year, with old ones cut up into clothing or decorative pieces and offered as gifts. Textiles will be a centrepiece of the exhibition, she said.
It will include many objects brought back from Mecca by pilgrims.
“When pilgrims are not praying, they are buying things,” Mrs. Porter said. “It is not mere shopping; these are true souvenirs of the Hajj.”
Karen Armstrong, a renowned British scholar and author of 12 books on comparative religion, spoke at the news conference and recounted the story of the Prophet’s visit to Mecca is the year 630.
The Prophet, then living in Medina, had been at war with the Quraysh, the dominant tribe in Mecca, and he decided to go there at risk to his own life. A thousand Muslims, including two women, agreed to accompany him.
The Quraysh sent out cavalry to kill them, but friendly Bedu took the pilgrims by a back way into Mecca, where all violence was forbidden.
“The Prophet knew he had the Quraysh on toast,” Ms. Armstrong said. “If they killed him, they would lose all credibility.”
The Prophet signed a treaty with the Quraysh which seemed to give away all of his gains. Over the protests of his son-in-law Ali, who wrote the treaty for him, he even acceded to a demand by the leader of the Quraysh that he cross out the description of himself in the treaty as a Messenger of God.
The pilgrims with him were furious, on the brink of mutiny, but Mrs. Armstrong said the Prophet’s concessions were “a clear triumph,” although they looked like a defeat.
“It was the Meccans who behaved badly. The Muslims behaved like people of peace,” she said.
This set the stage for an end to fighting and, two years later, the Quraysh opened the gates of Mecca to the Prophet.
“It was part of a peace process, a process we all need if we are to have a viable world,” she said.
Mrs. Armstrong noted that the word hajj means effort and the word jihad has a similar meaning—not holy war, as is usually thought in the West.
“We in the West often think of Islam as a religion of holy war and violence,” she said. “But the Hajj is a pilgrimage of peace, a journey to a more peaceful and better self.”
(Ray Moseley is a London-based former chief European correspondent of the Chicago Tribune and has worked extensively in the Middle East. He can be reached at email@example.com.)