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Material culture tells the story of lands and peoples. The permanent collections of the Museum for Islamic Art, which are spread over six galleries, provide a broad perspective of the art that emerged in the vast, highly developed civilization that flourished under Islam – a civilization that penetrated many countries and influenced countless peoples – from the 7th to the 19th centuries.
The winds of history touched the Arabian Peninsula in the 7th century, marking not only the birth and expansion of a new religion, but of a new Islamic art as well. The old empires of the Byzantines and the Persian Sassanids tumultuously collapsed in a series of military disasters inflicted by the Arab armies. Muslim rule spread quickly, through Egypt and Syria, to Persia and Mesopotamia (Iraq of today), Turkey, Afghanistan and India, and far west to Spain. It lasted for 1,200 years, until the end of the Ottoman period.
The Arabs, it should be noted, did not celebrate their victories by decimating the enemy, destroying their palaces, or shattering their possessions. They learned and adapted local techniques, colors, ornamentation – and wisdom – of those they now ruled. The new artists were struck by the ancient local traditions, studied them with humility and dedication, and used them as a source of inspiration. They imitated the pottery, the glassware, the jewelry, and other objects, but only to an extent. Local traditions were absorbed, but the Muslims left their own mark as well, and a new style gradually emerged. Islamic culture was thus nourished by the heritage of the ancient world, but developed into a splendid civilization in its own right. And it was only just, if there is any justice in history, that when its time came, Islamic art influenced a Western cultural revival in return.
The permanent exhibit sheds light on many subjects: the spread of Islam, the technological and cultural development of Muslim civilization, the art of Arabic writing, the religious tenets of Islam, and the centrality of the Qur'an.
Only about one quarter of the museum's collection of some four thousand items is actually on display. They include things for everyday use – pottery, metal and glass objects – alongside luxury items like jewelry, rugs, miniatures, weaponry, and more. The assemblage of ancient pages of the Qur'an reveals wonderful calligraphy. While they represent a range of styles that reflect different periods, they have clear elements in common.
The wealth of exhibits is also a tribute to the fine sense of aesthetics and highly developed artistic and technical skills of Muslim artists, despite the many religious restrictions imposed on them. Islamic art is not entirely divorced from representation of human or animal forms: in fact, the Qur’an does not expressly forbid it. Such figures are found in manuscripts and on vessels – as long as they are not intended for use in mosques or for other religious purposes – and especially in non-sacred texts.
The uniqueness of Islamic art is expressed as well in Arab calligraphy, as homage to the much-treasured Qur’an, its language and its script. The motifs and forms of the Arabic script were used to decorate buildings, house-wares, and weaving.
The core collection on which the museum was founded was that of the famous scholar of Islam, Prof. Leo Aryeh Mayer, to whom the museum is dedicated. But that was only the beginning. When Prof. Richard Ettinghausen, an internationally renowned historian and expert on Islamic art, was offered the challenge of expanding the museum’s collection, he undertook an extensive and more methodical acquisition of art and artifacts.
Introduction to Islam, its art and culture
Early Islamic Art
Art in the Middle Ages
Late Iranian Art
The Qajar Period
The Ottoman Period
The Moghul Period
A Tour of the Galleries
From the Arab conquests of the 7th and 8th centuries, and for centuries thereafter, a magnificent Islamic art developed across the vast Muslim domains. The artists drew on local traditions; but, considering the far-flung nature of the empire and the multitude of influences it encountered, the motifs of the new art were remarkably similar, albeit with many variations.
Among the sources of inspiration for Islamic artists, the Arab, Turkish and Iranian traditions are the most dominant. The centrality of the Qur’an and the Arabic script was one of the most significant themes for Islamic art, and the calligraphy was widely used in the decoration of house-ware and in architecture. Another common decorative style was the use of stylized plants (‘arabesques’) and the almost meditative interplay of geometric forms. Abstract designs, as a convenient way of filling empty spaces, were common among the Turks. And, finally, a poetic approach and an inclination to the supernatural were concepts borrowed from Iranian art.
The artists were also influenced by traditions from lands beyond Islam, in particular the Far East, with which there were commercial ties. Muslim potters were particularly enchanted by Chinese porcelain, and tirelessly tried to reproduce it in their own work.
The six galleries of the permanent display are arranged in chronological order, offering a broad overview of a unique art tradition, from the emergence of Islam in the 7th century CE to the disintegration of the Ottoman Turkish Empire in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The illuminated showcases highlight the often-exquisite delicacy of craftsmanship. The artifacts on display exemplify the spectrum of possibilities and range of styles that characterized each ruling dynasty. They cover a sweep of Islamic history, from the Umayyad period, through the regimes of the Abbasids, the Samanids, the Fatimids, the Seljuqs, the Mamluks, the Mongols, the Timurids, the Safavids, the Moghuls, and the Ottomans. Each period has its individual material culture, but there is a common narrative for all.