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How Islamic is Cairo’s Museum of Islamic art?

24 April 2017

At 6:31 a.m. on 24 January 2014, a large bomb went off by Cairo’s central police headquarters. The explosion ripped through the windows and door of the Museum of Islamic Art, across the square; it had reopened in 2010 after years of extensive refurbishment. Centuries-old artefacts, including a collection of precious glass enamel mosque lamps, crashed to the floor. Thick vitrines, containing medieval ceramics, were toppled. In the central hall, a low octagonal case, which holds an oversized 9th-century Qur’an, among the oldest in the world, survived unscathed. Later that day, the bombing was claimed by Al-Qaeda affiliates in Egypt.

The museum was able to rescue almost all of the 179 damaged objects (an official catalogue of the items has not been released). Today, the pieces that have been restored after the 2014 bombing are discreetly marked by red dots.  When I visited in March, two months after the museum reopened, staff described the Qur’an’s ‘protection’ as a miracle. The neo-Mamluk building designed by an Italian architect in 1903 contains the oldest public Islamic art collection in the world. On the east side, the main door – a towering portal of striped stone – faces the town’s medieval quarters. On the west side, the museum backs on to the modern city, laid out by Egypt’s 19th-century rulers, the Khedives. Their descendants took the title of kings and pressed their claims to be rulers of the caliphate after the Ottoman collapse. Curiously, only what came before the Europeanising reign of the Khedives is known as ‘Islamic’, even though 20th-century Egypt was no less, or no more, Muslim than what came before.

I first visited the museum in 2010. A French designer, Adrien Gardère, had just overseen the museum’s redevelopment and redesigned its displays in cooperation with the Louvre’s Islamic art department. Cairo, which sits between continents and on the pilgrims’ road towards Mecca, has long been where different traditions of Islamic arts and literature – from Al-Andalus to Khurasan – have converged. A marble lion carved in relief, tucked away in a corner of the Mamluk rooms, shows the cosmopolitanism of this civilisation. The blazon of a 13th-century Turkic potentate, the lion struck me as a stone rendering of the Persian style in painting. Its curling, wistful lines bear Chinese influences; its posture and smile also echo more ancient Coptic textiles.

After the 2014 bombing, the museum assembled a scholarly committee, all of them Egyptian, to rewrite the historical panels and labels originally supplied by the Louvre and French archaeological institute in Cairo. The museum was reconceived around the notion that peace and tolerance, science and knowledge are the true Islam. As Ahmed al-Shoky, the museum’s director between September 2014 and its reopening in January, later told me, the museum’s new mission was ‘to fight these terrorists and show the real Islamic civilisation’.

On this visit I was approached by one of the 120 guides trained by Al-Shoky (the museum estimates that 70 are now working). Shamiaa, a graduate student in Islamic history, spotted me in the central hall, straining over the Qur’an’s pages, which are opened to the sura of the ‘night journey’ recounting Muhammad’s mystical flight to Jerusalem. ‘The soul is the affair of my Lord,’ reads the opening line, ‘and mankind have not been given knowledge except of a little.’ The calligrapher, who drew out his letters in a thick, monumental Kufic script, unadorned by the gold, blue and red arabesques of later centuries, was so concerned with the symmetry of his text that his words are often broken off midway, and continued on the next line. Later, I discover that before the bombing the Qur’an had been opened to the 14th sura, which begins with ‘woe to the disbelievers from a severe punishment’.

We moved from the Qur’an towards an Ottoman astrolabe. ‘The Arabs were not just copiers of knowledge developed by other nations,’ the label states. ‘They excelled in all branches of science as a result of the ideals advanced by Islam.’ Shamiaa pointed to a large silver-plated wooden door, taken from a Muslim shrine in Cairo. The name of a Jewish craftsman, ‘Yahuda Aslan’, is carved into the door’s handle. Islam, Shamiaa explained, protected Jews and Christians as fellow ‘people of the book’. In the Ayyubid rooms, I came across a shard of pottery depicting the Virgin Mary with Christ. The label, written only in Arabic, says that the shard ‘emphasises the tolerance of Muslims even in times of the Crusader wars’. Today, Egypt’s ancient Jewish community is largely gone, and the Christian minority experiences harsh discrimination.

The museum has not bothered labelling many items in the Eastern Islamic galleries, which contain Iranian and Indian artefacts. And when labels are present, they contain typos and are poorly written. One 14th-century Persian miniature showing an enthroned king and his courtiers is wrongly described as ‘scenes from daily life’. Cases containing Seljuk, Ilkhanid, and later ceramics – some of which are breathtaking masterpieces highlighted in Bernard O’Kane’s illustrated guide book to the museum – are labelled ‘Iran 12th–14th century’. This treatment is odd considering that the galleries, founded in the late 19th century as the Museum of Arab Art, changed its name in the 1950s to reflect the large accession of Eastern Islamic pieces.

The American scholar Sheila Blair has remarked on the often secular, literary motifs of what we call ‘Islamic’ art. A 13th-century tile from Seljuk Iran, showing the Sasanian ruler Bahram Gur with his lover Azadeh, illustrates a popular tale from the 10th-century Persian Book of Kings, which tells the story of pre-Islamic Iran. Illustrations of the Book of Kings gave rise to the finest Persian paintings in later centuries. Yet the tile was found near Cairo, and its so-called minai’i technique (a kind of fritware) is common to Egyptian and Iranian work of the period. The Fatimid rooms, dedicated to the 10th-century dynasty that founded Cairo, are filled with the luxuries of palace life. The scenes of dance, wine and song in the period’s art, which recall the ancient Mediterranean, are almost identical to Iranian contemporaries. The new labels in Cairo’s Museum of Islamic Art clearly lack nuance, but then so do our wider conversations about Islam and its civilisational heritage. But ‘Islamic’ may still be the best moniker for cultures which are so different and yet united by certain common traditions.

From the May 2017 issue of Apollo. Preview and subscribe here.

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One comment

  1. Nadim Ahmad Al-Hasani Apr 25 2017 at 9:52 pm

    The article appears to find the definition of ‘Islamic art’ problematic or ‘nuanced’ in some fundamental way. What characterizes art as ‘Islamic’ is the logic, both impersonal and objective, of many of its diverse expressions. The use of a sacred geometry to amplify mathematical patterns is viewed in its qualitative rather than quantitive aspect. In this framework, the circle, the polygon, the star – though perfectly quantifiable – are, nonetheless, symbolic ways of expressing unity (tawhid) within multiplicity. In this way, Islamic art may properly be defined as both a science as well as a craft.

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