THE Arabic letters in the Koran, angular and erect in shape, are transcribed in light-brown ink. Written in hijazi style, the earliest script used in the holy book, the two-section volume was copied on almost square sheets of parchment, a rarity for such volumes transcribed before 750CE. Visitors to the Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery peered at the rare copy, displayed in a glass case, with its unusual motifs—a palm tree, multi-coloured rows of diamonds and pomegranates—separating the Koran’s surat, or chapters.
Though the book’s text is identical to almost 60 others on display, the copies—arguably the rarest and finest in the world—are distinguishable by size, colour and calligraphy. The exhibition tells tales of how the books were created in Turkey, or sent there from the Arab world, Iran and Afghanistan. The collection of lavishly-illuminated Korans, travelling outside of Istanbul for the first time, make up the first major American exhibition focusing on Islam’s holy book.
For Julian Raby, director of the Freer and Sackler, the exhibition is decades late. At the British Museum’s World of Islam Festival in 1976 he saw what he describes as some of the finest Korans ever produced. “To me it seems amazing that it’s taken 40 years for there to be such a show,” Mr Raby says. “Even more amazing is that this is the first such exhibition in America.”
Despite its unique offerings, “The Art of the Qur’an” tells a familiar story: the holy book was orally transmitted before becoming a fixed, written text in the late seventh century. The Korans on display, produced in a vast geographic area that extends from eighth century Damascus to 17th century Istanbul, reveal how they were shaped by the different calligraphers, illuminators and binders who put them together. The Koranic holdings from Turkey, for example, were diligently collected by members of the Ottoman ruling elite, who endowed their finest manuscripts to mosques, schools and tombs across the empire. The books were read, recited and viewed, and were believed to give their owners Baraka—or sacred blessings—as a result.
The dazzling array of calligraphic variety across these manuscripts is astounding. A single-volume Koran copied in Iran’s Safavid period features a dizzying array of blues, oranges and reds. Another, from the Timurid period, favours deep olives and lavenders and features silhouettes of fruit and birds. Indeed, producing these manuscripts was labour intensive and required the collaboration of multiple skilled artisans. Gold leaf and lapis lazuli were used for illumination. The colours of carbon-based inks were manipulated by burning twigs and mixing the soot with Arabic gum. Early Korans were first written on parchment made from livestock animal hide, before milling paper arrived to the Islamic world from China in the eighth century. “We tried to present the Koran as a work of art…to show the art history that goes into creating these texts,” says Massumeh Farhad, chief curator at the Freer and Sackler.
Yet politics is perceptibly present in the gallery. The current election season has been brimming with anti-Muslim rhetoric. A recent poll suggested that only 44% of Americans hold a favourable view of Islam; many Muslims complain of a rise in Islamophobia, comparable to the aftermath of the September 11th attacks. This exhibition has been in the works for six years, well before it became clear it would coincide with Donald Trump’s divisive presidential bid, but the curators argue that the timing has become crucial to the exhibit’s message. “Hundreds of thousands of people will come to the exhibition and learn about the Islamic world, its art, culture [and] motivating beliefs,” says Richard Kurin, undersecretary for museums and research at the Smithsonian. “At this time in our history, in our country, it’s so important that we do this so that knowledge, rather than ignorance, shall prevail.”
The museum is no stranger to tackling religion; earlier exhibits have focused on Christianity, Buddhism and Hinduism. But the curators acknowledge this event may strike a particularly resonant chord. “Who knew that Islamophobia would be such an issue? There’s so much misinformation, or lack of information, [but] there’s [also] greater curiosity, greater thirst for knowledge,” Ms Farhad says. “We’re not trying to convince anyone of anything, but just to offer a different perspective on the Koran.” Whatever view one holds of Islam, the exhibit—with its vast historical narratives and riveting tales—offers much more than aesthetic pleasure and splendour.
“The Art of the Qu’ran: Treasures from the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts” is showing at the Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery until February 20th 2017