Exhibitions: Los Mundos del Islam en las colecciones del Aga Khan Museum - Aga Khan Museum
Aga Khan Development Network

Los Mundos del Islam en las colecciones del Aga Khan Museum

Inauguarated by Their Majesties the King and Queen of Spain, His Highness the Aga Khan, the Honorary President of "la Caixa" and First Vice-President of "la Caixa", Ricardo Fornesa, the exhibition "The Islamic Worlds in the Aga Khan Museum Collection" ran at the CaixaForum Madrid from 5 June to 6 September 2009 (before it moved to Barcelona, where it ran from October 2009 throughJanuary 2010.).

Los Mundos del Islam en las colecciones del Aga Khan MuseumInaugurated by Their Majesties the King and Queen of Spain and His Highness the Aga Khan, the Los Mundos del Islam en las colecciones del Aga Khan Museum exhibition, at the CaixaForum, Madrid, ran from 5 June to 6 September 2009 before moving to Barcelona, where it ran from October 2009 through January 2010.One of the aims of the Exhibition was to reflect the splendour of Muslim culture in all its diversity, providing proof of the pluralism of Islam, in its ways of interpreting the Qur’anic faith as well as in the variety of styles, materials and techniques involved in the creation of these works. A total of 190 artefacts representing fourteen centuries of history and extending from the Iberian Peninsula to the Far East were on display. Many represented the Islamic world’s finest artistic achievements in wood, stone, gold, bronze, ivory, ceramics and textiles, and on parchment and paper.

The exhibits were divided into three large sections. The central section was devoted to "The Qur’anic Faith" while the other two sections guided viewers through various Islamic courts using journeys as a metaphor as a metaphor a journey in two stages – "From Cordoba to Damascus" and "From Baghdad to Delhi".

The Qur’anic Faith
The Qur’an was a source of inspiration for the many artists, artisans and architects who created sumptuous examples of the holy book with beautiful calligraphy, as well as works of refined sensibility designed to spread the teachings of the Qur’an across the Islamic world. Copying verses of the Qur’an was regarded as a form of religious devotion, hence their presence in a wide variety of settings. Throughout this section, visitors can admire distinctive and highly decorative styles of Arabic script.

The Qur’an in different media
In this section, visitors can see a splendid collection of Qur’ans from every geographical region covered by the exhibition, from ninth- and tenth-century folios written in gold originating from North Africa to a nineteenth-century Indonesian Qur’an. Displayed along with these are pieces in porcelain, painted ceramic, gold and carved wood with inscriptions from the sacred text. The earliest manuscripts were written on parchment, but in the tenth century, when parchment was superseded by paper, production of Qur’ans increased across the Islamic world. The Aga Khan Museum collection includes both small-format books for personal use and larger Qur’ans used in the largest mosques. Architectural works also incorporated Qur’anic inscriptions, either carved in stone or in the form of a frieze in brick and tiles. The word “God” was also inscribed on more modest surfaces, such as leaves or shells, as abiding acts of eternal devotion and artistic virtuosity.

Mystics, known as Sufis or Dervishes, seek union with God through prayer and dhikr, the repetition of sacred words or phrases. One of the best-known mystics was the poet Jalal al-Din Rumi, whose followers, the Mevlevi Dervishes, have spread his poetry throughout the world. Princes and rulers employed Dervishes as spiritual advisors and in some works of art they are portrayed discussing religious topics with their masters.

Pilgrimage and prayer
The diversity of artistic styles seen in this section of the exhibition shows the impact of pilgrimage right across the Islamic world. Here, we find the many forms of religious art, varying according to time and place. Examples range from decorations on travel documents to murals from pilgrims’ houses in Egypt and representations of pilgrims’ personal recollections. The pilgrims’ desire to show that they had fulfilled their sacred obligation led to the widespread publication of maps of Mecca and plans of the city’s Grand Mosque and other places visited.

From Cordoba to Damascus
Under the Umayyad caliphate, the Iberian Peninsula formed part of a vast transcontinental empire extending from Cordoba to Damascus which became the pinnacle of human civilisation. All new ideas came from the east, in the form of literary and scientific works from Antiquity, lost after the fall of the Roman Empire but preserved in Arabic translation. So, too, did the works of great Muslim humanists and scientists which laid the foundations for the development of astronomy, mathematics and natural history. The artistic styles of Byzantium and Ancient Persia also spread along the trade routes.

Al-Andalus and the Magreb
Between 711 and 714 the Moors conquered the Iberian Peninsular. The Umayyad dynasty introduced to the Peninsula an artistic style rooted in Syria with a combination of Roman-Byzantine and Iranian elements. In 756, after their overthrow in Syria, the Umayyads took refuge in al-Andalus and the art of the period showed distinctly oriental characteristics. The artistic influence of al-Andalus was felt in Morocco and Tunisia and even in the sub-Saharan regions of Mauritania and Mali. This continued into the Middle Ages, with periods of exquisite sophistication, such as the time of the sultanate of Granada.

Egypt and Syria
In 750 the Abbasids toppled the Umayyads, the first Islamic dynasty, and the hub of cultural and political life moved from Damascus to Baghdad. For five centuries Syria and Egypt lived through a period of constant turmoil. The political comings and goings were reflected in the mixture of artistic motifs, styles and techniques which also came and went. For example, glazed ceramics developed in eighth-century Egypt and Syria, were then exported to Iraq, only to re-emerge as a decorative element in Egypt during the Fatimid era. In the tenth century, the Fatimids came to rule Mecca and Medina, Yemen and parts of Palestine and Syria. Military confrontations between opposing factions created economic problems for the caliph who, in 1060, was unable to pay the salaries of his soldiers, who promptly ransacked the treasury. The description of the raid provides an extraordinary account of the luxury and refinement of life at court, examples of which are featured in the exhibition. They include carved rock crystal containers designed to hold precious substances, woven fabrics as fragile as spiders’ webs inscribed with the name of the caliph and his many virtues, and delicate filigree and enamel jewellery. The Fatimid dynasty was deposed by Saladin in 1171. On his death, power passed into the hands of the Mamelukes, a military caste composed of former slaves. One of the requirements for would-be rulers was to have been born into slavery. Most of the buildings of the period were monumental mausoleums with enormous domes designed to emphasize the distinctive personality of each leader. The buildings were equipped with copies of the Qur’an, candelabra and precious objects.

Anatolia: the Ottomans
The objects displayed in this room date from the fifteenth to the eighteenth century. During this period the Ottoman, Safavid and Mughal states dominated a wide area between the Middle East, Africa and India, making vast profits from trade. The sultans encouraged the creation of an imperial style of art incorporating non-figurative decoration without plant or floral motifs. In the second half of the sixteenth century, portraits in relief became popular. They showed the sultan, magnificent, cultured and powerful, surrounded by his subjects.

From Baghdad to Delhi
In the seventh-century Arabo-Muslim invaders seized all the territories belonging to their former rival, the Persian Empire, uniting the lands between the Rivers Tagus and Indus to create a single entity. Artistically, as a result of commercial and cultural contacts and the presence of Chinese artists, Far Eastern influences were added to the predominant Persian style.

In 750 Baghdad became the capital of the Muslim world. Ancient Persian culture had left its highly visible imprint on the artistic expression of the region. Trade with the Orient promoted a taste for the exotic, which is reflected in ceramics of the period. Books experienced a golden age with the publication of scientific and literary works and “mirrors for princes”, books of an improving nature which rulers used as educational manuals.

Iran and Central Asia
In 651 Muslim forces conquered Iran. Greater Iran, which at various points in history had embraced Iran, Iraq, Armenia, parts of Turkey, Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan and some coastal regions of the Arabian Peninsula, became part of the Abbasid caliphate. Among pre-Islamic Iranian traditions were craftsmanship in glass and metal, stuccoed mural painting and the silk industry. Decorative motifs of the Near East, such as pairs of birds or griffins, lions and strings of pearls, became part of Islam’s visual vocabulary. One of the region’s most important contributions was in the world of literature. the Shahnama (Book of Kings), a lavishly illustrated collection of legends of ancient Iranian kings and heroes. In Iran, Muslims came under Chinese influence. The Seljuks and the Mughal Khans, who overthrew the Abbasid caliphate in 1258, introduced an aesthetic inspired by the Far East with Chinese motifs such as the lotus flower, the dragon and the phoenix, as well as woodcarving techniques.Sixteenth-century art opened up to foreign influences. New metalworking techniques emerged enabling craftsmen to produce art objects in openwork steel. The seventeenth century saw a growing interest in portraiture, partly as a consequence of the importation of European engravings. Each court developed its own iconography. The Safavids usually had themselves portrayed ceremonially welcoming foreign ambassadors, so extolling their authority and generosity of spirit. The Qajar dynasty ruled Iran from 1779 to 1925. Fat'h Ali Shah came to the throne at a time of political instability. This may have been the reason why he chose to promote the imperial image by commissioning a large number of portraits of himself to be hung in every official department. Later, Nasir al-Din Shah championed artistic and technological ideas from Europe. The Shah himself took a keen interest in photography.

India and the Mughals
Mughal art is characterised by its naturalism with portraits of sultans and other illustrious persons, depictions of Indian flora and fauna, and scenes showing important historical events during the sultan’s reign. Painting is one of the key expressions of Mughal art, used as a resource to accentuate the ruler’s authority. Genealogical and historical paintings underlined the legitimacy and power of the various dynasties. Other works illustrated the importance of ceremonies such as the darbar, or public audience, and darshan, a ritual stressing the divine right of the sovereign. Painting overlapped with various other artforms, with compositions designed to provoke in viewers sensory responses similar to their reaction to music, and paintings drawn from the world of literature with scenes representing epics and legends.

For more information, please see the press release and photos.

Please also see Geographies of Islam, the programme from the Toledo exhibition.

"Los Mundos del Islam en las colecciones del Aga Khan Museum"
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