The heart of Hajj

August 2, 2020

Artistic depiction of the holy Ka’ba over the ages

Magnetism, Photogravure etching 2011 by Ahmed Mater.

All of us remember the photograph widely circulated a few months ago: the aerial view of Ka’ba and adjoining courtyard of the holy mosque. Empty. Without pilgrims making ritual rounds or offering prayers. That unimaginable, but real, picture illustrates the effect of pandemic on religion; a place always filled with devotees was deserted.

One is certain that this snapshot will get added to the repository of photos of Ka’ba and of the Hajj (also restricted this year). Due to disdain for human representation in Islam, images of Ka’ba and pictures of the Hajj have acquired significance for Muslims around the world; these visuals, in their reverence can be compared to the depiction of Jesus and other holy figures in the Christian art.

Ka’ba, has inspired artists in Muslim societies, from the medieval period to modern times not only for being the House of God, but also for its structure. In its exhibition, Hajj: Journey to the Heart of Islam (January 26-April 15, 2012) the British Museum said “the story of the phenomenon of the Hajj, unique among world religions, from its beginnings until the present day”. It contained paintings, tiles, textiles, photographs and objects connected to Mecca, Ka’ba and the holy pilgrimage.

Some of these were map-type miniatures, made by Indian artists, who must have been living in Mecca or had performed the Hajj. Like cartographers, they inscribed details of Ka’ba, and other structures, within the boundary of Masjid al-Haram. Interestingly, the small buildings in the courtyard and minarets all point towards Ka’ba. This kind of perspective is a norm in miniature painting, which relies more on narration than observation. But it also has another context, because for Muslims around the world Ka’ba is the nucleus, and the direction for prayers, as shown literally in world maps prepared by Muslim image-makers.

In a Turkish illustrated book about the discovery of the Americas, the History of the West Indies (1650), Ka’ba is in the centre of the globe. In another nautical atlas made by Ahmad al-Sharafi al-Safaqusi, dated 1571-2, Ka’ba is in the middle of a larger circle with all countries placed on the rim. Here, Ka’ba, intriguingly is not presented in its elevation seen from one side, but as a composite square, which encompasses the door, and the stripe of Quranic script on its black cover from all four side.

Both for devotion and distance, Ka’ba and the Hajj stimulated artists’ imagination, thus we come across some of the most magnificent pieces in which reality and myth mingle seamlessly. For instance, in the illustrated manuscript made for the grandson of Tamerlane at Shiraz in 1410-11, pilgrims are standing next to an elongated Ka’ba inside the holy sanctuary, with two angels above the mosque and the rest hovering in a golden whirling sky. A similar flight of fancy is witnessed in another painting, from the Shahnama of Firdausi (mid-16th century Shiraz), in which Alexander visits Ka’ba.

Alexander, a Greek ruler, “was associated with the Prophet in the Qur’an Dhu’l Qarnayne, who was to impose the prophetic mission of Abraham”. Alexander the Great was domesticated by Mughals too, as he appears as a character in vernacular costumes in the pictures of his voyages by Indian miniature painters. The Macedonian’s presence is important because it also concerns a rule: non-Muslims are not allowed to enter Mecca or Ka’ba. Asad al-Nasser Gharem, a Saudi artist, has addressed this condition in his mixed media work Road to Mecca (2011), a highway sign, with directions of Mecca for Muslims only, and for non-Muslim, other routes.

However, there have been instances of some non-Muslims travelling to the holy sites. Richard S Burton’s A Pilgrimage to Meccah and Medinah, 1855, recounts his journey in which he did not reveal his true identity. His “book was a best-seller, going through several editions”.

The real relevance of a work about Ka’ba, Mecca, or the Hajj, is how you respond to it. If we still enjoy tiles and miniature paintings of Ka’ba, it is not for religious reasons or historic value only, but the way artists infused their devotion into objects created for mere depiction or function.

The same can be said for photographs. The camera being just a machine cannot capture feelings, but it may invoke emotions depending upon the person who presses the button. The earliest photographs of Mecca were captured by Muhammad Sadiq Bey in 1880; like The Haram during Hajj, a sepia print in which you see a towering Ka’ba with a few buildings in background. There were a number of engravings and drawing prior to this, but photography recorded the actual fervour during the Hajj, and the way Mecca transformed with time.

Ka’ba and the Hajj remain a subject for artists to explore – not only past, but the present world order, in which religion has returned as a dominating – if not deciding mark of identity. Religious symbols are not just relics of heritage, but codes to understand contemporary issues, particularly a world shaken by militant groups.

The role of religion, and its relevance/presence for a modern-day Muslim is crucial to comprehend oneself and ‘others’. Hence many artists from Muslim world are addressing faith in their art. Saudi-born artist Ahmed Mater in his etching Magnetism (2011) has created a solid cube with marks around it, scattered like energy waves. Iraqi Kurd artist, Walid Siti’s White Cube (2010) also consists of a translucent construction in the centre of text composed in circles; perhaps referring to chanting of pilgrims during the Hajj. Devotees from different regions of the world acting as one, must have been a strange occurrence observed by Shadia Alem, an artist from Mecca in her People Mosaic Under My Window (2010). “From her window overlooking the Masjid al-Haram, she has photographed some of the many workers (here dressed in particular uniforms)”.

These religious symbols associated with the Hajj and Ka’ba are important for artists in Pakistan too. I remember visiting someone’s house and seeing a tiny piece of black fabric framed, a segment of Ka’ba’s cover. It looked like a work of modern minimal art. Artists have approached this subject in diverse manners. Anna Molka Ahmed, conforming to the vision of her time, painted Ka’ba with pilgrims as if in a frenzy. Later, artists were able to recognize and analyse the multiple layers of faith in our midst. Hamra Abbas, in her Ka’ba Picture as A Misprint (2014), reconstructs patches of varying shades of colours that eventually merge/emerge into black. Rashid Rana’s Desperately Seeking Paradise (2007-8) is based on a basic form, the cube – or Ka’ba.

The writer is an art critic based in Lahore.

The heart of Hajj: Artistic depiction of the holy Ka’ba over the ages