Portals of Faith: Islamic Art at the Metropolitan Museum

By Ryan, Patrick J. | Commonweal, February 24, 2012 | Go to article overview
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Portals of Faith: Islamic Art at the Metropolitan Museum


Ryan, Patrick J., Commonweal


The reopening, after eight years, of the Islamic galleries at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art has brought considerable fanfare. Aware perhaps that some Muslims--whose worship spaces are conspicuous for their imageless interiors--might take offense at such spectacularly beautiful works being labeled "Islamic," the Met has chosen instead to title the collection "Art of the Arab Lands, Turkey, Iran, Central Asia, and Later South Asia." That clumsy but capacious label enables the curators to display everything from exquisite bowls, jugs, and goblets with little or no religious significance to beautifully calligraphic Qur'ans, sections of mosques, and extravagant miniatures illustrating the largely secular history of the kings of pre-Islamic Iran. I recently spent several hours viewing the collection, guided by the exhibit's accompanying volume, Masterpieces from the Department of Islamic Art in the Metropolitan Museum ofArt, expertly edited by four specialists: Maryam Ekhtiar, Priscilla Soucek, Sheila Canby, and Navina Najat Haidar.

Three items stand out as superb examples of the artistic genius of Muslims over the centuries since 610 CE, when Muhammad began to experience the divine locutions that eventually called him and his followers to monotheism. Catching my eye right away, in the introductory space to the exhibit, was a white earthenware bowl, eighteen inches in diameter, dating from the tenth century in northeastern Iran. Ornamented with elegant Arabic calligraphy around its rim, the bowl exemplifies a decorative technique called slip painting, in which, after being fired, an object is coated with a thin suspension of white clay particles in water, a mixture that looks a bit like heavy cream. When that suspension dries, the calligraphy is painted on the white background, in this case with dark brown pigment. A transparent glaze haloes the final product with an unearthly aura. The exhibition catalogue informs us that the bowl's inscription--"Planning before work protects you from regret; good luck and well-being"--derives from a hadith, an oral tradition ascribed to Muhammad. The advice is something every cook will understand, and testifies to the likelihood that the bowl, its luminescent beauty notwithstanding, actually served as a kitchen utensil.

One of the most impressive and attractive items in the museum's collection is a fourteenth-century mosaic of polychrome glazed tiles that once decorated the niche (mihrab) in the wall of a mosque in the city of Isfahan in Iran. A mihrab is an indentation in an inner mosque wall that indicates the direction of Mecca and therefore of Muslim worship; within Mecca itself, a mihrab indicates the direction of the shrine that focuses the attention of that city and of the entire Muslim world, the Ka'ba. More than eleven feet tall and nine feet wide, this mihrab was removed from Iran in the late 1920s, during the early years of the so-called Pahlavi dynasty. Over the next decade it traveled to Philadelphia and London before settling at the Met in 1939.

The inscription around the niche's outermost border derives from a late sura of the Qur'an mainly concerned with distinguishing Muslim Arabs from neighbors who persisted in their traditional religion, rejecting Muhammad s message. It begins by defining who may and may not frequent a mosque: "The only ones who should tend God's places of worship are those who believe in God and the Last Day, who keep up the prayer, who pay the prescribed alms, and who fear no one but God" (Qur'an 9:18). In a white band outlining the concave indentation of the niche, calligraphy in a geometric style calls down blessings on Muhammad and summarizes the five pillars of Islamic faith: first, the witnessing to the oneness of God and to Muhammad s status as God's unique messenger, then the ritual worship (salat), the annual poor-due (zakat), pilgrimage to the Abrahamic holy sites in Arabia (hajj), and the annual fast (sawm) of Ramadan.

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