August 30, 2006

Cosmophilia: Islamic Art from the David Collection, Copenhagen

The McMullen Museum of Art at Boston College is presenting an exhibit of Islamic Art called Cosmophilia, from the David Collection, Copenhagen, from September 1 through December 31, 2006. (Note: Details from each of the following photos can best be seen at the McMullen website. Click on the category titles to go to the individual webpages.)

Cosmophilia (literally "love of ornament") is an exhibition comprised of 123 of the finest examples of Islamic art from the C. L. David Collection in Copenhagen, Denmark. "Islamic art," a term coined by Orientalists, refers not only to the arts made for the faith of Islam, but also to all arts created in lands where Islam was the principal religion. Ornament is one of its most characteristic features, as can be seen from the objects in this exhibition. The works presented incorporate the full array of Islamic art from its origins to modern times, representing vast spans of time (seventh-nineteenth centuries), space (Western Europe to East Asia), and media (textiles; ceramics; metalwares; carved ivory, wood, rock-crystal and stone; parchment; and paper). Rather than the typical organization by chronology, place of origin, function or technique, these works are presented visually to reveal how artisans in the Islamic lands explored four major themes of decoration.

Picture's Caption: Fragment of a Silk lampas, 14th century, Central Asia or China, silk and gilded paper lamella both spun around silk and woven flat, 228 x 63.5 cm., 40/1997

Many people think that Islam prohibits figural representation, but this is not true. The Koran, the Muslim scripture, bans idolatry, or the worship of images, so images are not found in mosques and other religious settings. But many Muslims—like people everywhere—enjoyed pictures of people and animals in their everyday lives. Sometimes figures are shown realistically, as in this beautiful velvet from seventeenth-century Iran or India, inwhich an elegant lady sniffs a flower in a garden surrounded by birds and animals. in other cases, the figures are more abstract, making it possible to interpret the representation in several different ways.

Picture's Caption: Velvet with lady in a niche, 17th century, India or Iran. Silk and metal lamella spun around silk, 143 x 69 cm. 37/1995

The central miracle in Islam is the Koran, which Muslims believe was revealed in Arabic to the Prophet Muhammad in early seventh-century Arabia. Reverence for the word therefore became a primary theme of religious art, as artists endeavored to make the physical presentation of God's word as beautiful as its content. These two lines come from one of the largest manuscripts of the Koran ever made, a loose-leaf copy produced about 1400 for the congregational mosque built by the warlord Timur at Samarkand in Central Asia. Artists everywhere used verses from the Koran to decorate Islamic art and architecture, and the appreciation of beautiful writing led them to exploit the decorative potential of Arabic script by developing many styles to use in different media and contexts.

Picture's Caption: Leaf from a large Koran manuscript written in Muhaqqaq script, 1400-1405, Afghanistan. Ink and gold on paper, 45 x 98 cm. 20/1987

Artisans in the Islamic lands expanded the pre-Islamic repertory of geometric designs to create stunning compositions based on strapwork and tile patterns of triangles, squares, polygons, stars, and other regular forms. Many designs start from 45° or 60° grids that yield patterns of 8-pointed stars and hexagons, while others, such as this panel from a pair of seventeenth-century Iranian doors, are based on an extremely complex arrangement of pentagons and ten-pointed stars. Each individual element is made up of hundreds of minute rods of wood, bone, and metal that were glued together in other geometric patterns and then sliced to form tiles. Mathematicians in the Islamic lands were extremely sophisticated (algebra and algorithms, for example, were brought to the West by Muslim scientists), but artisans seem to have worked out most of these designs—even the most complex examples like this one—using traditional "tricks of the trade" without recourse to higher mathematics.

Picture's Caption: One side of a double door, 17th century, Iran. Several types of wood; patterns inlaid with brass, ivory, and wood, 242.5 x 74 x 8.7 cm. 35/2000

Artisans in the Islamic lands also inherited a rich tradition of decoration with vines, stems, leaves, and flowers. Vegetal ornament was used regularly and consistently in all the arts throughout the region. The depiction of lush vegetation and verdant gardens was undoubtedly attractive to the inhabitants of this dry and often dusty part of the world, and these designs may also have recalled the Garden of Paradise promised to Muslims in the Koran. Sometimes artists depicted gardens realistically, but their most distinctive achievement was the transformation of naturalistic vegetal ornament into the arabesque, an abstracted form in which plants and leaves grow according to the laws of geometry rather than nature. In these large tiles from the hood of a fourteenth-century Persian mihrab (the niche in the Mecca-facing wall of a mosque), for example, the vines and leaves grow in choreographed symmetry from a central source.

Picture's Caption: Mihrab tile, late 13th century, Kashan, Iran. Fritware, cast in two parts and painted in blue and turquoise in, and in luster over, an opaque white glaze, 76 x 74 cm. 1/1968

Artisans often combined these four themes within single works of art. This stunning doorknocker, probably made in southern Italy around the year 1100, for example, takes the shape of a lion's head which grasps a cock-headed ring in its maw. His mane is geometricized into a flame-like halo, and the whole composition is surrounded by an Arabic inscription set on a vegetal ground. The inscription, written as if the lion itself were speaking, states "I attest that there is no god but God and that Muhammad is His prophet." The inscription is thus a visual pun, written so that when the cock's head strikes the plate, it is as if the lion were roaring forth, attesting to his faith in Islam.

Picture's Caption: Lion-headed doorknocker, 11th century, Southern Italy. Cast and engraved bronze, partly inlaid with niello, 44.3 cm. 50/2000

Curated by Sheila S. Blair and Jonathan M. Bloom, Cosmophilia was organized by the McMullen Museum of Art, Boston College in collaboration with the David Collection, Copenhagen. Major support has been provided by the Calderwood Charitable Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Patrons of the McMullen Museum. The exhibition is dedicated to Norma Jean and the late Stanford Calderwood, who did so much to foster the study of Islamic art at Boston College. This exhibition is supported by an indemnity from the Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities.

August 25, 2006

"The Whole of It is from Our Lord"

The following question was asked about how much one could believe that the Qur'an was not written by Allah (swt) and still remain a Muslim:

And if some of it [the Qur'an] was "written by man," or a person believes that some of it was "written by man," how much of it must fall in that category before that person is, in your view "not a Muslim."

My answer:

The answer is quite simple: belief that any part of the Qur'an was "written by man" will cause one to fall out of Islam (i.e., become "not a Muslim").

"And those who are firmly grounded in knowledge say: 'We believe in the Book; the whole of it is from our Lord:' and none will grasp the Message except men of understanding.'" (3:7)

Islam is not a "cafeteria religion" where one can pick and choose which parts to believe in.

August 10, 2006

On Da'wah in the West

The following is a comment I wrote to Emmanuel, a Catholic Malaysian blogger, who was responding to a post written by MENJ regarding South Korean missionaries who are being expelled from Afghanistan. After posting this comment, I thought I would cross-post it onto this blog and some others.

Emmanuel: Da’wah, as practiced by Muslims in the West, is almost invisible. I do not say this negatively, merely as a statement of fact. In the US (at least), da’wah to non-Muslims is rarely done face-to-face, unlike, say, the Mormons or JWs. We don’t ride around the neighborhood on bicycles in white shirts and dark ties, asking people to convert. We also don’t pass out cartoon tracts like Jack Chick’s or booklets like the JW’s, leaving them lying around for people to read (although I will say I don’t think badly of the JW booklets). In fact, the only Muslim da’wah group I’ve ever met members of face-to-face were only interested in meeting other Muslims, trying to get lax brothers and sisters to become more devout. Certainly no one ever came up to me and asked me to become Muslim, which is more than the Christians (including some members of my family) can say.

I see by your blog that you’re Catholic (as I was, once, long ago). Muslims are like Catholics in that neither group really needs to do da’wah. If someone is interested in Catholicism, you try to answer their questions and perhaps provide a Bible to help them understand the religion or direct them to other people who are more knowledgeable. That’s how it is in Islam. For many Muslims in the West, the greatest source of Da’wah is the Qur’an itself. It was my study of the Qur’an over a period of four years that ultimately led to my becoming a Muslim. A lot of questions were answered for me by people on the internet, whether in the form of reading articles or by sending e-mails to ask peoplle questions, but in all cases it was I who made the initial contact.

But far too many Christian missionaries use underhanded tactics in trying to convert people. Unlike MENJ, I do think it is constructive, both in the long- and short-term, to ban missionaries. Read the famous article, The Stealth Crusade, published in Mother Jones magazine four years ago, and you’ll begin to understand some of our concerns.