The British Museum's Hajj, journey to the heart of Islam is hosted in partnership with the King Abdul Aziz Public Library in Riyadh. Saudi participation was key to putting the exhibition together, with BM director Neil MacGregor and the curator Venetia Porter visiting the kingdom in 2009, where they met with Prince Sultan bin Salman, Prince Faisal bin Abdullah, and Princess Adelah bin Abdullah. The Saudi ambassador attended the press launch on 25 January. The result is, unsurprisingly, a whitewash.
Here's Nick Cohen:
The British Museum's current Hajj exhibition charts the history of Mecca as a destination for pilgrims with the wariness of a conscript crossing a minefield. The exhibition sticks to the authorised version of "religious scholars". It allows no discussion of the findings of historians of Islam – "true scholars who have read more than one book", as Richard Dawkins puts it – that the traditional account is as much a fairy story as the traditional accounts of Christianity and Judaism. Fear of bombs in the building or of staff receiving the same treatment as Salman Rushdie and Ayaan Hirsi Ali have kept evidence about the Muhammad of history far from public view.
The exhibition goes further than the standard tongue-biting editor or panicked publisher, however. It not only fails to question Islam's foundation myths but augments the myth-making by excluding evidence that might embarrass the Saudi royal family.
Nick cites an article in Guernica by Joy Lo Dico, which is worth reading in full. Here's her conclusion:
Saudi Arabia’s status as patron has been repaid magnificently. As the river of black gold runs dry and the Hajj continues to grow, it is not unthinkable that it will become the country’s greatest financial asset.
The fate of old Mecca doesn’t merit a mention in this exhbition. Until 50 years ago it was thronging with 7th century buildings. These have been largely demolished, including the houses of the Prophet Mohammed, his first wife Khadijh and Caliph Abu Bakar, father of another of the Prophet’s wives. Only a handful of historic buildings remain and even they are under threat.
Such cultural vandalism is authorized by Wahhabism, the particular strain of Islam the Saudis follow. In their interpretation of the Quran, the worship of gravestones is proscribed, and so too anything old and venerable. “Conservation Saudi-style is out of step with almost the entire Muslim world,” says Sadakt Kadri in his new book Heaven on Earth. “The Sphinx still gazes contemplatively from Giza; the pre-Islamic cities of Palmyra and Persepolis survive replete with graven images in the deserts of Syria and Iran; and domed shrines are part of the municipal furniture in cities from Istanbul to Agra. Only the Taliban have displayed a similar aesthetic, when they restored two ancient sandstone statues of the Buddha to oblivion with rocket launchers in March 2001”.
For the British Museum, the preservers of cultural history, to fail to mention the fate of Mecca seems at best negligent. Put with the other omissions, the exhibition at times has the gloss of an advertising brochure.
In the final room of the Hajj exhibition, set alongside reflections from everyday pilgrims of their experience of Mecca, are a handful of quotes from globally worshipped superstars, Mohammed Ali and Yusuf Islam among them. This quotation from Islam, formerly Cat Stevens, about his first Hajj in 1980, is printed in large fonts on the wall.
“I had at last found that dimension where human existence ceases to be held by the gravitation of sensual and worldly desires, where the soul is freed in an atmosphere of obedience and peaceful submission to the Divine Presence.”
The observer could not leave the exhibition without wondering whether all the omissions amounted to another form of submission.