The Koran Does Not Forbid Images of the Prophet

Images of the Prophet

In the wake of the massacre that took place in the Paris offices of Charlie Hebdo, I have been called upon as a scholar specializing in Islamic paintings of the Prophet to explain whether images of Muhammad are banned in Islam. The short and simple answer is no. The Koran does not prohibit figural imagery. Rather, it castigates the worship of idols, which are understood as concrete embodiments of the polytheistic beliefs that Islam supplanted when it emerged as a purely monotheistic faith in the Arabian Peninsula during the seventh century.

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A Look at Toronto’s New Aga Khan Museum

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At a time when anything associated with Muslims or Islam may produce responses ranging from unease to outright hostility, the new Aga Khan Museum in Toronto counters those sentiments with a thoughtfully-designed, tranquil place that honors centuries of Islamic art in a space welcoming to all. The Aga Khan Museum, which opened in September, is the result of nearly 20 years of planning and construction. It’s the creation of the museum’s chairman of the board, the Aga Khan, an honorific title inherited by Shah Karim al-Hussaini, a 1959 Harvard University graduate and British citizen who’s founder and chairman of the Aga Khan Development Network and said to be one of the richest royals in the world. I visited the museum just before it opened to the public while I was in the city for the Toronto International Film Festival. It’s a world-class attraction and, along with the nearby Ontario Science Center, is well worth a dedicated visit to Toronto.

Read More: A Look at Toronto’s New Aga Khan Museum

See also: Rethinking ‘Islamic Art’

Rethinking ‘Islamic Art’

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For seven years, exhibitions in Asia and Europe have showcased treasures owned by the Aga Khan, the spiritual head of an estimated 10 million to 15 million Shia Ismaili Muslims world-wide. The collection of some 1,000 objects has now alighted in its permanent home, the recently opened Aga Khan Museum, the first institution in North America devoted primarily to what it terms the “artistic, intellectual, and scientific heritage of Islamic civilizations.” The 300 or so items on display date from the eighth through the 19th centuries and come from as far west as Morocco and Spain and as far east as India, Indonesia and China, with Egypt, Turkey, Iran and other lands in between.

Read More: Rethinking ‘Islamic Art’

Fathi Hassan Illuminates Ambiguity

Fathi Hassan

The Williams College Museum of Art (WCMA) presents “Fathi Hassan: Migration of Signs” through April 26. For 30 years, Egyptian-born Nubian artist Fathi Hassan has created mixed-media works that explore the ambiguity of language. His best-known paintings, drawings and installations are comprised of intentionally indecipherable Arabic calligraphy. These text-based works embody the alienation of being faced with language — and by extension a culture — that cannot be read, interpreted or decoded.

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An Extensive Calligraphy and Book Arts Collection at Sabancı Museum

Sabanci Museum exhibition

The exhibition of the Arts of the Book and Calligraphy at Sakıp Sabancı Museum (SSM), which features over 200 works of well-known calligraphers and book artists from the 14th to the 20th century, consists of illuminated Qurans, prayer books, calligraphic compositions, albums and panels written by well-known calligraphers, illuminated official documents bearing the imperial cipher of the Ottoman sultans, as well as calligraphers’ tools. As the collections and archives of SSM have been transferred onto a digital platform, the rare manuscripts of Turkish and Islamic arts can be studied page by page. Visitors are able to access these applications with iPads given to them for use by the museum.

Read More: An Extensive Calligraphy and Book Arts Collection at Sabanci Museum

Contemporary and Medieval Morocco

Al-Qaraouiyine chandelier

In front of the Institu du Monde Arabe (IMA), opposite Notre-Dame, stands a huge Western Saharan tent made of goat and camel hair. This typical tent, raised for Moussem festivals, is the work of architect Tarik Oualalou and sets the tone for the exhibition Contemporary Morocco. The Moroccan season, which opened recently in Paris, will long be remembered for its diversity and for exhibits that challenge as much as they dazzle by raising highly topical questions about society, tolerance, equality, extremism, corruption and ecology. The Louvre exhibition, Medieval Morocco, triggers a more emotional response with its medieval religious items and manuscripts on loan from some of the country’s oldest mosques and madrasas. They remind us that Morocco was once the centre of an empire that stretched from Cordoba in Spain to Gao in present day Mali.

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Ottoman Artwork and Buildings Unearthed in Balkans

Ottoman sites in Bosnia

The Ottoman Empire ruled over Bosnia and Herzegovina for over 400 years. When it lost all its territories in the Balkans with the Treaty of Berlin in 1878, the empire left hundreds of buildings behind, including mosques, inns, public baths and madrasahs (Islamic schools). Some of these treasures were either torn down or destroyed by the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the State of Slovenes, Croats and Serbs and Yugoslavia, which had inherited the lands from the Ottomans. [Adnan] Muftarevic and [Mirsad] Avdic [of the Sarajevo Museum], who are the founders of the 1894 Archaeologists Association, have been conducting archaeological excavations focusing on lost Ottoman heritage since 2005.

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The Master of Small Things

Spirit of Indian Painting

BN Goswamy is to Indian art history what Tendulkar is to its cricket pitches or SRK to its movies: a towering colossus who has transformed the nature of his chosen field, as well as being, at the same time, a much-loved and irreplaceable national treasure. The 81-year-old art historian combines in one elegant frame the eye of the aesthete, the discrimination of a connoisseur and the soul of a poet, with the rigorous mind of a scholar and the elegant prose of a gifted writer. His new book, The Spirit of Indian Painting, is the summation of a lifetime’s loving dedication to his subject. It may well be his most beautiful, and heartfelt work too.

Read More: The Master of Small Things


Aga Khan Inspires with Aim of Cross-Cultural Unity

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If you haven’t quite found your way yet to the new Aga Khan Museum, you really should. As far as I am concerned, its opening was the single most significant style event of 2014. Not only is the building itself, by the Japanese architect Fumihiko Maki, a glittering, winged visual poem of Brazilian granite, glass and aluminum, and the Aga Khan’s own collection of Islamic art and antiquities impressive, the museum’s beautiful and timely mission to promote cross-cultural understanding and interconnectedness — and to place it here in the jumble of our amazingly diverse city — is itself an inspiration.

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Kerbela Ballet Rearranged in Suite Album

Kerbela ballet

Turkish composer and musician Can Atilla, one of the biggest names in New Age Turkish music, has announced that he will re-arrange the “Karbala” ballet as a suite album that will be released in the upcoming months. Atilla claims to have made a variety of variations, and improvements, on the famous work, which made its world premiere in March at the İzmir State Opera and Ballet. Similar to the work he did on Tchaikovsky’s famous ballet “The Nutcracker Suite,” Atilla claims to have given “Karbala” a new artistic perspective, while preserving its impact with shortened technical music.

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A Trove Both Precious and Powerful

Treasures from India

As though ruby eyes and diamond teeth were not enough to make the small gold head of a tiger truly shine, the goldsmith dotted its face with yet more gemstones and encircled its neck with emeralds and more rubies. Made about 1790, it is among the older pieces on display in “Treasures from India: Jewels from the Al-Thani Collection,” on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. By contrast, in one of the exhibition’s most recent pieces, diamonds cluster in a 2013 Cartier necklace with a 57-carat, drop-shape pendant, its platinum settings virtually invisible — all the eye registers is the liquid beauty of flawless stones. Woven into the dense fabric of history that separates these two works is a story of jewels and jewelry not just from India (as the show’s title states) but also for and inspired by India.

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Turkish and Islamic Art Museum Reopened After 2-Year Refit

Turkish and Islamic Art Museum

Facing the Blue Mosque in Istanbul’s Sultanahmet Square, the Turkish and Islamic Art Museum was re-opened on Friday [19 December 2014] after intensive restoration work that cost TL 16.4 million ($7.09 million). Erected in 1524, the newly renovated museum was formerly the residential palace of Ottoman Sultan Süleyman I’s Grand Vizier İbrahim Pasha. Speaking during the opening ceremony, Culture and Tourism Minister Ömer Çelik said safeguarding our cultural heritage is not a preferential decision, but a must for the future.

Read More: Turkish and Islamic Art Museum Reopened After 2-Year Refit

Seen in the Studio: Shirin Neshat

Shirin Neshat

Stationed above a busy corner on Canal Street, the studio of the Iranian filmmaker and artist Shirin Neshat whirred with several working film editors and assistants upon our arrival. Neshat is best known for her black-and-white cinematic films addressing gender issues within Islamic culture. She shares the space with her partner Shoja Azari, a fellow filmmaker and frequent collaborator. Conversations in Farsi and Italian were shooting back and forth among the crew. “We are very lucky because our studio is like a community. We’re all close friends and we’re together all the time basically,” said Neshat.

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Asheer Akram’s Sculptures at Belger Crane Yard Decode the Mystical

Asheer Akran

One attribute that is common to original thinkers is an ability to perceive what is intangible in human experience and to translate it into comprehensible terms. As Albert Einstein said, “The most beautiful thing that we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science.” Asheer Akram’s “Sacred Spaces” exhibition attempts to express the concepts that Einstein describes. On view at the Belger Crane Yard Gallery, the works decode mystical experience into visual form. Dualities of material and content are paired in massive sculptures, large wall reliefs and smaller ceramic vessels. Components that are ponderous and hefty, such as steel, oak and clay, are cut and formed in evanescent filigrees that riff on Islamic patterns.

Read More: Asheer Akram’s Sculptures at Belger Crane Yard Decode the Mystical

Manuscripts Rescued from the Hands of Islamist Rebels

Timbuktu renaissance

A series of 15th- and 16th-century manuscripts, smuggled out of Timbuktu in 2012 after the city fell into the hands of Islamist rebels, go on show this week (19 December 2014 – 22 February 2015) at the Centre for Fine Arts in Brussels (Bozar). The exhibition, “Timbuktu Renaissance”, includes 16 original manuscripts with texts about science, politics and law, and was organised by Abdel Kader Haidara, the director of the Mamma Haidara library in Timbuktu. After war broke out in Mali in April 2012, and jihadist insurgents took over the city, he helped secretly transport a trove of manuscripts, books and documents to the Malian capital Bamako.

Read More:  Manuscripts Rescued from the Hands of Islamist Rebels

Freer, Sackler Galleries Going Global by Showcasing Entire Collections Online


They chose a pretty piece for last. Photographer John Tsantes had placed the “Seated Princess” — an opaque watercolor and gold painting that is part of the famed Islamic collection of the Freer Gallery of Art and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery — on his table and focused the cutting-edge digital camera mounted overhead. And in the split-second it took for the camera’s shutter to close, the museum completed a multi-year effort to digitize its 40,000-item collection. The 400-year-old artwork was the last of works owned by the Smithsonian’s Asian art museums to be digitally recorded. The images go online Jan. 1, making this boutique Smithsonian the first of the franchise to share its entire collection with a global audience.

Read More: Freer, Sackler Galleries Going Global

The Lost Dhow: Aga Khan Exhibit Showcases Links Between Ancient Islam and China

Lost dhow 2

Hear the word “Islam” these days and, for many, visions of beheadings, demagogic mullahs, hollow-eyed refugees and gun-toting jihadis are almost sure to follow. While hardly fair or truthful, this mental slide show is nevertheless an understandable result of the way Islam, or at least acts perpetrated by some in the name of Islam, is portrayed via the 24/7 news cycle. It was something of a balm, then, to visit the recently opened Aga Khan Museum in North Toronto the other day for a tour of its newest exhibition. “The Lost Dhow: A Discovery from the Maritime Silk Route” presents more than 300 artifacts from a cache of more than 50,000 recovered in 1998 from the remains of a ninth-century Arab dhow found at the bottom of the Java Sea.

Read More: The Lost Dhow

See also: Shipwreck Treasure Exhibit at Aga Khan Museum

Stealing from History: The Looting and Destruction of Iraqi and Syrian Heritage Concern Us All

Stealing from History

In September, the US secretary of state John Kerry told an audience gathered at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York about another disaster facing Syria, a country already gripped by catastrophic civil war. In no uncertain terms, he warned of the scourge of the looting of archaeological sites, labelling ISIL the worst offender. “The looting of Apamea and Dura-­Europos, the devastation caused by fighting in the ancient Unesco heritage city of Aleppo, the destruction of the Tomb of Jonah – these appalling acts aren’t just a tragedy for the Syrian and the Iraqi people,” Kerry said. “These acts of vandalism are a tragedy for all civilised people, and the civilised world must take a stand.”

Read More: Stealing from History

Shipwreck Treasure Exhibit at Aga Khan Museum

Lost dhow

Artifacts from the earliest and most significant Arab shipwreck discovered will be on display during an exhibit at the Aga Khan Museum. “The Lost Dhow: A Discovery From the Maritime Silk Route”, will be held at the Wynford Drive museum December 19 [2014] to April 26 [2015], marking its North American premiere. Jointly organized by the Asian Civilisations Museum of Singapore, the Singapore Tourism Board, and the Aga Khan Museum, the exhibit of ninth-century Chinese artifacts offers a glimpse of rare Tang dynasty objects from the shipwreck found in Southeast Asia in 1998.

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The Many Faces of John Carswell

John Carswell

The vaulted ceilings and thick stone pillars of Ada Dodge Hall find unexpected echoes in the enormous white sculptures that fill the space this winter, ghosts of the university’s past resurrected almost half a century after their creation. A two-part exhibition entitled “Trans-Oriental Monochrome: John Carswell” is currently filling both the on-campus AUB Byblos Bank Art Gallery and the nearby Rose and Shaheen Saleeby Museum.

Read More: The Many Faces of John Carswell

Persian Letters

Persian letters

When the famed calligrapher Mir Emad was murdered at the Safavid court in 1615 – perhaps on account of artistic rivalry or perhaps because of his religious affiliations – an important chapter in the history of the calligraphic script known as nasta’liq came to a close. Mir Emad was not the originator of nasta’liq, which emerged in 14th century Iran as a likely marriage of two other styles (nashk and ta’liq), but he was nonetheless largely regarded as its undisputed master, attracting admirers among his Safavid patrons, Mughal emperors in South Asia, and countless others even long after his death.

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No Turkish Loans for Big Seljuk Turk Show Planned by the Met

Seljuk exhibition at Met

The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York is organising a major exhibition on the Seljuks, whose medieval Islamic empire expanded from central Asia into much of modern Anatolia in Turkey, without loans from Turkey, The Art Newspaper has learned. Experts fear that loans from any collections in Iran or Russia will also be missing in the Met’s show.

Read More: No Turkish Loans for Big Seljuk Turk Show Planned by the Met

Turkey Through the Eyes of a Danish Photographer

Finn Larsen

“It is a journey in the middle of Turkey. In the midst of its everyday life,” states the description of Finn Larsen’s exhibition, currently displayed at The David Collection in Copenhagen, a well-respected museum that holds Scandinavia’s largest collection of Islamic art, among the 10 most important in the Western world. Larsen’s exhibition, titled Travels in Turkey, is a photographic series of Turkey through a Danish photographer’s eye; it is of a journey that started as a coincidence but ended as being the photographer’s reality.

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Dara to Rule the British Stage

Dara Shikuh

For the first time in the history of Pakistani theatre, a stage play has been adapted by a British production team and will open at the National Theatre in London on January 20, [2015]. Originally written by acclaimed playwright Shahid Nadeem, Dara has been commissioned by National Theatre director Sir Nicholas Hynter, directed by associate director Nadia Fall and adapted by Tanya Ronder.  The cast members are well-known British actors, many of them of South Asian origin.

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Restoration Under Way on Qusayr ’Amra Wall Paintings

Quseir Amra

Around 26% of the 380 sq. m wall paintings at the Unesco World Heritage Site of Qusayr ’Amra in Jordan have been restored by the Italian Higher Institute of Conservation and Restoration, in collaboration with the World Monuments Fund (WMF) and the Department of Antiquities of Jordan. A campaign to conserve the exterior and decorations of the eighth-century Umayyad palace, which contains exceptional examples of early Islamic art, was launched in 2008 after its inclusion on the WMF Watch list.

Read More: Restoration Under Way on Qusayr ‘Amra Wall Paintings