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A major exhibition on the art of the Quran is being billed as the first of its kind in the U.S. Sixty-eight of the most important and exquisite Qurans ever produced are on view now at the Smithsonian’s Sackler Gallery in Washington, D.C. Jeffrey Brown reports on the vast variety of manuscripts on display and the beauty, history and hard work behind each masterpiece.
In the charged atmosphere at this time around the role of Muslims in America comes what is billed as the first major exhibition on in the United States on the Quran.
Jeffrey Brown reports.
MASSUMEH FARHAD, Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution:
This is one of the great highlights of the exhibition. It's a Quran from the early 14th century, from about 1330, signed by a great master.
A holy book, as a work of art, the Quran, sacred to some 1.6 billion Muslims around the world. A new exhibition at the Smithsonian Institution's Sackler Gallery in Washington, D.C., presents 68 of the most important and exquisite Qurans ever produced.
Dating from the late 7th to early 17 centuries, they come from many parts of the Islamic world and are part of the collection of the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts in Istanbul. That's where Sackler chief curator Massumeh Farhad first saw them.
I realized that these were true works of art, that every single one of them was astounding in its sort of mastery of calligraphy, of the styles, and also of the scale of the works.
And that is something that, to me, was very important, and motivated me in trying to organize this exhibition, because I thought it really shifted my perception of what these works are. And I'm hoping that it will also shift the perception of the visitors who come to the museum to see the exhibition.
For Muslims, the Quran is a divine text, a series of revelations transmitted from the angel Gabriel to the Prophet Mohammed between 610 and 632. It includes references to earlier figures, including Abraham, Moses and Jesus.
The term itself means recitation. The Quran stems from an oral tradition. But the text was written down and codified in a fixed form not long after the death of Mohammed.
Maria Dakake teaches Islamic religious thought and history at George Mason University.
MARIA DAKAKE, George Mason University:
One of the things that is rather striking about the Quran when people read it for the first time is that it often takes the form of direct address.
So, it will say sometimes, oh, you who believe. Sometimes, it will address all human beings, oh, humankind. It is a series of moral exhortations, exhortations to virtue. It includes many stories of prophets before the time of Mohammed.
It is an attempt to grab the listener, or grab the reader, to wake them up, to make them think about their life, about the world around them. It's a lot of passages with rhetorical sentences, right? Did you not consider this? Didn't you think about this? How did you get here?
The exhibition includes furniture, stands to hold manuscripts, and chests to store them.
Many of these Qurans were originally commissioned and donated or collected by rulers. Early manuscripts, on parchment, feature plain ink and simple designs. Later, artists and calligraphers developed ever more elaborate and ornate script, illumination, and geometric patterns, in light of Islam's proscription against figurative images, to make each manuscript a singular work.
It's how they sort of use their individuality is really quite remarkable. And the greater master, the better they can sort of manipulate the style without breaking the rules, because you could not break the rules of a particular style of calligraphy, but you could sort of stretch them, and sort of introduce your own sort of touch to a particular style or a particular type of writing.
Some of these masters are well known to scholars, like the maker of this Quran, Abdullah Sayrafi, who spent most of his life in Tabriz in Northwestern Iran.
What is remarkable about Abdullah Sayrafi is the fact that he was able to write in more than one style of calligraphy, because, usually, most calligraphers specialized in one style and one particular size alone.
It was clearly a Quran that was meant for display. It is so lavish in its use of both illumination, in terms of that very rich black ink, the fact that every gold line is outlined in black. I mean, this is a visual feast, and it's supposed to be viewed and looked at. So, it was meant as a display copy.
How long would it take to do something like this?
Years for each one?
For each one.
Even amid a highly contentious and politicized atmosphere today concerning Muslims in America, the curators say this exhibition was long in the works, and the timing is coincidental.
For her part, Maria Dakake hopes it will shine a different kind of spotlight on Islam and the Quran.
You will hear sometimes Islamophobic comments about Islam. And they will say, well, you know, why would I want to know anything about this text? I see what kinds of things it produces, right? It produces people who behave in these violent ways or something like that.
But when you come here, you see the larger reality of what it produced, right? It produced beauty. It produced scientific inquiry. It inspired literary endeavors.
And in a time of Islamophobia, I think what's so valuable about this collection is to see the kind of artistic elements, the beauty that the Quran really brought.
"The Art of the Qur'an" is on exhibition through February.
From the Sackler Gallery in Washington, D.C., I'm Jeffrey Brown for the "PBS NewsHour."
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