Objects in focus
The Islamic world: the big themes

Stretching from West Africa to Southeast Asia, from the 7th century to the present day, the new Albukhary Foundation Gallery of the Islamic world looks at where Islam has had a significant impact as a faith, a political system, or as a culture rather than focusing on specific times or places.

Qur’an, West Africa, 1875–1925.

The collection brings to life objects from diverse regions – and presents them in new and exciting ways.

Movement and exchange

Islam emerged in the seventh century as a major religion and political force, expanding from the Arabian Peninsula as far as Spain in the west and China in the east by the 8th century. This emergence allowed for the movement of goods, people and ideas over a huge area.

With the arrival of Islam, Mecca became the centre of the Islamic world, a place where everyone from Arabs and Persians to Ethiopians and Chinese met. At the same time, the rise and fall of different political powers gave fresh life to ancient cities such as Damascus in Syria – and created new cosmopolitan centres like Isfahan in Iran and Delhi in India.

Tile showing the Ka’ba at Mecca. Iznik (Turkey), 17th–18th century.

Trade played a major role in these connections. The great port city of Siraf, on the south coast of Iran, was a hub for merchants from across the Indian Ocean between the 8th and 10th centuries. Objects found at the site include Chinese porcelain, semi-precious stones from Madagascar, Afghanistan and Sri Lanka – and even a complete Indian cooking pot – showing the enormous geographic and economic reach of Islam, from a very early period.

Cooking pot. south Asia, 7th–9th century.
Science and technology

Scientists made massive strides in medicine, mathematics and astronomy – making the Islamic world a centre of knowledge. In the gallery, we focus on astronomy, looking at the ways in which astronomers and astrologers studied and interpreted the stars. The astrolabe (a handheld map of the skies) could be used for everything from navigation to determining the direction of prayer, and could serve both practical and decorative purposes. An example made for the Iranian ruler Shah Sultan Husayn in 1712, from  the Safavid dynasty, is a perfect example of both precise engineering and beautiful design.

Astrolabe, Iran, 1712.

Advances in ceramics and glass included lustreware – the technique of decorating objects with bright metallic colours. First used on glass in Egypt, the technique was perfected by Iraqi potters in the 9th century. With the migration of craftsmen, it spread to Syria, Iran, Spain and eventually to Italy.

Lustreware bowl. Iraq, 9th century.

During the creation of the gallery, we meet the people who created the objects, those who used them and those who valued them. The specially designed space allows us to display light-sensitive materials like textiles and works on paper for the very first time. The textiles are rich in human stories, such as this pistachio-coloured dress from the region of Baluchistan (part of Pakistan), embroidered in contrasting red silk. The pocket at the front would once have been used for thread, medicine or other everyday items – although nowadays it would probably be used for keys, a mobile phone or credit cards!

Textiles from South Asia on display in the gallery.
Creating, making, playing
Shadow puppets. Turkey, 1970s.

The Islamic world has a rich history of storytelling. Originally inspired by performances in Egypt, shadow theatre has played an important role in the cultural traditions of Turkey since the early Ottoman period in the 16th century. A fabric screen illuminated from behind was the stage upon which a number of characters emerged to perform lively sketches and plays.

The plays themselves, part slapstick comedy, part serious dialogue, followed a set structure. At the same time they allowed the characters, particularly the principal two, Karagöz and Hacivat (above right), to comment on topics from the banalities of everyday life to more serious social and political matters (although topics such as the Sultan and religion were never discussed). The figures were made of coloured animal hide and were moved by means of sticks by a master puppeteer, sometimes with the help of an assistant. Performances occurred mainly during the evenings in Ramadan, or at weddings and circumcisions.

Idris Khan in front of 21 Stones.

An entirely new aspect of this gallery is that it gave the British Museum the opportunity to commission its first site-specific artwork. Created by the British artist Idris Khan, 21 Stones evokes the jamarat (‘Stoning of the Devil’) ritual which takes place during the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca. Each of the 21 pieces is unique, composed of the artist’s poetry stamped in blue ink onto paper.

As Khan says, ‘I have always imagined when a pilgrim releases a stone, and it hits the wall, the words, and prayers that the stone represents explodes into a physical language. The words themselves are a personal departure about me and my life to date and are mostly unreadable. For me, it is an abstract and meditative act. I do not want to be judged on the words that are used as I prefer the viewer to enjoy the image rather than try to understand its content.’

Objects showing the use of Arabesque designs in the gallery.

Within the gallery there is also a dedicated temporary display space, which will be used to showcase a regular series of free, temporary exhibitions. The first of these is a display of works from the Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia (IAMM), based around the development and use of the Arabesque, a common design feature in Islamic art.

Discover the making of the gallery, the story of the collection and how these fascinating objects were conserved before display here. The Albukhary Foundation Gallery of the Islamic world is supported by the Albukhary Foundation.