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Pilgrimage and Prayer

Written by Sheila Canby
Description of objects written by Aimee Froom (‘The Path of Princes: Masterpieces from the Aga Khan Museum Collection’, published in 2008).

Depiction of the Holy Cities of Mecca and Medina

Depiction of the Holy Cities of Mecca and Medina. Illustration: India, 19th century, Collection at The British Library

Pilgrimage to Mecca, or hajj, plays an important role in Islam. The first two weeks of the Muslim calendar month, Dhu’l-Hijja, are devoted to it. In the modern world the hajj is organised with great precision by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, which sets quotas for the number of pilgrims allowed entry yearly from each country. Before the age of modern transport, the hajj was expensive, arduous and time-consuming, especially for Muslims travelling from the fringes of the Islamic world, Spain and the Maghrib in the West and Central Asia and India in the East. Often the pilgrims, or hajjis, performed the hajj in old age and many of them did not survive the journey. However, dying while performing the hajj was thought to ensure that the hajji would go to heaven.

Because of the vagaries of politics in the Islamic world, Muslims often did not have the freedom of movement and required documents to ensure safe passage to Mecca. While some of these were supplied by clerics at the point of departure, others in the form of diagrammatic pictures of the Ka’ba and the Great Mosque at Mecca were produced in the Hijaz to verify that pilgrims had performed the hajj.

The desire to demonstrate that one had performed the hajj resulted in pilgrims returning from Mecca with plans of the Great Mosque and other key sites visited, produced and sold in or near Mecca and in the production of Iznik tiles depicting the Ka’ba and the stations of the hajj.

In Egypt, to this day, pilgrims paint scenes from the hajj on the exterior of their houses. Although Shia muslims do perform the hajj to Mecca, they also travel to other shrine cities which are central to their beliefs. As a result the shrine of Imam Ali at Najaf and the shrine of Imam Husayn at Karbala, both in Iraq, draw Shia communities from all parts of the world. In Iran, the Safavid shahs promoted the shrines of Fatimeh Masumeh at Qum and Imam Riza at Mashhad as alternatives to Mecca in the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, when their Ottoman enemies controlled Mecca, Madina, and Jerusalem, the three holiest cities in the Muslim world.

In addition to the major Islamic shrines at Mecca, Madina and the tombs of the Shia Imams, smaller shrines developed around the graves of the children and descendants of the Shia Imams. Called imamzadehs, these centres were often lavishly decorated with tilework. Some of these shrines functioned as satellites to the great shrines, while others were important focal points for local worshippers.

Map of the Masjid al-Haram. Probably the Hijaz (Arabia), 18th century.

Map of the Masjid al-Haram. Probably the Hijaz (Arabia), 18th century.

This map of the Great Mosque of Mecca (Masjid al-Haram) is part of the literary tradition surrounding the pilgrimage to Mecca (hajj), including books of prayers, practical guides with schematic depictions, and pilgrimage certificates. Important locations within the precinct of the mosque are identified in Arabic in black naskh script. Similar maps are thought to have been produced for Indian pilgrims in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries by draughtsmen working in the Hijaz.


Prayer amulet and accompanying case Egypt, ca. 11th century

This prayer amulet is a rare example of an early Arabic printing technique known as tarsh. The paper displays eighteen lines of Kufic text on the page shown here and further lines on the reverse, which may have been offset from the recto when the paper was folded inside its lead case, also a very rare survival. The text, which has been translated by Abdullah Ghouchani, contains excerpts from different Suras or chapters of the Qur’an, including al-An’am (6: The Cattle), Al Imran (3: The Family of Imran), al-Hijr (15: The Rocky Tract), and al-Baqara (2: The Cow). The style of the Kufic characters in the present example would indicate a Fatimid origin and no later, since this script was no longer used for manuscripts after the Fatimid period. The printing technique probably involved metal plates or woodblocks. The history of early printed amulets has yet to be written. What is known about them is based on a small group of extant printed amulets and literary sources. Bulliett cites poetry verses from tenth- and fourteenth-century authors referring to printed amulets from wooden blocks and cast tin plates (Bulliet 1987).



Illustrated manuscript of the Dala’il al-khayrat

Illustrated manuscript of the Dala’il al-khayrat (The Ways of Edification) of al-Jazuli (d. 869 H / 1465 CE). Turkey (Ottoman Empire), 1207 H / 1793 CE

The Dala’il al-khayrat of Muhammad ibn Sulayman al-Jazuli (d. 869 H / 1465), a member of the Berber tribe of Jazula in southern Morocco, is a devotional prayer book comprised of a collection of prayers for the Prophet, a description of his tomb, his names and epithets, and other devotional material. Al-Jazuli compiled the material for the manuscript using books from the library of al-Qarawiyyin, the celebrated Marinid mosque and University at Fas (modern Fez) in Morocco. The Dala’il became the centre of a popular religious brotherhood, the Ashab al- Dala’il, the essential function of which revolved around the recitation of this book of religious piety. This manuscript is an early nineteenth-century Ottoman copy of al-Jazuli’s text, opened to two fully illustrated pages containing depictions of Mecca and Medina. The images have been executed in black and painted in bright shades of red, blue, green, white, and gold, with landmarks and attributes rendered clearly for immediate recognition; Medina is identified by a large courtyard and the Prophet’s minbar (pulpit), while the Ka’ba in Mecca is brought to the viewer’s attention as the focus of four mosques representing the cardinal directions. Covered in a black and gold cloth and set against a blue backdrop with gilded floral decoration, the Ka’ba is framed by a geometric red and white circular band that spills out into the bottom half of the painting where the Prophet’s minbar appears. Views from multiple perspectives in both images result in stylized renditions of each city and prioritize the inclusion of essential information over naturalistic representation; they recall a rich history of geographic manuscripts with similarly executed illustrations in the Ottoman world, dating back to the sixteenth century.


Chao jin tu ji by Ma Fuchu, China, 1861

Chao jin tu ji by Ma Fuchu, China, 1861

The Chao Jin Tu Ji is the travelogue of Ma Fuchu (Ma Dexin, 1794 –1874), considered the most eminent Chinese Hui scholar of Islam and Sino-Muslim philosophy during the Qing dynasty. Originally from the Yunnan, his travels covered distances from China to Mecca and Cairo as well as the Ottoman Empire; this book recounts his pilgrimage to Mecca from China. Ma Fuchu left China with a group of Muslim merchants, travelling overland and by riverboat to Rangoon, where he boarded a steamship to take him to the Arabian Peninsula. After performing the pilgrimage, he spent two years in Cairo, where he studied at Al-Azhar University, and thereafter travelled throughout the Ottoman Empire before returning to Yunnan. Ma Fuchu is also well-known for his five-volume Chinese translation of the Qur’an and for writing over thirty-five works on metaphysics and history in both Chinese and Arabic. This scholar’s work attests to the several cultural networks existing between China and the Islamic world.



Polychrome qibla tile Turkey (Ottoman Empire), 17th century.

Polychrome qibla tile Turkey (Ottoman Empire), 17th century.

This tile depicts the black-shrouded Ka’ba within the Great Mosque of Mecca (Masjid al-Haram), the site of the annual Muslim pilgrimage (hajj). It is inscribed with an excerpt from the Qur’an that reinforces the image: “The first House established for the people was that at Bakka [Mecca], a holy place and a guidance to all beings. Therein are clear signs – the Station of Abraham and whosoever enters it is in safety. It is the duty of all men towards God to make a pilgrimage to the House if they are able.” The artist uses multipoint perspective – both plan and elevation – to give a sense of the overall form of the site. As in pilgrimage guides, which were produced throughout the Islamic world, essential locations are labelled here for further clarity. Decorated with the characteristic Ottoman ceramic palette of turquoise, cobalt blue, green, and red on a white ground, tiles like this one were produced in the seventeenth century. They were often placed in an architectural setting such as a mosque’s south-facing wall to indicate the geographical direction of Mecca and one’s prayers. This plaque reflects the Ottoman interest in topography and the long-standing Islamic tradition of depicting the holy shrine of Mecca in various artistic media.

 Source: The Aga Khan Museum (except for the title image from the British Library). Description of objects by Aimee Froom (‘The Path of Princes: Masterpieces from the Aga Khan Museum Collection’, published in 2008).

The following images have been added by the team and are not associated with the author or the Aga Khan Museum.


View of the sanctuary at Medina, 17th or 18th century, opaque watercolour, gold, silver and ink on paper, 65 x 46.5 cm, Nasser D. Khalili Collection of Islamic Art © Nour Foundation. Courtesy of the Khalili Family Trust.


View of the sanctuary at Mecca, Mecca, 17th or 18th century

View of the sanctuary at Mecca, Mecca, 17th or 18th century, opaque watercolour, gold, silver and ink on paper, 65 x 48 cm, Nasser D. Khalili Collection of Islamic Art © Nour Foundation. Courtesy of the Khalili Family Trust.


Panoramic view of Mecca, by Muhammad ‘Abdullah, the Delhi cartographer

Panoramic view of Mecca, by Muhammad ‘Abdullah, the Delhi cartographer, Probably Mecca, c. 1845, ink and opaque watercolour on paper, 62.8 x 88 cm, Nasser D. Khalili Collection of Islamic Art © Nour Foundation. Courtesy of the Khalili Family Trust.


The Baqi‘ cemetery in Medina  from the Futuh al-Haramayn

The Baqi‘ cemetery in Medina, from the Futuh al-Haramayn (a handbook for pilgrims to Mecca and Medina) by Muhyi Lari, copied by the scribe Ghulam ‘Ali, Mecca, Jumada II 990 AH (June-July 1582); ink, gold, coloured wax and opaque watercolour on paper; 42 folios, 21.6 x 13.9 cm, Nasser D. Khalili Collection of Islamic Art © Nour Foundation. Courtesy of the Khalili Family Trust.


The holy sanctuary at Medina, from the Dala’il al-Khayrat

The holy sanctuary at Medina, from the Dala’il al-Khayrat (Guide to Good Deeds) by al-Jazuli, Ottoman Turkey, late 17th or 18th century; ink, gold and opaque watercolour on paper, 52 folios, 20.4 x 12.3 cm, Nasser D. Khalili Collection of Islamic Art © Nour Foundation. Courtesy of the Khalili Family Trust.



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About the Author
Sheila R. Canby | Head Metropolitan Museum's Department of Islamic Art.[1] Prior to working at The British Museum, where she has been Curator of Islamic Art and Antiquities since 1991 – first in the Department of Asia, and since 2006 in the Department of the Middle East – she held curatorial and research positions at the Brooklyn Museum, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Fogg Art Museum, and Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. She was a visiting lecturer in the Art and Archaeology Department of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, in 2004-2005. She received her B.A. from Vassar College, summa cum laude, and her M.A. and Ph.D. from Harvard University. Of the dozens of exhibitions and installations she has organized at The British Museum, the most recent was the major spring 2009 exhibition Shah `Abbas: The Remaking of Iran (February through June 2009), which was accompanied by two publications, both of which she authored: Shah `Abbas: The Remaking of Iran and Shah `Abbas and the Treasures of Imperial Iran (both British Museum Press, 2009). Other recent book publications include Islamic Art in Detail (2005), Persian Love Poetry, with Vesta Sarkhosh Curtis (2005), and Safavid Art and Architecture, 1501-1722 (2002). She has also lectured widely, and has published extensively, as the author of articles and reviews, and as a contributor to catalogues and books.
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