Introduction to Muslim art and architecture

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In this essay I will talk about the exhibits and displays I viewed on my recent visits to the Victoria and Albert Museum and British Museum. It was a really eye opening experience. It opened up a new dimension of Islam which I had not considered previously. I had never known there was any sort of art or architecture in Islam. I had always thought of museums as really boring places. At first, I was really sceptical but soon was fascinated by the artefacts. I shall describe the most striking and outstanding artefacts I saw and some information I learnt about them.

In the Victoria and Albert Museum, I viewed a fireplace from the palace of Fuat Pasha. It was made in Istanbul in 1731 CE and is designed in a typical Ottoman fashion. An interesting thing to note here is the on some of the tiles are written some names. These are said to be the names of Ahl Al Kahf. Their story is related in the Quran. A group of youths and their dog who were monotheists were being persecuted by the Roman Empire. They sought refuge in a cave and prayed to ALLAH (SWT). ALLAH (SWT) caused them to sleep and they woke up and thought a day had passed. They were weary of being caught and so they elected one of them to get food. This youth went cautiously and tried to buy some food. When he tried to pay for it, the shop keeper would not accept on account of the money given was expired. Coins like this had not been in use for hundreds of years. He rushed back to the cave and told the others. They had actually been asleep for 300 years! ALLAH (SWT) had saved them from their enemy who were destroyed where as they were unharmed. This was a mighty Ayat of the power of ALLAH (SWT) and of the reality of resurrection. The using of their names on fireplaces is to ward off evil.

Another item which stood out was the minbar which is a mosque pulpit. It was built in Egypt, most likely Cairo, somewhere between 1468 CE to 1496 CE. Its design is in a Mamluk style. It uses geometric patterns which is an underlying feature of Islamic art.

The main exhibit had to be the Ardabil carpet from Ardabil in North Western Iran. The carpet is 34 ½ feet by 17 ½ feet. It is the oldest surviving carpet from this period dating back to 1540 CE. It was completed during the rule of Safavid Shah Tahmasp I the son of Shah Ismail. Ardabil is a city with a great historical tradition of carpet trade and has produced the finest Persian Rugs of all time. The carpet is symmetrical which is another underlying feature of Islamic art. The yellow medallion in the centre is a symbolic representation of the sun which at that point in time was assumed to be in the centre of the universe. Originally this carpet was part of a set of two, and was created for the purpose of commemorating the shrine of Sheikh Safi Al Din Ardabil who was a Sufi master in mystical Islam who died in 1334 CE. Shah Ismail, who reunited Iran after many hundreds of years, founded the Safavid Dynasty named after him and established Shiite Islam as the state religion in 1501 CE.

In the British museum I saw a ceramic tombstone of a Qadi called Jalal Al Din Abdul Malik who passed away around the year 1270 CE in Kashan, Iran. He was known as Malik Al Ulama. The tombstone is covered in Arabic calligraphy containing verses of the Quran. Ayat Al Kursi is written on the outside frame. The calligraphy and frames are painted in cobalt blue.

The next object I saw was a mosque lamp from the time of the Ottoman Empire. It can be accurately dated thanks to the inscription which states the name of the artist as well as where and when it was made. The artist was Musli who produced it in Iznik in Turkey in the year 1549 CE. The Ottoman Caliph Suleiman The Magnificent who reigned from 1520-1566 ordered the rebuilding of the Dome Of The Rock in Jerusalem. The lamp was created to decorate the interior. It has three handles and chains are used to hang the lamp. When lit, the calligraphy lights up. The lamp also displays tulips which are a symbol of the Ottoman Empire. Tulips were used in decorations everywhere from mosques and palaces to clothing. The lamp was discovered in Jerusalem in the 19th Century.

I then viewed a gold dinar coin. It is one of the original coins from the time of the Caliph Abdul Malik of the Umayyad Dynasty. This coin was part of the Islamic coin system which was established in order to replace Byzantium and Persian coins which were previously in use. This was done because the use of images on Byzantium and Persian coins are forbidden. The Islamic coins contained the Kalimah, the basic and most fundamental message of Islam. The coin is dated to 696 CE to 697 CE, probably from Syria.

The last item I would to talk about both because it is the last item I saw and was certainly the one item which stood out for me was the carved jade terrapin. It caught my eye immediately. It is extremely lifelike. It must have been carved by a very skilled expert. It originates from Allahabad in Northern India and is dated back to the 17th Century. It may possibly have been created between 1605-1627 during the reign of Selim the son of the 3rd Mughal Emperor Akbar who reigned from 1556-1605 and a Hindu princess. Akbar built a palace at the Hindu city of Prayag and renamed it Allahabad. Akbar never lived in the palace instead giving it to his son. Selim is known to have had a fascination with natural phenomenon and this could have been used as an ornament for the garden pools at his palace. The carved jade terrapin was made from a single piece of green jade nephrite. It was discovered at the bottom of a cistern in the beginning of the 19th Century during excavation work in Allahabad. How it ended up there in the first place is a mystery. It was then transported to England by Alexander Kyd. It was then sold to the British Museum in 1830.

I discovered Islam has a rich diversity and history. I learnt how Islamic art & architecture is different from other cultures. I learnt that despite various dynasties and eras, all Islamic art & architecture share some common fundamental principles. These fundamental principles are that human or animal figural representations are not allowed, this is due to the fundamental principle of Islam being Tawheed which is belief in One GOD who is unseen and nothing is like Him so using any images are strictly forbidden. This is in stark contrast to many idol worshipping communities who created visual images of their gods such as Ancient Egypt. Another principle is the use of geometric shapes which can be endlessly repeated. Another principle is the use of Arabic calligraphy in order to beautify verses of the Quran, which can then be used for its ultimate purpose, to propagate the religion of Islam. I saw many ancient artefacts of the Islamic world and saw how art & architecture ties in with the history of great Islamic Empires and Dynasties. Each Dynasty had its own distinctive symbols such as tulips for the Ottomans. Each Dynasty has left a continuing legacy through art & architecture such as the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus as a sign of the power and glory of the Umayyad Dynasty at its peak. It was a truly mind blowing experience. The most important thing I learnt is that all these objects and artefacts I viewed during my visits to the museums are a part of my history and heritage.

Bibliography

  • Carved jade terrapin. [Online]. (2009). British Museum. Available from: http://www.britishmuseum.org/explore/highlights/highlight_objects/me/c/carved_jade_terrapin.aspx [Accessed 26 December 2009].
  • Ceramic tombstone of Jalal al-DincAbd al-Malik. [Online]. (2009). British Museum. Available from: http://www.britishmuseum.org/explore/highlights/highlight_objects/me/c/tombstone_of_an_islamic_judge.aspx [Accessed 26 December 2009].
  • Mosque lamp. [Online]. (2009). British Museum. Available from: http://www.britishmuseum.org/explore/highlights/highlight_objects/me/m/ottoman_mosque_lamp.aspx [Accessed 26 December 2009].
  • Golddinarof caliph Abd al-Malik. [Online]. (2009). British Museum. Available from: http://www.britishmuseum.org/explore/highlights/highlight_objects/cm/g/gold_dinar_of_caliph_abd_al-ma.aspx [Accessed 26 December 2009].
  • PALACE AND MOSQUE: ISLAMIC ART FROM THE VICTORIA AND ALBERT MUSEUM. [Online]. (2009). Victoria And Albert Museum. Available from: http://www.vam.ac.uk/images/image/8405-popup.html [Accessed 26 December 2009].
  • Style In Islamic Art. [Online]. (2009). Victoria And Albert Museum. Available from: http://www.vam.ac.uk/vastatic/microsites/1342_islamic_middle_east/index.php?id=1024 [Accessed 26 December 2009].
  • The Ardabil Carpet. [Online]. (2009). Victoria And Albert Museum. Available from: http://www.vam.ac.uk/collections/asia/object_stories/ardabil/index.html[Accessed 26 December 2009].

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