Exhibitions on Islamic Art are often focused on the rich repertoire of courtly art, or the art of the mosque. The groundbreaking Power and Protection: Islamic Art and Supernatural exhibition at the Ashmolean in Oxford tackles the unfamiliar and somewhat taboo territory of occult practices in Islamic societies – both at the popular, everyday level, as well as in courtly life. The exhibition includes over a hundred objects from between the 12th and 20th centuries, from as nearby as Morocco and as far away as China and India.
I went along last week, and entered to an Aladdin’s cave of treasures – illuminated manuscripts, gilded metalwork and beautiful jewellery! In every corner, there are works of outstanding beauty and craftsmanship that transport you from a museum in Oxford to far away, mythical lands.
A striking golden falcon – on loan from London’s Victoria and Albert Museum – caught my eye. Made of copper, and formed from the calligraphic words of a Shi’a prayer invoking Prophet Muhammed’s cousin and son-in-law, ‘Ali, it’s an ‘alam – a flag or finial that would have been carried onto the battlefield for divine assistance and protection for the Muslim army. It was probably made in India, around the seventeenth century.
There are also lots of examples of talismanic clothing, metallic magic bowls. and jewellery intricately inscribed with holy verses. These objects were considered to offer protection, blessings and healing to the wearer or owner. At times the material component of the amulet was as significant as the verses they carried. So for example in the case of jewellery, semiprecious stones thought to have healing or protective qualities were used. This small, oval shaped carnelian, set in jade and inlaid in gold and embellished with emeralds and rubies has been inscribed with holy verses from the Qur’an. Carnelian was the Prophet Muhammad’s favoured stone, and is thus considered sacred by Muslims.
It was striking how these practices, and objects, are still such an important part of daily spiritual life across the Muslim world. The miniature Qur’an’s on display – small enough to be worn close to the skin or carried around – are much like the ones I remember from growing up in Pakistan. Like the amulets known in Pakistan as taawiz, they were worn by adults and children to ward off illnesses, danger and the evil eye, as well as for happier purposes, such as inspiring devotion or desire in someone.
One of the highlights of the exhibition – and one that captures its universal spirit – is a beautiful Hand of Fatima (pictured at top). Made of gold and embellished with dazzling emeralds, diamonds, rubies and pearls, it truly is a stunning thing. The human hand is a symbol of protection in Buddhism, Christianity, Judaism and Islam. In the Shi’a tradition, the Hand of Fatima, also known as khamsa, meaning ‘five’, is often displayed on door-knockers and on decorative jewellery, as a way of warding off evil from the home or body. The five fingers of the hand represent the members of the Prophet’s immediate family (Muhammed, ‘Ali, Fatima, Hasan and Husayn).
Overall, the exhibition is a beautiful testimony to Islam’s heritage of craftsmanship and artistic sophistication. It’s also an extraordinary window into how Muslims through the ages have engaged with religion, spirituality and art in order to fulfil that most basic of human need – of comfort, and security. I gained much from my visit to the Ashmolean, and recommend the exhibition as a must-see for anyone interested in knowing more about this important part of Muslim life.
When: 20 October 2016 – 15 January 2017
Where: Ashmolean Museum, Beaumont Street, Oxford OX1 2PH
Tickets: £10 (concessions available)
More info: Ashmolean Museum
Farida Mohamedali holds an MA in History of Islamic Art from the School of African and Oriental Studies. She is an independent researcher and consultant in the artistic traditions of the Indo-Persian Islamic world.
Posted by FM on 18 November 2016
Photos courtesy of the Ashmolean Museum