Ashmolean opens new Islamic Art exhibition

"Power and Protection" features artefacts revealing the diverse history of Islamic culture

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The Ashmolean Museum’s new exhibition of Islamic art opened to visitors last Thursday. ‘Power and Protection’ displays a variety of imagery and artistry that reflects the hopes and fears of Muslims over the centuries. From the thirteenth century Mosul to nineteenth century Darfur, the selected artefacts open up a fascinating span of religious and artistic history, drawing from the Sunni, Shia, and Sufi branches of Islam.

The first section of ‘Power and Protection’ focuses in part on the practice of astrology in the Islamic world. Although a point of contention amongst Muslim theologians, the link between this so-called superstition and scientific inquiry is of particular interest in the exhibition. I noticed an ‘astrolabe’ contraption, which ostensibly measures the position of celestial bodies according to the horizon. Muslim astronomers, however, modified the device to determine the time and direction of prayers. An intricate tablet from thirteenth century Damascus was also used to mechanically enhance the process of geomancy (or ‘science of the sand’), a popular method of divination. The importance of dreams in Islam is clear to see in items such as the painstakingly assembled ‘Dictionary for the Interpretation of Dreams’, accompanied in the exhibition by the personal Dream book of controversial eighteenth century Indian ruler Tipu Sultan. Much of it is devoted not to literalism, but rather to formulating his own opinions about these ‘visions from God’, evincing the optimistic view on the wall of the exhibition that “the universe is a vast book waiting to be read.”

Other artefacts impress not through their innovation, but because of their striking aesthetic value. These include sabres and armour emblazoned with sacred verse, for example the sword of Sultan ‘Ali Dinar, crafted in 1898. This emphasises the power of the word in Islamic culture. Similarly, Talismanic garments worn by men, women, and children bare religious calligraphy. This appears to stem from the Quranic idea that sacred words provide protection from harm.

Although recently opened, the ‘Power and Protection’ exhibit has already garnered praise from Islamic leaders and scholars. The Oxford Foundation’s Imam Monawar Hussain has commented, “I am convinced that this exhibition will help to deepen and enrich people’s appreciation of our faith.” And Tariq Ramadan, Professor of Contemporary Islamic Studies at St. Benet’s College, said: “the exhibition shows the many creative paths which Muslims follow towards the Oneness of God.”

The ‘Power and Protection’ exhibition is free to visit for all University of Oxford students, and will run until 15th January 2017. An illustrated catalogue of the exhibition is also available to buy.

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