The Art of the Qur’an graces Washington’s National Mall

Sunday 30/10/2016
Massumeh Farhad (R) and Simon Rettig, curators of the exhibit The Art of the Qur’an: Treasures from the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts, look at pages from a 1.5-metres by 1-metre Quran displayed as part of the exhibit at the Sackler Gallery in Washing

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://­rent/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.