January 3, 2017

Nine Lessons On History, Islam And Local Washington From The Smithsonian’s Art of the Qur’an Exhibition

By Avery Kleinman

This Qur’an, currently on display at the Sackler Gallery, was copied by Muhammad ibn Ahmad al-Khalili al-Tabrizi and dates from the Safavid period (1571–72) in Iran.

This Qur’an, currently on display at the Sackler Gallery, was copied by Muhammad ibn Ahmad al-Khalili al-Tabrizi and dates from the Safavid period (1571–72) in Iran.

At a time when the Qur’an and Islam are at the center of national and local political debates, a new exhibition at the Smithsonian’s Sackler Gallery in downtown Washington celebrates the art rather than the politics of the holy book. The exhibition, which runs until February 20, 2017, features a collection of 60 manuscripts from the late seventh to early 17th centuries that display the calligraphy, illumination and decoration techniques that were commonly used to beautify the Qur’an.

Chief curator of the Freer and Sackler Galleries Massumeh Farhad gave me a tour of the exhibition, and we spoke afterwards about what the exhibition can teach us about history, art, current events, Islam and even local Washington. Listen to our whole conversation:

Here are nine things I learned:

1. The timing of the exhibition was fortuitous.

The exhibition opened in October 2016, and will be on view until February 20, 2017, a month after the new president is inaugurated. Despite coinciding with a presidential election where Islam was a main topic of conversation, Farhad said she started planning the exhibition six years ago and the timing was not intentional. “Given the reception that it’s had, I feel that it’s important that it happened in 2016,” she said. “It offers our visitors a different aspect of Islam and the Qur’an…hopefully a more positive understanding than the way that Islam and the Qur’an have been presented in the media.”

This Qur’an was copied by calligrapher Abd al-Qadir ibn Abd al-Wahhab around 1580 and is on loan from the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts in Istanbul.

This Qur’an was copied by calligrapher Abd al-Qadir ibn Abd al-Wahhab around 1580 and is on loan from the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts in Istanbul. Courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution.

2. The Qur’an’s art value has long been overlooked.

The Art of The Qur’an is the first major exhibition examining the book in the United States, and the first in the West since the 1970s. Religious works, in general, have only become the focus of major Western museums recently—Farhad organized the first major exhibition on the Bible ten years ago.

3. Washington was the right home for the exhibition.

The exhibition will not be traveling to any other locations and will only be on display in D.C. The director of the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts in Istanbul, which loaned the majority of the manuscripts, wanted the works to be displayed in the district, Farhad said. “[The home museum] is located in the cultural capital of Turkey, and the director felt it was important for this to be in Washington,” she said. “I think Washington is a very international city… It’s important to make this accessible to as many people as possible.”

4. There is no one Islamic History.

The exhibition features manuscripts from a variety of different eras and places –from north Africa to Afghanistan. It displays Qur’ans that are small; others are five feet tall, weigh 150 pounds and take multiple people to turn the pages. Farhad hopes visitors are struck by that variety. “When you think of Islam and you think of history and the Middle East, you can’t think of a single history or a single Islam,” she said. “I think with every manuscript it’s sort of a mini history in itself. It works like a mosaic.”

This Qur’an is from the Timurid period, circa 1440, and is decorated with gold leaf on colored paper.

This Qur’an is from the Timurid period, circa 1440, and is decorated with gold leaf on colored paper. Courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution.

5. Local religious leaders helped shape the exhibition.

Although the Smithsonian is a national institution, local leaders had a special role in making the exhibition come to life. The museum formed an advisory group of local university professors and leaders from the Jewish, Christian and Muslim faiths that was presented with the layout and major themes of the exhibition about a year in advance. The group offered feedback and guidance to curators.

6. The Middle East has a rich, ancient history of culture and creativity.

Farhad said one of the goals of the exhibition is to remind visitors of the creativity that has existed in the Islamic world for thousands of years. “Hopefully when you’re through with the exhibition you have glimpses of some of the traditions and customs that flourished in places like Harat or Damascus or Aleppo–places that are in the media and all you hear about is war and strife and destruction,” she said. “These places were some of the most creative centers ever.”

7. The Qu’ran is never illustrated, so artists found other ways to decorate the text.

In the aftermath of Muhammad’s death, his oral revelations were compiled to what we now know as the Qur’an. That process gave birth to decorative Arabic calligraphy. Because Islam discourages illustration of its stories, the texts are also decorated with geometric and floral chapter headings and often illuminated through the use of gold foil or ink.

A page from the world's largest Qur’an, circa 1400, currently on display as part of the Art of the Qur'an exhibition.

A page from the world’s largest Qur’an, circa 1400, currently on display as part of the Art of the Qur’an exhibition. Courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution.

8. Not all Qur’ans were meant to be read.

The first manuscript displayed in the exhibition is the world’s largest Qur’an. It weighs around 150 pounds, is five feet high and takes multiple people to turn each page. The manuscript dates to around 1400 and was produced in historic Iran (modern-day Uzbekistan). According to legend, calligrapher Omar Aqta’ copied a Qur’an as small as a ring in an effort to impress the ruler Timur. Timur was unimpressed, so the calligrapher then created a much larger version, so big it needed to be transported in a wheelbarrow.

9. Creating an exhibition requires all-hands on deck.

“An exhibition of this scale uses practically every member of the museum and I may not be the most popular person right now for having thought of an exhibition like this,” Farhad said. Each manuscript has to be examined by conservators, photographed and studied for the catalog. Writers work on the catalog and the wall text. There is a design team that translates the exhibition into the physical space and designs the lighting. Cases need to be built for the specific measurements of each manuscript. A website needs to be created. “It makes it so satisfying when its finally finished and you can just walk right through.”

The Art of the Qur’an: Treasures from the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts is on display at the Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery until February 20, 2017.

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