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Smithsonian’s Quran exhibit aims to dazzle, while offering opportunity for understanding

11/4/2016, 6:40 p.m.
Islam prohibits the depiction of God or prophets, and some Muslims believe drawing any animate being is also forbidden. Certainly ...
Photos courtesy of Smithsonian A Quran copied by Abd al-Qadir ibn Abd al-Wahhab, who worked in what is now Iran in the 16th century, is part of the exhibit at the Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in Washington.

By Lauren Markoe

Religion News Service

Islam prohibits the depiction of God or prophets, and some Muslims believe drawing any animate being is also forbidden. Certainly no such images appear in the Quran, its central holy book.

So there are no pictures per se in “The Art of the Qur’an,” the first major exhibit of Qurans in the United States. It is on display at the Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery on the National Mall until Feb. 20. What visitors to the exhibit can expect to see is words, thousands of Arabic words.

But these words, within the more than 60 Qurans on display, present a visually stunning tour of more than 1,000 years of Islamic history, told through the calligraphy and ornamentation that grace the sacred folios.

“We can convey a sense of how artists from North Africa to Afghanistan found different ways to honor the same text, the sacred text of Islam,” said Sackler Gallery director Julian Raby.

“They found different forms of illumination and binding to beautify the manuscripts they had copied. But above all, they developed different forms of script to express in a dazzling array of calligraphic variety the very same text. The results could be intimate, or they could be imposing. But in every case, the scribe invested his calligraphy with piety.” 

The Qurans in the exhibit come almost exclusively from the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts in Istanbul. Intricate calligraphy and rich ornamentation made these Qurans cherished possessions of some of the most powerful people of the Muslim world. Each comes with a rich story of those who commissioned it, copied it, entombed it or preserved it. Many were offered as gifts to forge military and political alliances.

Essentially though, Qurans are religious objects, the word of God that Muslims believe was transmitted through the Angel Gabriel to the Prophet Muhammad in the 7th century, when Islam was founded. Details within the text and on the margins of the parchment convey the pronunciation of words and the cadence of the verses.

Intricate ornamentation — geometric illuminations in gold, azure and other brilliant colors — beautify the pages, but also serve a function, said Simon Rettig, assistant curator of Islamic art at the Sackler Gallery.

“They help the readers locate themselves within the Quranic text. They tell you when you have to prostrate yourself,” he said, pointing to a complex geometric emblem in an early 14th century manuscript by Abdallah al-Sayrafi, a master calligrapher who worked in Tabriz, a historical capital of Iran.

Mr. Al-Sayrafi was trained in six Arabic scripts, and uses three — sometimes writing in gold, sometimes in black — in one of Mr. Rettig’s favorite Qurans in the exhibit. His illuminations look like multicolored sunbursts and gilded foliage blossoms.

The exhibit, on two floors of the Sackler Gallery, also aims to explain the Quran as scripture meant to be heard. Written down shortly after the founding of Islam, the Quran is verses to chant.

“Calligraphy is a way to capture the beauty of the orality,” said Dr. Massumeh Farhad, chief curator at the Sackler and Freer galleries, which form the Smithsonian’s Asian art collections and exhibits.