MYL-S Bradford felt extremely privileged to have been invited to an evening lecture with Curator Qaisra Khan on Wednesday 5th September 2012 at the University of Bradford. The University of Bradford hosted an evening with Qaisra Khan who came especially from London to deliver an insightful talk on her display at The British Museum. The exhibit that took place less than six months ago was an attempt at providing the London community with a taste of the Islamic culture.
Qaisra Khan was undertaken by the British Museum to become project Curator for the Hajj exhibition which hit headlines all over London news and Art magazines. Qaisra was extremely determined to portray Hajj in the most unique and enticing way – and her lecture at the University explained exactly what she discovered and displayed not for just London, but the worldwide community to see. Although none of the MYL Sisters had visited the London exhibition, it was a pleasure to see the images and the stories behind the chosen artefacts told directly from the Curator herself.
Qaisra Khan first spoke of The Ashmolean in Oxford that held some Islamic artefacts related to the Muslim pilgrimage. One of such artefacts was an embroidered curtain (sitarah) made for the tomb of Prophet Muhammad (Peace be upon Him) in Madinah. This curtain was ordered to be produced by Sultan Selim III, an Ottoman Sultan, and it was a continuity of a tradition held by the Ottomans once they seized control of Hijaz and Haramain from the Mamluks. It was presented to the tomb of the Prophet Muhammad (Peace be upon Him) during one of the trips to Makkah where it hung beautifully. This curtain was used in the Middle Eastern display at The Ashmolean and was donated by Professor Khalili from the Khalili family trust. Such cloths are currently held by the Khalili family which were generously donated for Khan’s display at the British Museum.
Another of the artefacts at the exhibition was a Hijazi Qur’an from the 8th Century which contained Surah Taha, and on the page that was opened read Verse 113, “And thus We have sent it down as a Qur'an in Arabic, and have explained therein in detail the warnings, in order that they may fear Allah, or that it may cause them to have a lesson from it (or to have the honour for believing and acting on its teachings).” The Hijazi Qur’an was one of the many ancient items; another such item was the Turkish sun dial for Qibla, the earliest sign of unity depicting how every Muslims would turn to face the Ka’bah for Salah, seeking its direction using the dial.
Qaisra also spoke of the Western world’s fascination with the pilgrimage and this was shown in The Queen Mary Atlas (1555) – this was from the point of view of a Western outsider and, as they would never have been allowed to attend the pilgrimage, the representation by the Portuguese mapmaker Diogo Homem shows the cities of Makkah and Madinah as Cathedrals, signifying sacred places of worship. The Latin inscription reads: "Mecca is the location of Muhammad's temple and a place of pilgrimage for the Saracens and others, as Rome is for the Christians." This was not the only interest of Hajj from the Western world; to a further extent Lady Evelyn Cobbuld, a Scottish Aristocrat, kept a diary that was later published, in which she wrote of her pilgrimage to Makkah in 1963 at the age of 65. She was the first British who was granted permission to perform Hajj and, though she had not accepted Islam, she truly appreciated and awe-inspired by the religion and considered herself a Muslim. Richard Burton, a European, was also granted access to perform the Hajj without accepting Islam; he published a book called ‘The Pilgrimage to Makkah’ where he described his remarkable journey which became the bestseller as soon as it was published.
Qaisra Khan also presented modern artefacts which consisted of the Ihram that Muslims wear whilst on the sacred pilgrimage – a display which greatly intrigued Prince Phillip. An image was taken from the Malcolm X film and it is captioned in Arabic, ‘We were all brothers’ and it shows a line of men all wearing the Ihram, all following behind one another as they travel for Hajj. One of the quotes that were reproduced in the exhibition by Malcolm X (1964) was: 'they asked me what about the Hajj had impressed me the most … I said, the brotherhood! The people of all races, colors, from all over the world coming together as one!' This emphasized the universally diverse symbol of Hajj and the spirit of brotherhood, a feeling often cherished.
The Kulliyat of Sa’di, a manuscript by the Persian Sa’di Shiraz, was one of the many books illustrated with various paintings that vividly encaptured the process of Hajj in the earlier eras. Here, Qaisra enlightened the audience of Sa’di’s descriptions of the four different routes in the Ancient Islamic Era, all of which helped pilgrims to travel to Makkah. The famous four routes that existed not just for the pilgrimage but for trade purposes as well were the following:
1. The Arabian route: The Arabian route began from Kufa and ended at Makkah. This route was shown to contain Darb Al Zubayda, the first purpose built route established at Kufa by the famous Queen Zubayda, wife of Khalifa Haroon Rashid. She is infamous for the charitable work she often engaged herself in and this route was one of those acts that she brought forth at Kufa to enable pilgrims to travel to Makkah and it has been illustrated in the Kulliyat. Her generosity was extended to anyone and everyone throughout her life and therefore this route was dedicated to her. Many will recall Queen Zubayda from the various lectures of Shaykh ul Islam of the famous account between her & Behlol the Majzoob who she paid for a house in paradise.
2. The African Route, contained several different routes that extended to as far as Timbuktu. Some of the routes were from Timbuktu to Cairo, Fez to Morocco and then Cairo, and the West African route from the Sahara to Cairo – Cairo was a central route in Africa where all other African cities were met and were led to Makkah.
Another story in the Kulliyat is that of Mansa Musa, an African King of Mali, on his journey to perform the sacred Hajj pilgrimage. Mansa Musa is famously known for arriving from Mali to Egypt where he distributed all his wealth and gold to the inhabitants of the city, so much so that he had to borrow money to return once his pilgrimage was completed! He is illustrated in the manuscripts as holding a singular Gold coin in his hand.
3. The Ottoman Route, this began at Istanbul, the capital city of Turkey and then to Iran and then to Makkah. The fort in Mudawwara in Jordan also linked to Turkey and allowed the Jordanian and Arabian pilgrim’s access to the Ottoman Route. In a portrait in the Tableu Generale de l’Empire, a painting can be seen in which a Sultan is standing above at Topkapi Palace, waving goodbye and wishing luck to the travellers before they set off to Makkah.
4. The Indian Route which made use of the Indian Ocean, and this route went as far as China. This is mentioned in the Anis al Hujjaj, Guide to the pilgrims and later, as times developed, Bombay became a popular resort for Pilgrims to congregate before they set off together for Hajj. What is most noticeable is that Thomas Cook, the travel Agency, had just begun their business and they were extremely helpful in aiding a safe journey for the Hujjaj from Bombay to Jeddah! Qaisra went on to explain that not everyone was as friendly as the British travel agency, the Dutch Consulate, afraid of radicalisation made it difficult for the pilgrims to perform Hajj and the Dutch Hujjaj suffered great distress.
Moving to a more traditional and customary aspect, Qaisra explained that it became a custom during the pilgrimages of the 1860’s onwards that a Mahmal would be carried atop a camel on the journey to Makkah. On this exhibition, the selected Mahmal was made of red silk and it would have acted as a beacon of hope and direction for the pilgrims on their journey. It contained thick embroidery from silver and gold thread - the Mahmal would be empty and it would symbolise the power of the Sultan. The ruling Sultans had control over the holy places at Madinah and Makkah and so the sending of the Mahmal would symbolise their possession and lordship over such sacred places. Qaisra mentioned that the Mahmal was the “showstopper” of the exhibition, and many were awed by its powerful presence during the exhibition.
However, what was more fascinating for the MYL Sisters was the mention of an old Qadriyyah tradition from the 17th Century, a banner which was carried by the leading members of the Qadriyyiah order which was embellished with beautiful designs. One such design on the banner was that of a sword on which it was written “Were it not for Him, there would be no pilgrimage.” This banner would head the pilgrimage and would lead the caravan to Makkah and also throughout Hajj – when the pilgrims were tired and felt as though there had no energy left, they would see a bright beautiful banner which would help to guide them as they proceeded to perform the Tawaaf of the Holy Ka’bah. To see such a banner linking to our Qadri roots was extremely heart-warming and automatically linked us back to the 1860’s tradition which now does not exist.
Maqamat of Hariri, pages from a manuscript by al-Hariri were also present and the main message taken from this was the importance of Hajj and that it was the Hajj of the heart, mind and soul rather than that of the body. Another beautiful tapestry showed the Mighty King Alexander the Great, King of Macedon, a state of Ancient Greece, better known as Dhul Qarnain as mentioned in the Quran. Alexander is shown to be sitting beside the Ka’bah, his hat on the floor as he prays humbly to His Lord whilst his men watch their leader, baffled by their king’s humility and modesty.
Amongst such beautiful paintings and tapestries with their own individual stories were also many textiles belonging to the Ka’bah. Some belonged to the Hizam (The Gold belt of verses around the Ka’bah), some belonged to Baab al-Tawba (the Door of Repentance inside the Ka’bah), whilst others, particularly red embroidered cloth, was on display which covered the inside of the Ka’bah. Each textile was beautiful and it was mentioned by Qaisra that the Banu Shayba tribe of the Arabs had the honour of looking after such blessed fabric.
Finally, there were some displays of contemporary art which vividly encapsulated the aspect of Hajj. One such display was that of Ahmed Mater Al-Ziad from Abha, Saudi Arabia. His simple art entailed a magnet in the middle that represented the Ka’bah, surrounded by iron filings. The filings represent the Hujjaj as they surround the Ka’bah in deep devotion, each attracted to the power of the magnet in the middle (the Ka’bah), unable to resist its pull. This definitely was a favourite amongst the audience.
The lecture was a notable success and despite not having attended the actual London exhibition, it was absolutely brilliant to have seen and experienced it in such a short space of time. Learning about Islam and Hajj from different cultures left the MYL sisters feeling truly amazed at the beauty and vastness of the religion of Islam and its roots, spreading far and wide.
We would like to take this opportunity to congratulate Qaisra Khan for her outstanding work and achievements. Many people have since researched further into Islam, and have understood the simplicity and the humble beauty of the refreshing Hajj experience.
Edited by: Misbah Wahid