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The forgotten beauty of Islamic Art

The Smithsonian’s Sackler gallery in Washington, DC hosts the largest exhibition of Qur’ans in the history of the United States. Coinciding with the 'Art of the Qur’an' exhibition, MoMA decided to feature some of the most important artworks produced by the artists from an Islamic background, in their fifth-floor permanent collection. Together, these two cultural institutions create a vivid image of how delicate and breathtaking Islamic art truly is.

The subtle allure of oriental calligraphy

The last large exhibition that explores the artistic significance of the Qur’an took place forty years ago, in 1976, at the British Museum in London. Since then the visitors of the western’s world most influential museums and galleries haven’t had a chance to see an exhibition that explores the rich culture of illumination and calligraphy that was used for centuries to decorate Islam’s Holy book.
Qur’an from Afghanistan, Herat, Timurid period, 1434, ink, color and gold on paper (TIEM)
The exhibition at the Freer and Sackler galleries is a result of the institution’s collaboration with the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts (TIEM) from Istanbul that has loaned 47 rare pieces dating from the 7th to the 17th century.
Qur’an, Afghanistan, Herat, Safavid period, 1576, ink, color and gold on paper (TIEM)
Like the Bible in the Western culture, Islam’s Holy book has been in the center of the Islamic artistic world for more than a thousand years. Some of the most stunning examples of the Islamic calligraphy and illumination were produced as parts of the decoration of the Qur’ans that belonged to some of the most prominent historical figures. The 'Art of the Qur’an' exhibition features the works that have never been exhibited outside of Turkey and combines them with Freer’s and Sackler’s impressive collection. The curator of the show Massumeh Farhad, explains that:
'Doing this exhibition is really a continuation of bringing the cultures of Asia, whether social, political or religious, to America, especially to Washington.'
Qur’an folio, Near East, Abbasid period, 9th or 10th century, ink color, and gold on parchment (Freer galerry of art)
We often forget that the history of the Islamic art is almost as long as the narrative of the Christian art. Some of the exhibits in the 'Art of the Qur’an' show that as early as 725 AD, calligraphers were capable of producing stunning calligraphy and illumination. Most of the manuscripts featured in the exhibition have colorful histories and hold within them historical fragments that provide us with valuable information about different stages of development of the art of decorating the Islam’s Holy book.
The first of a two-part volume of the Quran, dating to 1028. This volume was copied by al-Husayn ibn Abdallah, most likely in Cairo.
These words by the chief curator of the exhibition shed light on how significant the prohibition of the depiction of Holy figures in the Islamic cultures has been:
'Due to the Islamic proscription on figurative images in religious contexts, the words of the Qur’an took on great visual importance, leading to the development of varied styles of calligraphy, as well as ornate decorative and binding techniques — particularly after the introduction of paper by the 11th century, an incredible burst of creativity'.

Qur’an attributed to calligrapher Abd Allah al-Sayrafi, Iraq, Ilkhandid period, first half of 14th century, ink color, gold on paper (TIEM)

Perhaps the biggest difference between the art inspired by the Bible and the art that celebrates the glory of Allah is that there are no visual depictions of Allah. This fact has shaped the course of the Islamic art and as a consequence, the fine art of painting letters became the centerpiece of all cultures that accepted Islam.
Qur’an, calligrapher Khalil Allah, Ottoman Period, 1517 (Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts, Istanbul
The 'Art of the Qur’an' opened on October 22nd, 2016 during a troublesome time for Muslims in the United States and it will close on February 20th, 2017. Although the organizers say that their intentions were not political the significance of this exhibition in a time like this is even greater because it seems as if the importance of the Islamic cultures for the development of the Western civilization has been completely marginalized.
Qur’an binding, probably Afghanistan, Hera, Safavid period, 1580, paperboard and leather (TIEM)

MoMA's act of defiance

Disrespecting the art of your own day and age is a complex issue because it suggests that the cultural heritage of our time is being regarded as irrelevant. It is completely understandable that for some the 'Art of the Qur’an' isn’t the most intriguing topic, but saying that contemporary artists from Syria, Iran and every other country on the list of banned Islamic countries, no longer matter in the art world today, is worrisome, to say the least.
Zaha Hadid The Peak Project, Hong Kong, China, 1991
In a turbulent week following the annunciation of the infamous ban, one of the most important cultural institutions in the world has responded with a strong statement. The Museum Of Modern Art has readjusted its fifth-floor permanent collection to feature the works of art produced by the artist from Iran, Iraq, and Somalia. In doing so, they clearly stated that the art produced in these predominantly Muslim countries cannot be removed from the narrative of the Modern and Contemporary art.
Marcos Grigorian, Untitled 1962
Each of the artworks will be accompanied by the following statement:
'This work is by an artist from a nation whose citizens are being denied entry into the United States, according to a presidential executive order issued on January 27, 2017. This is one of several such artworks from the Museum’s collection installed throughout the fifth-floor galleries to affirm the ideals of welcome and freedom as vital to this Museum, as they are to the United States.'
Ibrahim El-Salahi: The Mosque, Oil on Canvas, 1964
Among the artist now featured in the museum’s permanent collection is the painting named 'The Mosque' by a Sudanese artist Ibrahim El-Salahi. The artwork created in 1964, juxtaposes the Modernist abstraction and calligraphy, the same technique that was used to produce some of the most remarkable decorations of Qur’an for more than a thousand years.
Charles Hossein Zenderoudi: K+L+32+H+4. My Father and I, 1962
This is just one of many artworks that are now on view at MOMA. It has been announced that the artworks will change every couple of months as long as this unfortunate saga continues to unravel and affect the artists whose work is being exhibited. The gravity of these actions is even larger because it is a well-known fact that MoMA has always been apolitical.
Parviz Tanavoli, The Prophet, Bronze on wood base, 1964
The Islamic culture has been a significant factor in the development of the Western civilization, without it the world we live in wouldn’t be the same.

The splendor of Islamic art

When we think about the art that originates from predominantly Muslim countries we often forget the long tradition that led to its creation. The diversity of Islamic art is enormous and there are certain art forms that exist only in the parts of the world that have accepted Islam as their religion.
Masjid-al-Haram-Makkah (The Great Mosque of Mecca) 638 AD
The architecture of the middle East is breathtaking and the construction methods used to build some of the most alluring buildings in the world, have been ahead of its time, and inspire amazement even today.
As a result of the prohibition if the representation of the figurative images, the Islamic cultures developed one of the earliest forms of abstract images. Arabesques are a form of artistic decoration that uses floral elements as its main vehicle of expression. Their charm is obvious even to an untrained eye and their splendor has contributed to the overall importance of the Islamic art.
Mosaics and arabesques on a wall of the Myrtle court, Alhambra, 14th century, Granada, Spain
For more than a millennium, cultures that celebrate the wisdom of the Qur’an have created unique and marvelous cultural artifacts. Their importance is affirmed by all of the world’s largest museums and their grandeur is undeniable.
Decorative stucco panel from Abbasid Samarra, 9th century
A visit to the MOMA’s permanent collection or 'The Art of Qur’an' exhibition which closes on February 20th, will give you an opportunity to see how ancient, rich and impressive Islamic art was and still is. It has its rightful place in the history of our civilization and its importance matches the significance of Christian or Hindu cultures. Together they form the cultural heritage of our world.
Title Illustration: Qur’an, calligrapher Abd al-Qadir Iran, Shiraz, Safavid period, 1580, ink, color and gold on paper, TIEM collection
Based on:
The Art of the Qur’an — landmark exhibit shows holy book as text and work of art, article published in The Guardian on October 24th, 2016
MoMA Takes a Stand: Art From Banned Countries Comes Center Stage, article published in The New York Times on February 3rd, 2017.
The Groove Encyclopedia of Islamic Art and Architecture, Oxford University Press, 2009