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Ancient Koran unveiled for London Hajj exhibition

posted 19 Jan 2012, 05:37 by Mpelembe   [ updated 19 Jan 2012, 05:37 ]

One of the earliest known examples of the Koran will feature alongside other Islamic artifacts as part of the British Museum's exhibition, "Hajj: journey to the heart of Islam".

LONDON, ENGLAND, UK (JANUARY 13, 2012) (REUTERS) - One of the very earliest known Korans in the world was unveiled in London on Friday (January 13) as part of an upcoming exhibition that will give visitors to the British Museum a chance to learn about the annual pilgrimage to the sacred city of Mecca, the birthplace of Islam.

"Hajj: journey to the heart of Islam" will feature a wide variety of Islamic artifacts, ranging from archaeological objects to modern pieces. It will tell the story of the pilgrimage that all Muslims are obliged to complete at least once in their lives.

One of the highlights of the exhibition - the Ma'il Koran - drew a great deal of attention when it was carefully unpacked prior to being put on display.

"This is very significant object for us in the exhibition. It's a lone from the British Library in London. It's one of the earliest known Korans in existence, made in about the 8th Century, probably copied in Mecca or Medina," exhibition curator Venetia Porter told Reuters.

The Koran is the sacred book of Islam containing the word of God that was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad, according to Muslim belief.

This specific copy of the Koran is written in a particular style of early Arabic script known as Ma'il, which means 'sloping' - as can be seen by the way the text slants. However, the British Museum's Venetia Porter said the text is perfectly understandable to modern-day Arabic readers.

"The Koran was revealed in the Arabic language, it was written down in the Arabic script. And what is written there, the words are perfectly understandable to Muslims today who are reading their Koran. And this is a huge privilege to have this Koran in the exhibition. It's very, very early - one of the earliest known from the 8th Century and it was probably copied in Mecca or Medina in the Hijaz. And it's in a beautiful style of script which is one of the earliest forms of Arabic script called Ma'il, which literally means sloping. And when you look at it you really can see that it's sloping from the top from the right down to the left," said curator Venetia Porter.

The Ma'il Koran is regarded as particularly significant as it is believed to have been produced in the Hijaz region - which includes the holy sites of Mecca and Medina.

The messages that the Prophet Muhammad is said to have received were originally committed to memory by early believers. According to Islamic history, after the Prophet Muhammad's death in 632, Abu Bakr, the first Caliph, instructed Muhammad's secretary, Zayd ibn Thabit, to record the revelations in writing. The authoritative text of the Koran is said to have been completed in 650.

The Ma'il Koran - believed to have been produced in the 8th Century - is therefore an extremely early example of the script.

Among other artifacts to be displayed in the museum is the "Key for the Ka'ba" which has been lent by the Islamic Art Museum in Doha.

"This is a really extraordinary object to have in the exhibition. This key is in the collection of the Islamic Art Museum in Doha. It's a key that was offered to the Ka'ba. This was a very symbolic object. So the rulers who had control over the holy places, whether they were the Mamluk Sultans or the Ottomans, they would give gifts every year to the holy places. And this key is a symbolic gift that was given to the Ka'ba. It actually says on it 'The Key of Ta ul Ka'ba', and with beautiful inscriptions from the Koran on it. And this is a very, very important object for us to have in the exhibition here," exhibition curator Venetia Porter said.

Professor Nasser D. Khalili has, since 1970, assembled, as patron of the Khalili Family Trust, five of the world's most comprehensive art collections. It is items from his "Arts of the Islamic World" collection that make up around fifty-per-cent of the exhibition's artifacts.

Khalili explained why this exhibition will give people a chance to see for themselves the history of the Hajj.

"For the first time the history of Hajj has been shown visually, because most of the people who go to Hajj they go there for the religious and spiritual purposes. Here you see objects that were made to cover the holiest place in Islam, which is Mecca and Medina. And that is something that many people had the privilege of seeing because the majority of the time when you go for your Hajj you see one object covering the Ka'ba. But here you see the entire history of every object for at least 300 years - as far as the textiles are concerned - and other objects that gives you a visual history of Mecca for the first time," Professor Nasser D. Khalili told Reuters.

According to the British Museum, the exhibition will explore four key historical routes that lead to Mecca - from Baghdad, from across the Sahara and via Cairo, from Istanbul through Damascus, and from across the Indian Ocean arriving at Jedda, the port for Mecca and where pilgrims arrive today - many by plane.

Among the rites they must perform during the three-day pilgrimage, Hajjis must walk seven times around the Ka'ba, the cube-shaped building at the centre of the Grand Mosque, pray at nearby Mount Arafat and ritually stone the devil by hurling pebbles at three walls.

As one of Islam's five pillars, the Hajj is enjoined on all Muslims who are physically able to carry it out. Although hajj starts on the eighth day of the lunar month of Dhul Hijja, which fell last year on Friday, November 4, most pilgrims came earlier to visit the holy mosques in Mecca and nearby Medina, where the prophet Muhammad was buried over 1,400 years ago.

The Grand Mosque is the main attraction for over 6 million pilgrims who enter Mecca throughout the year, of which 2.5 million-3 million pilgrims are generally expected during the hajj.

"Hajj: journey to the heart of Islam" is open from 26 January to 15 April 2012 at London's British Museum.