A journey through the Islamic world in eight objects
This beautiful new space explores the cultural significance, breadth and impact of the Islamic world, from the 7th century to the present day and from West Africa to Southeast Asia. On display are stunning works of art alongside objects of everyday life, including musical instruments, games, ceramics and traditional dress. Hand-selected by the gallery curators, scroll down to discover the must-see objects in this magnificent space.
The Hamzanama, or Adventures of Hamza, is an epic romance about the legendary adventures of the Prophet Muhammad’s uncle, Amir Hamza. The Mughal emperor Akbar (r. 1556–1605) enjoyed reciting and listening to its tales so much that he commissioned an illustrated version in Persian, the language of the court. Taking 15 years to complete, the final work encompassed 14 volumes with 1,400 paintings by Indian and Iranian artists – less than 150 of which survive today. In this painting, the Old Testament prophet Ilyas (also known as Elias or Elijah) saves Prince Nur al-Dahr (Arabic for ‘Light of the Age’), the drowning grandson of Hamza.
Knowledge of the stars, now called astronomy and astrology, was an important element of Islamic culture. From the 8th century onwards, scientists and thinkers used instruments like this to gather information relating to timekeeping and the positions of the sun, stars and planets.
Astrolabes (the name derives from the Greek astro labos, or ‘star-taker’), were the computers of their time. This example is particularly large (46 cm high) and is exquisitely inlaid with silver and copper. It might have been a presentation piece rather than a functional device. It is signed ‘Abd al-Karim al-Asturlabi’ (the Astrolabist), and bears the names of three royal patrons, making it an important documentary object for medieval science and patronage.
In the 10th century, one astronomer estimated that there were around 1,000 possible applications for an astrolabe, ranging from the position of the stars to the direction of Mecca!
This intricately decorated bowl was made in Iznik, a town south east of Istanbul and the major centre of ceramic production during the Ottoman era. Between the 1480s and about 1700, a huge range of high-quality wares were produced that were inspired by imported Chinese porcelain, which was favoured by the sultans.
This bowl may have been used for ablutions (a ceremonial act of washing) by the sultan or his entourage. It is decorated with lotuses, saz leaves, tulips and prunus stems amongst other flora – the style and colour scheme of this bowl, with its delicate turquoise and green, are typical of Iznik pottery from this period.
Star and cross tiles
These brilliant tiles are believed to belong to a group from the interior of the a Shi‘a shrine in Damghan, Iran. Persian verses from the Shahnama (Book of Kings), the Iranian epic, frame the star tiles and link them to the rich oral and literary traditions inherited from pre-Islamic Iran.
Tiles with verses from the Shahnama were also found in royal residences during this period, such as at the summer palace of the Mongol Ilkhanid ruler Abaqa Khan, at Takht-i Sulayman in northwestern Iran.
Uzbek woman’s ikat coat with Russian lining
Uzbekistan was a centre for the textile industry in the 19th century. Dyed and woven silks, called abr, were produced in numerous specialised workshops. Silk robes were status symbols and worn in layers to flaunt wealth – a woman would have worn this robe (munisak) over a dress and trousers during important rites of passage, including weddings and funerals. The robe is woven with stylised rams’ horns and pomegranate flowers – symbols of strength, abundance and fertility.
By the 1870s, machine-printed cottons from Tsarist Russia, like the brilliant red lining in this coat, had flooded the bazaars and supplanted locally woven, block-printed varieties.
Enamelled glass mosque lamp
This wonderfully intricate 14th-century gilded and enamelled glass lamp is one of a pair. Lamps like this would have been suspended with chains inside a mosque or shrine. A narrow tube inside the base contains oil and a floating wick. The inscription at the mouth of the lamp comes from the ‘Light verse’ from the Qur’an (24:35):
God is the light of the heavens and the earth, the likeness of His light is as a wick-holder [wherein is a light (the light in a glass, the glass as it were a glittering star)].
Sudanese lyre (tanbura)
Lyres are stringed instruments that are played in many different cultures. This example from Sudan is a remarkable item as a whole, but if you look closer, you can see it’s decorated with hundreds of smaller objects – strings of coins, beads, shells and other miscellaneous items from different places. The coins were mostly minted in Cairo and Istanbul in the second half of the 19th century, showing the long-standing links between the Ottomans, Egyptians and regions further south along the Nile. The multicoloured beads were used by Europeans as a medium of trade throughout the continent, mass-produced first in Venice and later in France and England. Lyres like this one are still played during zar ceremonies to this day (zar is a belief in the power of spirits and their ability to possess people).
Stone inscription of early kufic script
This marble panel originally formed part of a monument but was subsequently re-carved on the back. The front, which was probably carved in the 9th century, has the beginning of the Islamic phrase basmala, ‘In the name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate.’
The text is in angular kufic script (one of the earliest forms of Arabic script) – you can see that some of the letters terminate in elegant leaf forms. The back has been turned into a funerary inscription and has been written in a simpler form of kufic script, reading:
In the name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate, this is the tomb of Muhammad ibn Fatik Ashmuni who died in the month of Jumada II in the year 356 (AD 967). God is our sufficiency.
‘Ashmuni’ indicates that the deceased came from Ashmun (or Ashmunein) in the Nile delta.
The Abulkhary Foundation Gallery of the Islamic world opens on 18 October 2018, and is free to visit.
To find out more about the Museum’s Islamic collection and displays, click here.