The Sacred History; an Exhibit of Religious Manuscripts Serves as a Timely Reminder of the Teachings the Three Major Faiths Share

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Byline: Carla Power

September 11 made Samuel Huntington's "clash of civilizations" thesis a fashionable map for the 21st century. Right-wing pundits and religious zealots alike used it to argue that Islamic and Western societies have always been incompatible. Now "Sacred," on view at London's British Library (through Sept. 23), provides an elegant riposte to clash-mongers. The collection of manuscripts from Christianity, Islam and Judaism underscores that the traditions of the three religions bear striking similarities. Their emphasis on scriptural truth is the same, their cultures are intertwined and their followers lived--usually peacefully--in multicultural societies for centuries.

With the Middle East riven by religious and political tensions, it's bittersweet to see such gorgeous proof of its multifaith history. A 13th-century Christian manuscript from near Mosul, Iraq, depicts the three Marys at Jesus' tomb. While many of the details are Byzantine, the tomb's onion dome and the stylized cedar trees draw on Islamic artistic traditions. A similar culture-melt between Islam and Judaism is apparent in a 17th-century manuscript by the Jewish Persian poet Imrani, called "Fathnama," or, "The Book of Conquest." Written with Hebrew characters in Judeo-Persian, the dialect of Iranian Jews and based on the Old Testament books of Joshua, Ruth and Samuel, the manuscript includes a delicate illustration of Joshua's attack on Canaan, with turbaned, bearded priests blowing rams' horns outside the gates of Jericho.

"Sacred's" manuscripts are a reminder that ancient mono- theisms played a critical role in spurring the global spread of culture. On display is a Torah from 17th-century China, made for the Jews of Kaifeng, whose community and synagogue in northern China lasted from the mid-12th to the mid-19th century. Among the British Library's astonishing array of Christian manuscripts are a number of Ethiopic Psalters, with Christian clergymen in bright Ethiopian robes, and the Angel Gabriel appearing in a traditional house with ostriches strutting on its roof. …