"The Heritage of Islam" exhibition is appearing at the National Museum of Natural History through Sept. 5. Its location was incorrectly reported yesterday.
"The Heritage of Islam," a big, ambitious traveling exhibition that goes on view today at the National Museum of American History, begins with a diorama of the interior court of the Grand Mosque in Mecca. Nothing could be more fitting for an exhibition whose main point is to convince curious but ignorant Americans that "the material culture of the Islamic world is far richer and more varied" than they had known or imagined.
This ingeniously crafted, toylike setting, with movable parts and on-again off-again stage lights, is a delightful entertainment that effortlessly instructs. To stand before this miniaturized stage set as thousands of white-robed pilgrim figures move around the Ka'ba--the cubical structure draped in black cloth that is the focal point of the Islamic faith--is to learn in the simplest, most direct way that Islam is a living religion. There are 800 million Moslems on the planet today.
One cannot help but be impressed by the spectacle, nor escape an awareness of the belief that drives 2 million Moslems each year to make the holy pilgrimage. A recorded narration succinctly sums up the main points of the faith. Thus prepared, non-Moslem viewers are more likely to be able to appreciate the splendors that await them in the exhibition itself.
The exhibition lacks focus--it contains a little bit of everything with about 250 objects covering the last 14 centuries and coming from every part of the world where Islam has exerted a major influence. But it achieves its main goal. It demonstrates that Islamic art is one of mankind's great achievements.
The show dazzles as it instructs. The striking beauty of so many of the objects on view, objects borrowed from great museums and private collections the world over, is at once immediately self-evident and a source of endless fascination. But it does help to read the captions.
An enameled glass mosque lamp, for instance, made in Syria early in the 14th century, is by itself a thing of extraordinary beauty. It becomes more meaningful when we learn of its symbolic importance in the mosque. The blue inscription on its sides comes from the Koran and says, "God is the light of the heavens and the earth. The likeness of His light is as a niche wherein is a lamp."
The anonymous artisans who created most of the works in this show were almost incapable, it seems, of making anything graceless or untouched by complex, harmonic proportions. A section of the show devoted to Islamic science--"a crucial link in the chain of world intellectual advance"--can be as esthetically satisfying, in its way, as the sections devoted to religious objects, calligraphy, art and literature.
An outstanding assortment of astrolabes (sighting instruments used by astronomers and astrologers) are as amazing in their craft as anything in the show. Similarly, a scientifically objective painting of a "Bird on a Shrub," from 17th-century Persia, is as pretty a piece of work as any of the more fantastical miniature paintings elsewhere in the show.
Calligraphy plays a central role in Islamic art. Not surprisingly, superb examples of the calligrapher's discipline are among the highlights of the show. These include handsome Korans--my favorite is a large, exquisite 15th-century Persian Koran written in an extremely fine script upon gold-sprinkled paper of 10 different colors. There are also weighty architectural elements, the most impressive a marble panel carved in Egypt in the 10th century that says, in powerfully sculpted script, "In the name of Allah, the compassionate, the merciful," a phrase that introduces all but one of the 114 chapters of the Koran.
The unequaled inventiveness of Islamic decoration is everywhere in evidence, from a cast silver plate made in Persia in the seventh or eighth century, with its simple interlaced design of grapevines, pheasants and ducks, to magnificent floral or geometric ceramic and mosaic works from a variety of times and places.
The greatness of the Islamic arabesque reached its apogee in architecture, in which walls of mosques or palaces almost disappear behind the brilliant, complex decorative schemes. The exhibition lacks a single outstanding architectural fragment that would suggest this extraordinary effect--somehow photographic panels of a mihrab (the prayer niche in every mosque indicating the direction of Mecca) and the ceiling of the Alhambra do not do the job.
But this is a small failing. A larger one is the absence of a catalogue for the show. "The manuscript is on my desk in New York," says Eleanor Sims, the scholar who served as curator for the show (with Howard Turner, who curated the scientific section). The committee that organized the show was not able to agree on just what to say. Still, the objects speak volumes.
The show is sponsored by Islam Centennial Fourteen, a nonprofit organization of scholars, retired diplomats and other admirers of Islamic culture, and was supported financially by oil companies and others. (The "Fourteen" of the group's title refers to the 14 centuries of the Islamic lunar calendar, which begins in 622, the year of the prophet Mohammed's flight from Mecca to Medina.)
The exhibition continues through Sept. 25. Sims will deliver an "Introduction to the Art of Islam" tonight at 8 in Baird Auditorium on the ground floor of the Natural History Museum.