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First Impressions

Ivory sundial and Qibla pointer, made by Bayram b. Ilyas. Turkey, 1582-3 © The Trustees of the British Museum.

By Roger Harrison |Arabnews.com | 25 Jan 2012

In the center of one of the grandest entrances to any museum anywhere, that of the Great Court of the British Museum, stands the monolithic circular tower of the Reading Room. Working on a design by Sydney Smirke (1798–1877), work on the Reading Room, which stands at the heart of the museum, began in 1854.

Three years later, in 1857, it was completed. It was soon acclaimed as one of the great sights of London and became a world famous center of learning. In 2000, it underwent complete restoration.

It is fitting in several different ways that the current Haj exhibition should be mounted there quite apart from the fact that the museum is one of the most respected in the world.

Its circular construction resonates with a central image of Islam, the circumambulation of the devout around the Kaaba. The journey through the exhibits follows a circular path and leads the visitor past the exhibits, both large and small, that make up the collection.

The Reading Room’s history as a center of learning parallels that of Makkah and the Holy Haram as a center of Islamic learning that, as with the largely secular learning once housed in the reading room, has spread over the world.

Moreover, the Reading Room is a closed space, silent and with no diversions that might be caused by the mass of visitors who circumambulate the building in the Great Court.

This provides a stillness and centeredness that focuses the mind of the visitor onto the carefully presented and beautifully lit exhibits.

Entering the exhibition space, the visitor suddenly emerges into the lobby to the main body of the exhibition — silent and vast. Dominating the entrance is a magnificent sitara, made in 2003 and a gift to the sanctuary in Makkah from the late King Fahd. It has been loaned for the exhibition by the King Abdul Aziz Public Library, partners to the British Museum for the exhibition.

Made from silk and intricately embroidered with silver and silver-gilt wire, the sitara stands approximately 3.5 meters wide by 6.4 meters high, and under the skillfully placed lighting, the intricate calligraphy glows against the night-black of the cloth. As a background to the cloth, the first few phrases of the call to prayer drift from concealed speakers and add to the experience. The magnificence of the sitara and the calm cadences of the call combine to make both a bold announcement and a gentle introduction to the visitor and, especially for non-Muslims, it is a proclamation of the peace and power of faith.

Moving into the body of the exhibition, it takes a while to appreciate the significance and historical importance of some of the exhibits. Interestingly, it is not always the large and impressive ones that carry most weight. Rather, their effect on the observer depends on the visitor’s knowledge and cultural viewpoint.

An example might be a beautifully carved Qibla compass made of ivory and engraved with the metrics essential to establish the direction for prayer. At first casual glance, it is a simple enough device, basic construction and uncomplicated to operate.

On reflection, this unspectacular item is the apex of a pyramid of huge amounts of research, astronomical and mathematical learning applied to the task of prayer. It is applied mathematics in its purest sense, and all driven by faith and the need for precision and accuracy of observance of its rituals.

In its day and cultural context, it was probably as remarkable in its development and function as a GPS was to the modern traveler just a decade ago. The astrolabe on display in the exhibition made in 1327 (Gregorian) by Ali ibn Ibrahim Al Harrar in Morocco is a relatively complex instrument, and in its day, fired the imagination of those in the West who came across one.

Geoffrey Chaucer’s “Treatise on the Astrolabe,” for example, written to explain the device’s complexities to his 10-year-old son Lewis, is a seminal piece of English literature and is regarded as the first piece of technical writing in English. Chaucer described it; he didn’t invent it. To best understand the depth of the exhibition, it requires a little knowledge and a sense of awe. To Muslims, it will surely be a celebration of their history and the cultural importance of their religion and its central tenets.

To non-Muslim visitors with little or no knowledge of Islam other than declarations in the popular press it will, if they get through the door and read the annotations with each exhibit, leave with a sense that the sometimes two dimensional portrayal of the religion is meaningless and horribly inaccurate.

The richness of culture, the quality of the artifacts on show and the devotion to a philosophy of peace that produced them is impressive and, Insha’alla, they will leave with the thought that there is more to Islam than ever they thought.

If that is achieved, then the exhibition has more than justified itself.



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