His [Aga Khan’s] message is probably one we can all learn from, whether we call ourselves Sunni or Shi’a. It is a shared belief that Muslims need to work hard to portray Islam in a positive way, be it with different types of communication, including visual discourse such as this exhibition.
By Zara Aliah Singh – The Muslim News UK
This month, the Ismaili Centre is hosting the Spirit and Life exhibition, consisting of over 160 pieces of Islamic Art spanning over 1000 years.
Aga Khan, the 49th Imam of the Ismaili Muslims, hosted the opening of the exhibition on July 12. It is due to end on August 31, when the exhibition will be displayed around Europe and eventually end up in its permanent home in the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto, Canada.
With immense Sufi and Shi’a influence, as well as some examples from Sunni Islam, the exhibition in London is home to a range of textiles, paintings, manuscripts of the Qur’an, musical instruments and miniatures. It also includes portraits of Ottoman sultans and Qajar shahs of the 19th century. The exhibition aims to express the wide range of Muslim civilisations including China, Morocco, India and Iran.
The display of art is split into different categories, the most stunning being The Word of God, specifically manuscripts of the Qur’an. It takes the most beautiful colours and calligraphy to express the incomparable beauty of the words of Allah, the Most High, yet even in its simplest form, verses from the Qur’an in plain Arabic with no colour is still visually stunning.
The Qur’an folio in kufic script is central to this part of the exhibition and dates back to the 8th century in North Africa. It excels in beauty as the early kufic script written on parchment can easily take ones breath away when teamed with the rich history of such Arabic scripts. The Blue Qur’an is an example of this tradition. The Qur’anic text is written in gold kufic script on indigo-dyed parchment. The piece is described as “one of the most extraordinary Qur’an manuscripts ever created” and it is easy to see why. The simplicity of the gold against the blue cloth is easy on the eye, while the sweeping style of the kufic script adds to the detail of the text. One can only imagine the time and energy that was put into creating this piece. The fusion of Persian and Indian art is expressed with the whole Qur’an written on one piece of cloth, also a wonderfully detailed artifact.
The many manuscripts of the Qur’an contain a large amount of history, and come from various geographical areas, showing the wide range of cultures that share the passion for the beautiful Qur’an. More importantly, this special section of the exhibition emphasises the central point of Islam and its divine message that Muslims hold in their heart with love and reverence.
From this central point of Islam, the exhibition moves out to explore the culture of Muslims, rather than Islamic culture, which differ greatly. Stories are told with colourful detailed paintings and philosophical, educational and ethical matters are addressed. The art takes the viewer through a journey, which explores the difference in Muslim cultures from India to Iran. The use of human images is an exceptional example of these differences. Some Islamic scholars rule that human images are not permissible. One thing this exhibition does do is highlight the difference of opinion that many have when it comes to the rulings within Islam. But a factor with much more importance is that the exhibition aims to educate people about the history of Islamic culture, and essentially the beauty of Islam.
Despite the difference of opinion among Muslims today, there is an agreement that we should all comprehend clearly; that in today’s world Islam is not portrayed the way it should be. As Aga Khan puts it, “Many questions are currently being raised in the West about the Muslims, with countless misconceptions and misunderstandings occurring between our contemporary societies. I hope that this exhibition will hold a special significance at a time which calls for enlightened encounters amongst faiths and cultures.” His message is probably one we can all learn from, whether we call ourselves Sunni or Shi’a. It is a shared belief that Muslims need to work hard to portray Islam in a positive way, be it with different types of communication, including visual discourse such as this exhibition.
Art is not everyone’s cup of tea. And not everyone will agree with some of the artefacts displayed in Spirit & Life. But there is no doubt that if you are someone who is passionate about the positive portrayal of individual Muslims, you will be able to appreciate the effort of those who brought these artefacts together. If this exhibition doesn’t do anything else, it will inspire Muslims to explore their history, and more importantly, to unite as one ummah, in order to portray and educate others about the one, true Islam.
SPIRIT & LIFE- An Exhibition of Masterpieces of Islamic Art from the Aga Khan Museum Collection. 14 July to 31 August 2007, Tuesday to Sunday 10AM to 4PM. The Ismaili Centre, I Cromwell Gardens, London SW7 2SL