El Mon de l'Islam
CaixaForum from October 9th to January 17th 2010
Even if you haven’t the foggiest idea about Arabic, the true protagonist of the magnificent Worlds of Islam exhibition is easy to recognise; ‘Allah’ is omnipresent, inscribed on wood, stone, gold, bronze, ivory, ceramics, textiles, parchment and paper.
The 190 exhibits brought to Barcelona by the Aga Khan Trust are ultimately destined for a new museum in Toronto, due to open in 2013. The collector, Aga Khan IV, is the spiritual leader of the Shia Ismaili Muslims, a community of ethnically and culturally diverse peoples living all over the world. Aga Khan is a hereditary title and he is considered to be a descendant of the prophet Muhammad. This alone does not ensure recognition, however, and the title was bestowed rank and nobility (and its own gun salute) by the British, after Aga Khan I helped the colonialists suppress a Muslim uprising in India in 1887.
The aim of the show is to present an overview of Islamic culture, in all its pluralism and diversity. That it broadly does; we drift through 1,400 years of history, dipping into Islamic courts in southern Spain, Egypt, Syria, Iraq and India. Illustrated manuscripts and tiny figurines date back to the sixth century and there are also examples of ornate architecture, painstakingly delicate jewellery and colourful pictorial depictions of kings and sultans in Mughal India, with hats like figs and bodies to match.
Invariably, though, an exhibition of this magnitude—designed to wow the spectator repeatedly—feels airbrushed. Presented in this way, Islam does not come over as a living, breathing faith, but an antiquity: beautiful, once glorious and now benign.
Islam was a source for scientific, academic and political inspiration, not just an art form. The central section of the show contains many exquisite versions of the Qur’an, some mammoth, some small. We can admire its decoration, see that it inspired artists, artisans and architects from all walks of life, appreciate that it was revered, but learn nothing about what it actually preached.
Islam conquered the hearts and minds of millions of people. The Qur’an is a poetic masterpiece that advocates tolerance of other religions and places emphasis on the plight of the poor and the humbleness of religious leaders. The show is visually breathtaking, but if we are to better understand Islam and carry some of this beauty away with us, we should be privy to its words and not just its pictures.
Alx gave this show three stars out of five.