Quranic Art in Anxious Times

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Written by C. Naseer Ahmad

The Art of the Qur’an: Treasures from the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts were on display during October 22 – February 20, 2017 at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution – Washington, DC. With the Seder meal and Easter approaching which are soon to be followed by the holy month of Ramadan, it an opportune time to revisit a unique and historical art display at the Smithsonian Institution.

Changing political winds have caused both turbulence and anxiety around the world, which might give some a reason to view the United States with weary eyes. On the surface, there might be many reasons to be concerned. But human nature has not changed nor the deep rooted relationships built by a lot of hard work and endurance.

Years’ long effort by the Smithsonian Institution – led by Dr. Massumeh Farhad, Curator of Islamic Art – and Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts – resulted in the loaning of some precious artifacts.

Throngs of visitors were seen at the Smithsonian during the display. Guides, speaking many languages conducted tours informing their audiences about the historical meaning of the different artifacts on display at the Sackler Gallery.

A marvelous digital display welcomed the visitors to the exhibition. Through this exhibition, a warming message went out to the wider world that America, despite the ebb and flow of political waves, remains a place welcoming all faiths. As people break bread over Seder and Easter, it might be worth noting that several times during the day, Muslims ask for the salvation and well being of not only Christians and Jews but all fellow human beings.

In appreciation of Smithsonian Institution’s important work to foster better understanding between people through art, the International Committee of the University Club Washington, DC organized a wonderful lecture featuring Dr. Farhad. During her remarks about the Quranic Art display, Dr. Farhad mention that “Mary” is perhaps one of the most revered names among the Muslims. She noted that a chapter in the Quran is dedicated to Mary.

The outstanding contribution by the Smithsonian Institution is through its website which provides a vehicle for both continuous learning as well as appreciation of this unique art with deep rooted history. Though the physical display of precious historical artifacts have moved on, the virtual exhibit continues through the website which engages the reader to explore and discover as well as engage in interesting conversations.

Press reviews presented on the website are inviting. For example, “It’s a glorious show, utterly, and like nothing I’ve ever seen…” – Holland Cotter, New York Times. And, the Economist is quoted: “The dazzling array of calligraphic variety across these manuscripts is astounding.

The website also provides links for educators as well as kids to “explore featured artworks spanning nine hundred years and from Afghanistan to Turkey through fun facts, discussion questions, and art-making activities. Experiment with creating elegant calligraphy, a colorful lamp, a working loom, and your own illuminated design.”

Writing for the Wall Street Journal, lee Lawrence said: “how superbly co-curators Massumeh Farhad and Simon Rettig explore the Quran’s evolution as art. As we step into the first gallery, for example, a male voice intones verses in Arabic while, on a large screen, a golden script unfurls, introducing the voice as the Quran’s primary instrument, not the pen. The curators then illustrate the shift from oral to written transmission in a particularly effective sequence that begins with a page from a late seventh- to early eighth-century manuscript. Tightly spaced lines cover the entire sheet, providing a no-frills aide-mémoire to keep recitations on track.”