Illuminating Manuscripts: 'Three Faiths' at New York's Public Library

By Ryan, Patrick J. | Commonweal, January 14, 2011 | Go to article overview
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Illuminating Manuscripts: 'Three Faiths' at New York's Public Library


Ryan, Patrick J., Commonweal


Taking their inspiration from the Qur'an, Muslims refer to Jews, Christians, Zoroastrians, and a harder-to-define faith community, the Sabians, as "People of the Book." These monotheistic neighbors of Muhammad (c. 570-632) and the first Muslims struck pagan Arabs of the period as distinct not simply because of their monotheism, so sharply different from the polytheism of pre-Islamic Arabs, but because of their religious literacy.

That literacy took concrete form in Jewish synagogue liturgy and in the monastic office (qeryana) practiced by Syrian Christians that included reading and reciting "psalms, hymns, and inspired canticles" (Colossians 3:16). Muhammad received from God something like a monastic office that Arabs could read and recite in their own language, "a missive sent down from the One Filled with Mercy, the Ever Merciful, / detailed verses for a Recital in Arabic that people can understand" (Qur'an 41:2-3). This Quranic revelation put Arab Muslims on an equal liturgical footing with their monotheistic neighbors, especially Jews and Christians.

While Jews prefer to identify themselves as People of the Covenant struck between God and Abraham, and Christians embrace their self-definition as those baptized into the dying and rising of Jesus, Muslims think of themselves as people to whom God has spoken in the Qur'an, first disclosed to Muhammad. No matter how Torah-centered a Jew or Bible-believing a Christian, a Muslim's regard for the Qur'an proves even more central to his or her life.

Insight into the ways Jews, Christians, and Muslims all revere their sacred texts can be gained from the New York Public Library's stunning exhibit, "Three Faiths: Judaism, Christianity, Islam." Viewable until February 27, 2011, both in the landmark main branch of the Library at 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue in Manhattan and (partially) online (http://exhibitions.nypl.org/threefaiths), the exhibit includes more than two hundred of the Library's most treasured Jewish, Christian, and Muslim books, manuscripts, and religious objects. And in conjunction with the exhibit, the library is hosting a series of programs for children, teens, and adults at its various branch libraries. These include workshops in calligraphy and the art of making books, lectures, and performances of Sufi and Sephardic music and even salsa, pointing out its Christian influences.

The exhibit was planned long before the recent rise of interreligious tension in New York City and its suburbs in response to the proposed Islamic Cultural Center at 51 Park Place. Providentially, the exhibit answers to the contrived religious hysteria surrounding that project. The result is a splendid experience for those who have a chance to visit the library in person or online.

The exhibit is organized around common themes in these three monotheistic faith traditions: revelation beginning with Abraham, the creation of Scriptures, commentary on those Scriptures, the spread of the scriptural message across broad geographic and language barriers, private prayer based on those Scriptures, and public worship that enshrines those prayers. Artfully arranged in the Beaux-Arts-style Gottesman Exhibition Hall, the number, variety, and beauty of the books and manuscripts captivate visitors. In the nearby Wachenheim Gallery (and online) visitors can see demonstrations of the art of calligraphy as well as the techniques involved in creating ancient manuscript materials. The final part of the exhibit takes the visitor visually to three sacred places in the city of Jerusalem. Each is thronged with the faithful: the Western (or Wailing) Wall, the remainder of Herod's Temple where devout Jews pray daily; the Church of the Holy Sepulcher on the eve of Greek Orthodox Easter; and the Noble Sanctuary, a collection of Muslim holy places on the Temple Mount that includes the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock, seen at the hour of Friday congregational worship.

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