Big Zuu Goes to Mecca review – a quietly revolutionary portrait of Islam

<span>Big Zuu (right) and his fellow pilgrim Tubsey (left), with their local guide Nadim Dagher in Big Zuu, Goes to Mecca.</span><span>Photograph: Acme Tv/acme tv</span>
Big Zuu (right) and his fellow pilgrim Tubsey (left), with their local guide Nadim Dagher in Big Zuu, Goes to Mecca.Photograph: Acme Tv/acme tv

There’s no one way to be a religious person. For some, it’s all about a deeply personal connection between you and God. For others, its value comes from how it places you within a larger community of like-minded believers. Either can bring comfort and meaning to a person’s life, and in the case of the grime musician and award-winning TV chef Big Zuu, he is fortified by both as he makes a pilgrimage to Mecca.

Big Zuu is a thoughtful and charming host who is able to find the heart and humour in even the most typically solemn moments. This hour-long BBC documentary follows him through Ramadan, where he is giving up his “sinful” ways – even as a committed Muslim, he loves the ladies, a bit of hash and the odd tipple. Despite being “westernised” and not the most pious of believers, he decides to go on the umrah pilgrimage to Mecca (in contrast to the hajj, this can be undertaken at any point in the year) to work out what Islam means to him. He is surrounded at most points by a small group of friends (his “mandem”) who are also Muslims and just as endearing as Big Zuu himself. For him, this experience isn’t about being a perfect, sin-free person. “This ain’t some fake religion documentary where I’m pretending to be some great Muslim and convert the world,” he tells us. Instead, he is sincerely trying to figure out his faith and become the very best version of himself.

The programme is filled with sweet moments, particularly when Big Zuu bonds and jokes around with other Muslims about what lies ahead. As he boards the plane to Mecca, a stranger tells him, “I’m really happy for you”. But before that he is teased at the barbers that he should come back with a Saudi wife – and that with a towel on his head he currently looks like one. That segues into Big Zuu considering what shaving his head for the pilgrimage really means to him. As a black man, his hair is integral to his identity, and he almost tears up when he recalls being told to keep it short by his teachers because it was distracting the white pupils.

There are other big questions. For one, the costs of the pilgrimage – the proceeds of which are paid directly to the Saudi government as a result of a post-pandemic system change – are, at £7,500 a person, astronomical. He wonders whether that money going to the Saudi royals is really the best use of those funds when he could, as a Persian shopkeeper advises him, just go home and work privately on the direct connection between “your heart and God”. The programme doesn’t skirt around the fact that this is a place that has been susceptible to corruption and that “Allahu Akbar” (God is great) is, sadly, for some too often associated with suicide bombing rather than its wider usage to commence prayers. But what makes Big Zuu’s pilgrimage a moving one is his ability to sincerely connect with his faith without flattening his identity as a proud black working-class west Londoner, or losing his sense of fun.

As a chef doing Ramadan, there is a running joke about how he gets hangry. He is noticeably tense just before his fasts comes to an end, yelling at his mate Tubsey for not chopping an onion quickly enough, only to return to his sweet self once he has some soup in him. But, jokes aside, this a quietly revolutionary programme, in terms of how it intimately depicts an Islamic pilgrimage and as a rare look at Muslim masculinity, which is so often stereotyped in the media. Beyond the “mandem”, the chef is able to form earnest bonds wherever he goes. His barber, for instance, reassures Big Zuu about his concerns that he might have a “weird-shaped head” beneath his curls. Big Zuu is able to then be open and emotional about how he feels closer to God and to his fellow Muslims. But, because this is a Big Zuu programme, even these spiritual moments have punchlines, with Tubs then sheepishly looking at the camera, having just been given a short back and sides.

There is also a banging soundtrack, with grime and garage punctuating scenes of religious awakening and jazzy edits. For all that these things can be complicated, whether it’s connecting with God in a moment of solitude or making a pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia, faith can be a beautiful thing. With Ramadan just ended, this programme is a delightful way to mark what Islam means to so many people. Eid mubarak, Big Zuu.

  • Big Zuu Goes to Mecca aired on BBC Two and is available on BBC iPlayer