The sacred work of Islam and the signature museum of Washington, DC will combine for an unprecedented exhibit this fall.
“The Art of the Quran,” the first major exhibition of Qurans in the US, will open at the Smithsonian Institution on October 15, less than a month before the presidential election that will close a campaign season in which Islam has been frequently discussed.
Massumeh Farhad, curator of Islamic art at the Smithsonian, insisted the timing is coincidental.
“There was no specific planning to have it in 2016,” she said. “A series of accidents led to the fact that it will open two weeks before the election.”
But the exhibition is timely — and timeless.
At its heart are 48 Qurans on loan from the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts in Istanbul, including “some of the finest ever produced,” Farhad said. Many will be shown in the US for the first time.
They date from the late seventh century (the first century of Islam) to the mid-17th century, representing the Middle East and the empires that once ruled it, such as the Umayyads in Syria, the Mamluks in Egypt, the Ottomans in Turkey and the Safavids in Iran.
‘This exhibition shows us how diverse is the Muslim world’
“This exhibition is important because ‘The Art of the Quran’ shows us how diverse is the Muslim world and in the collection, Qurans which are taken from Istanbul show us how history and Islamic arts changed and developed from century to century,” Gorkem Karakus, director of the Turkish Culture and Tourism Counselor’s Office in Washington, DC, said in a statement for the media.
The Smithsonian will also display 16 manuscripts and folios from its own collection, as well as four pieces of Quran furniture from Ottoman Istanbul.
Various museums in the US have their own Quran collections, such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and the Smithsonian’s Asian wing at the Freer and Sackler Galleries (which will host the Smithsonian Quran exhibition). And, said Farhad, who is chief curator at Freer and Sackler, there have been previous exhibitions of Qurans in the US.
However, she said, “they were very small, very focused, collections of a particular museum. What is different here is that this is sort of the first major — emphasis on major — [exhibition] on Qurans.”
“We think it is a very special occasion. [Visitors will] have the opportunity to see such incredible works of art, really influential in shaping the artistic culture of the Islamic world,” she said.
The exhibition will give a firsthand look at Islamic cultural treasures to American audiences who may not have had previous exposure to Islam or the Quran. It’s that focus on aesthetic brilliance that Farhad, who was born in Iran and who has been at the Smithsonian for over 20 years, hopes will bring balance to the way Islam is discussed in the US.
“Unfortunately, we have to deal with what we see every day, the way that Islam has been presented, [the way that the] Quran is being presented,” she said. “We’re trying to do a focus on art, looking at these volumes. These are incredible works of art that introduce a different aspect of the Quran, what it means, through the art history of each of these volumes… We’re hoping it will offer the public a different perspective.”
Sheila Blair, a professor of Islamic art at Boston College, will lecture on several of the Qurans in the exhibition at a conference in Washington in December.
“It’s going to be a fantastic exhibit,” Blair said. “You don’t always see them side to side. [The exhibit will] work around different times, different places.”
A magic visual experience
For Muslims, the Quran is the word of God, revealed to the Prophet Muhammad.
“The term Quran is derived from the term qara’a, i.e., to recite or to read, which further affirms oral nature of the Divine Message,” Farhad wrote in an essay. “It comprises a series of revelations of varying lengths, which were transmitted by the angel Gabriel to the Prophet Muhammad over a period of 20 years. From its inception, therefore, the Quran was meant to be heard and repeated orally, and its inimitable euphony and literary quality has been regarded as proof of its divine origin.”
In Farhad’s essay, she wrote, “Although scholars are unclear about the date when the orally transmitted Quran was recorded and codified, it occurred sometime after the Prophet’s death in 632. To differentiate between the fluid oral Quran and the fixed written codices, the latter were referred to as mushaf (plural: masahif), a term derived from the Arabic term suhuf, meaning ‘page’ or ‘book.’”
Collectively, its 114 chapters are similar in length to the New Testament.
“In terms of content, the text doesn’t change, and it’s always in Arabic,” Farhad said. “But it’s staggering — every single one is so different in terms of scale, size, script, illumination, just everything. Really, for me as an art historian, it’s staggering to see it.”
The first Qurans were handwritten with a reed pen on parchment, probably sheepskin, Blair said, noting there were “not a lot of cattle” in the Middle East. In the 10th century, parchment was replaced by paper, which Blair called cheaper and easier to use.
“Some of the finest papers produced in the Middle Ages were in the Muslim world,” said Blair, who was an artistic consultant to the nationally-shown PBS documentary “Islam: Empire of Faith” along with Jonathan Bloom, her husband and fellow Boston College Islamic and Asian art professor.
The shift to paper meant a change in writing styles, from the square, rectilinear Kufic script of parchment Qurans to a smoother, cursive, rounded script of paper Qurans, Blair said.
‘In the Jewish tradition, there are no pictures in religious art. It’s the same way in Islam’
There was one constant: there could be no illustrations, at least not in the style of Christian religious illustration in the West.
“There is a disinclination for pictures of people,” Blair said. “God sent down the word to Muhammad. The word is the important thing. Pictures are not needed. You needed pictures to teach in the Christian tradition. In the Jewish tradition, there are no pictures in religious art. It’s the same way in [Islam].”
However, Islamic artists found two distinct ways to adorn the Quran: calligraphy, which Blair called “the preeminent art among Muslims,” and illumination, which she said refers to “a non-figural ornament [such as] writing, geometry, arabesque.”
These two techniques helped different artists deal with the same text, but also challenged them, Farhad said.
“How can you introduce variety, and in a way outdo each other, in terms of refinement, lavishness?” she asked. “Clearly, there was some of that going on.”
The ranges of time and place heighten the dramatic contrast in styles, and the multiple ways in which artists rose to the challenge.
“We have nearly 1,000 years of production of Qurans from Egypt to Afghanistan,” said Simon Rettig, assistant curator at the Freer and Sackler Galleries.
He listed an 11th-century example from Cairo under the Fatimid dynasty, and “several sumptuous Mamluk Qurans from the 15th and 16th centuries.”
Farhad’s favorite is a particularly breathtaking example, originating from either Iran or Afghanistan.
“It’s a relatively small volume, from the 15th century,” she said. “It’s on Chinese paper, heavily waxed paper. Every paper is every color of the rainbow, deep purple, lime-green, pink, orange. It’s quite psychedelic. I’m sorry [the public] can’t touch it. The paper is really heavy.”
She continued, “The other thing that’s really remarkable about these [pages] is that the paper has Chinese designs on it, roots, animals, landscapes, seascapes, architecture. On top of that paper, the Quran has been written. On top of that, gold has been sprinkled. It’s one of the most amazing experiences. As you’re turning the page, the designs are in gold. They don’t pop out, but as you turn the page, light catches the design, and suddenly these designs appear. They disappear as you turn the page. It’s a magical visual experience, like page after page after page… I had the absolutely incredible privilege of going through the manuscript [and imagining] someone sitting in candlelight doing it. It must have been really amazing.”
Farhad said this Quran also illuminates the contact between China and the Timurid dynasty, which ruled Iran as the heir to the famed conqueror Tamerlane.
“[Chinese paper] was greatly valued, given the fact how important Qurans are, and that it was used for these Qurans,” Farhad said. “There’s no other way we can learn about this Chinese paper in Iran in the 15th century. Having a manuscript like that, it tells us about contact, trade, how important [it was]. Every little bit [of paper] was used up.”
‘We went back and forth on a date’
Bringing the Qurans from Istanbul to Washington in 2016 has proven a feat as challenging as bringing Chinese paper to Iran in the time of the Timurids.
It began six years ago, in 2010, with another exhibition, this one at the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts for the 1,400th anniversary of the Quran.
“I heard about it completely by accident,” Farhad said. “I decided to go see it, for my own knowledge, purely a sort of my own scholarly development as a curator of Islamic art. I was completely amazed by the selection.”
She said that while the museum is “not that well-known, perhaps not as well-known as the Topkapi or the Istanbul Archaeology Museums,” its collection is “incredible.”
After Farhad returned to the US, she urged Julian Raby, director of the Freer and Sackler Galleries and a specialist in the arts of the Islamic world, to “go see this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. He did. Casually, I asked, ‘Wouldn’t it be incredible to have something like this in Washington?’ We went to the curator, to the director of the Turkish and Islamic Arts Museum, who said, ‘Why not?’”
“That’s the origins,” she said. “That’s how it happened. We were very lucky.”
The Qurans on loan from Istanbul include examples from the celebrated 2010 show. Yet the project did not happen all at once.
“To prepare this kind of exhibition takes quite a long time, at least three years, to complete all the procedure and requirements,” Karakus said in a statement.
After the Turkish Ministry of Culture and Tourism agreed to lend the Qurans, Farhad said, “We went back and forth on a date. The original idea was to have (the exhibition) earlier, on or around 2014, the year the (Turkish) museum celebrated its 100th anniversary. We thought it would be real nice to also have an exhibition in the US. That was the original date. Everything was set.”
That is, until one year before it was set to open.
“The museum, in 2013, in preparation for reopening, decided to do some refurbishment,” Farhad said. “It’s right on the Hippodrome. They were going to add a lecture hall in the basement. Once they started excavating, they came across seats of the Hippodrome. It slowed down excavation. You couldn’t just get a bulldozer in and level it. It took much longer, to refurbish it took much longer… They never built the lecture hall.”
Because of the construction, Farhad said, “the date of the exhibition kept getting postponed. They had to work on their own reopening. Our exhibition schedule had filled up anyway. The only possible date was the fall of 2016. We decided to take it.”
She noted, “At the time, the world four, five years ago was very different than what it is today.”
Recently and tragically, there were the triple suicide bombings and gun attack at Ataturk Airport in Istanbul, in which three terrorists killed over 40 people on June 28.
Given the closeness of the relationship between Turkish experts and the Smithsonian, the airport attack has been mourned in both Istanbul and Washington.
‘The Quran as part of a political dialogue, it’s not our intent to take part in that. It’s really art historical’
“The Freer and Sackler has had a long history of collaboration and cooperation with Turkish experts and the Ministry of Culture and various museums,” Farhad said, adding that with the Quran exhibition, “the Ministry cooperated and the embassy here has been helpful. It’s been wonderful to work with them.”
“Given the difficulties right now they are unfortunately faced with, it has been heartwarming and humbling how generous they have been with time and supplies,” she said.
Blair, the Boston College art professor, said, “As of June 28, it will be rare, very difficult to get similar objects out of the museum [as the Qurans from Turkey].”
‘One of the glorious creations of Muslims’
It will be several months before the Quran exhibition opens at the Smithsonian, yet it has already captured attention.
“We have had some advance notice,” Farhad said. “There has been interest. It’s new and different.”
Asked how many additional visitors she anticipates, she said, “We don’t charge an entrance fee, so it’s always somewhat difficult to assess visitorship.”
However, she said, “It will coincide with the holiday season … In the fall, we have a certain peak visitation on Thanksgiving, then around Christmas.”
And, she said, “In this case, [there will also be the] presidential inauguration.”
That’s right. The exhibition will end on February 20, 2017, exactly one month after the swearing-in of the successor to President Barack Obama, whether it is Democratic former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Republican celebrity billionaire Donald Trump, or someone else.
Trump has made controversial statements about Islam and Muslims throughout the campaign. In 2015, he called for a ban on Muslims entering the US.
The respective press offices of the Trump and Clinton campaigns did not respond to requests for comment on the exhibition.
And with regard to the perspective of the Smithsonian itself, Farhad said, “The issue of Islam and the Quran (as) part of a political dialogue, I don’t think our intent is to take part in that. It’s really art historical. It’s an incredible opportunity to bring the manuscripts to the US.”
She said that at the Freer and Sackler Galleries, “as a museum of Asian art, we have had other exhibitions with a religious content, a Tibetan shrine, and in 2006 an extremely successful Bible exhibition. We have Qurans on view in the Freer, although it’s temporarily closed. In many ways, it’s part of our larger mission to bring a focus on different aspects of Asian culture, an important aspect.”
Turkish officials are hopeful for improved understanding, too.
‘Our aim is to inspire people to see more of what Turkey offers’
“This is an opportunity for people who live in the USA to be a witness of the Quran who have never seen it before, and the beauty and art of manuscripts within the centuries they made and to focus the art of Islamic artifacts,” Karakos said in a statement. “And we are proud of having kept them now in Istanbul, in the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts and after the exhibition our aim is to inspire people to see more of what Turkey offers, as a country that meets East and West, harmonizes the authentic and modern, home to many civilizations.”
For Blair, the Boston College art expert, there is another important aspect to this exhibition of a sacred work revealed to Muhammad almost 1,500 years ago that continues to resonate today.
“It is showing one of the glorious creations of Muslims, the Quran,” Blair said. “Something positive, as opposed to bombings. Most Americans, you say, ‘Muslim,’ unfortunately, they think ‘terrorist.’”
However, Blair said, the Smithsonian exhibition can promote an opposite conclusion: “Say ‘Muslim’ and say, ‘great art, fabulous art, wonderful book art.’”