The Art of the Qur’an graces Washington’s National Mall
Washington - Rarely do the divine and artistic occupy the National Mall in Washington and never before has the Quran dominated one of its famous museums before The Art of the Qur’an: Treasures from the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts (TIEM) at the Freer and Sackler Galleries of the Smithsonian Institution. The exhibition showcases more than 60 Quran manuscripts and detached folios from collections in Istanbul and Washington.
The show is the first major exhibit of Qurans in the United States and the most significant in the West since the 1976 World of Islam Festival at the British Museum. The age of the 47 TIEM pieces shown at the Sackler spans 1,000 years, from the late seventh century to the early 17th centuries. They cover North Africa to South-west Asia. In 1914, Ottoman officials, fearful for the survival of the holy books as World War I loomed, gathered them into a soup kitchen of Istanbul’s Suleymaniye mosque and TIEM was born.
“I believe the timing of the exhibit is quite important, especially seeing what we’re going through in the world today. To me, 2016 seems like the modern Dark Ages,” said Yildirim Ali Koc, vice-chairman of the board of Koc Holding, the exhibit’s main sponsor.
“Sadly, the perception of Islam in the West today is far removed from the concept of tolerance. We are naturally saddened and deeply concerned about efforts to associate Islam and 1.7 billion people, one-quarter of the world’s population, with terror and violence.”
In creating the show, the TIEM and Sackler curators’ mission was neither religious nor political. Curators Massumeh Farhad and Simon Rettig said they did not encounter Islamophobia while organising the show, only the opportunity for scholarship and sharing the art of the Quran with Americans. “Muslims are not different from Christians or people of any other faith,” Rettig said.
“Through the exhibition, the American public has an opportunity to discover another aspect of the Islamic world,” he said. “The exhibit breaks all the misconceptions we can have about a great civilisation. Some people won’t like it but it will help to construct a dialogue. The beauty of the works might change the minds of some people.”
He and Farhad present the holy book thematically, not chronologically. Two mulberry-painted rooms titled The Qur’an: God, Prophets, Believers, Prophethood and Community give way to a case of calligraphic implements and a table for children’s activities. Below a stairway lie two folios from a monumental Quran created in 1400 in present-day Uzbekistan. The pages measure more than 1.5 metres in length and about 1 metre in width.
Next, blue walls matching the lapis fields of the illuminated Qurans surround viewers for lessons on Chapter and Verse, Ink and Gold, and Power and Prestige. In the last room, visitors can watch a video of Mohamed Zakariya, one of the world’s foremost calligraphers. They hear only the sound of his bamboo pen as it scratches across the page. By the end of the show, visitors might feel humbled, even corrupt, like errors floating in a Quran’s margins, ready for coverage with an artful cartouche.
“Massumeh and I spent a month and a half in Istanbul at the museum,” Rettig said. “It was nearly overwhelming. These Qurans are vehicles of divine blessing. They have an aura, whether you believe or not. They move you, touch you.”
Some of the Qurans were endowed to religious institutions, some for private use. In the early years of Islam, calligraphers included no vowel or diacritical marks. They placed few words on each page, the better to recite them. Gradually, new scripts developed. Burnished paper overcame parchment and workshops opened. Calligraphers and illuminators separated into specialties. Artists incorporated gold, red, bits of green and non-oxidised silver to fields of blue and white. Embellished or not, in single or multiple volumes, the text remained the same.
People who cannot see the living words can visit the exhibit virtually. On the Sackler website — http:// www.asia.si.edu/exhibitions/current/art-of-the-quran/default.php — readers can view pages of a few of the Qurans and trace the journeys of other manuscripts through an interactive map.
A panel showing the different styles of calligraphy, their history and geographic origin would have added to the show, online and live.
Sensitive expert or discomfited novice, believer or non-believer, no one should miss the show, which closes February 20th.