Islamic artefacts featured at British Museum’s exhibit on world’s religious faiths

When choosing items of Islam, Cook wanted to be sure the five pillars were represented.
March 11, 2018
Symbolic gravestones. Issam Kourbaj’s tribute to Syrian refugees drowned while fleeing violence. (Penn Museum)
Symbolic gravestones. Issam Kourbaj’s tribute to Syrian refugees drowned while fleeing violence. (Penn Museum)

LONDON - A 14th-century glass lamp from Taqi al-Din mosque in Aleppo is the first of 160 objects in the British Museum’s exhibition “Living with gods: peoples, places and worlds beyond.” The last item in the exhibit is a child’s shirt dipped in plaster from the Syrian artist Issam Kourbaj, a memorial to the thousands of Syrian migrants who drowned fleeing violence in their homeland.

The exhibition features objects associated with belief from societies around the world, from the time of Sumer in ancient Iraq until today. The show looks at key themes of belief: the significance of light, water, fire and energy, aids to prayer, places of worship and items used in religious rituals and on pilgrimage. Sounds, music and silence associated with religious practice are combined with lighting effects.

The show’s synopsis, which states that there are 4,000 religions and sects globally and that 85% of the people in the world are believers, asks whether the human species should be defined as wise homo sapiens or believing homo religious.

Before entering the exhibition halls, visitors come face to face with a remarkable 40,000-year-old mammoth ivory sculpture known as the Lion Man, which depicts a lion’s upper body on the lower half of a man. It is the oldest known evidence of religious belief in the world and comes from the Hohlenstein-Stadel Cave, Baden-Wurttemberg, Germany.

The spiritual journey begins with an examination of the vital role that light and fire play in religious beliefs. In the period of the Lion Man, keeping the fire going was a vital activity because it was needed for cooking and protection from wild animals.

The glowing glass lamp from Taqi al-Din mosque is covered with a passage from the Quran written in calligraphy which describes Allah as the light of the heavens and earth.

Augustus Wollaston Franks, an important museum curator, acquired the lamp in 1875. “We do not know where or from whom he got it but wonderful glass of this kind was highly valued in Europe even in the 14th century when the lamp was made,” said exhibition curator Jill Cook. “It is possible that this piece was in a British family collection when Franks bought it but we do not know for certain.”.

Shrines and places of worship, including a Sumerian limestone female temple figure from the Kingdom of Lagash (2500BC), are showcased. The figure has a great sense of patience and humility — key elements in religion.

Displayed in the section featuring religious rituals are a colourful ceramic bowl from Morocco for water or soup taken to break the fast, a man’s white cotton ihram worn during haj and bottles for collecting holy water from Zamzam; tasbih (Muslim prayer beads) made of wood and gold for reciting the 99 names of God and water chestnut beads belonging to a dervish.

When choosing items of Islam, Cook said she wanted to be sure the five pillars were represented. “Mosques are indeed very beautiful but as the design of the show prevented the use of images and the choice was so vast we could not depict religious buildings of any faith, only the home altars and objects used in them,” she explained.

“Many of the visitors found the calligraphy of the shahada (Islamic testimony) depicted by (Iraqi calligrapher) Mustafa Ja’far interesting and informative, saying they learned from it and asked for information about where it comes from and about the Quran.”

Graves and places of burial mark the end of life in religions but thousands of Syrians drowned at sea and have no grave. At the end of the exhibition, white memorials made from children’s shirts dipped in plaster are symbolic gravestones. Kourbaj inscribed “girl 3 months” and “unknown boy aged 6 months” in Greek and Arabic on the shirts.

“We felt that we could not ignore the terrible plight of peoples persecuted for their faith or displaced by war,” Cook said. “The exhibition tries to look at what we share in the many ways in which we express beliefs and it would not be true to life if it did not acknowledge how we sometimes fail.

“Understanding the importance of believing and belonging through the use of ritual must surely beg the question of how we allow so many to go to graves without remembrance.”

“Living with gods: peoples, places and worlds beyond” will be at the British Museum through April 8.