Monday, 23 July 2007
More than 160 masterpieces displayed at a London exhibition have taken the breath of art critics away and left them marveling
at the beauty and richness of the Islamic art.
“My thoughts turned immediately to the magnificent collection of Islamic art I had just seen back in London, at the Ismaili Centre, opposite the V&A. There are manuscripts in this show that took 20 years to paint,” art critic Waldemar Januszczak wrote Sunday, July 22, in the Times of Britain.
Januszczak was referring to the “Spirit & Life” exhibition, which opened at London’s Ismaili Centre on July 14 and runs through August 31.
The London tour is the collection’s first stop on a multi-leg journey that would land the masterpieces finally at the Aga Khan Museum, which will open in Toronto, Canada, in 2010.
Organized by Aga Khan, the spiritual leader of the Muslim Ismaili community, the fair displays Islamic masterpieces spanning from the ninth to the 19th century and collected from India to Morocco.
“There are manuscripts in this show that took 20 years to paint,” said Januszczak.
The art works range from textiles, miniatures and manuscripts, rare Qur’an copies, to figurative oil paintings, musical instruments and ceramics.
The masterpieces reveal the glamour of the Islamic culture.
“There are pieces of jewelry of such impossible intricacy that you cannot believe a human hand could ever have made itself small enough to fashion them,” noted Januszczak.
“In some of the Qur’ans, a single letter took a team of scribes a month to lay down. It was all done for the love of God.”
Among the exhibits is a page from the breathtaking “Blue Qur’an”, made in North Africa and dating back to the 10th Century.
Januszczak said master works like Van Gogh’s Starry Night and Michelangelo’s ceiling of the Sistine Chapel are dwarfed by this single page of the “Blue Qur’an.”
“The difference between all these and the Blue Koran is that they are easy to date, while this startling piece of 10th-century Islamic minimalism might have been finished yesterday,” he said.
Organizers hope the exhibition will clear misconceptions that Islam was poor in art and creativity.
Some of the audience admired a miniature of a poet, many highly decorated musical instruments and countless paintings of people playing on musical instruments.
“Music was an integral part of our culture,” Alnoor Merchant, the curator of the collection at London’s Ismaili Centre told the BBC.
“The notion that music was not allowed is a fallacy. Music and gamesmanship were a part of normal life.”
Aga Khan, owner of the unique collection, said the exhibition is dedicated to change the way people think about Islam.
“The essential problem, as I see it, in relations between the Muslim world and the West is a clash of ignorance,” the spiritual leader of nearly 15 million Ismaili Muslims living in some 25 countries around the globe, said in a recent speech.
He hopes that his collection will be an opportunity to open a dialogue and foster cultural understanding.
Merchant agreed that the exhibition has revealed dramatically the considerable lack of knowledge of the Muslim world in many Western societies.
“This exhibition seeks to show that Islam has a heritage that is a shared legacy,” he said.
“It is not about killing and suicide bombings.”
AMSI Net- Islamonline
For 50 years, an enigmatic billionaire has been a spiritual figurehead to millions of Ismaili Muslims. To celebrate, he’s showing off his art collection. Paul Vallely explores his wonderful world
Published: 14 July 2007
Amid the breath-taking collection of pieces from the previously unseen art collection of the Aga Khan which opens in London today – including an 11th-century bird incense burner, exquisite textiles and ceramics and ancient manuscripts finely decorated with gold and lapis lazuli – is a segment of a book by a man with two names.
Its title is The Canon of Medicine and it was a primary medical text for an extraordinary 500 years through Europe and the Middle East. The medieval scholars of Christendom called him Avicenna. But in his native Persia, the man who was the foremost physician, astronomer, logician, mathematician, philosopher, physicist, scientist and theologian, of his day was called Ibn Sina.
The days when two great cultures could lay common claim to such a sage seem long gone in our own age, when relations between Islam and the West are commonly characterised as a “clash of civilisations”. But the antidote to the sound and fury of our modern discourse may yet be found in the great storehouse of such art.
Certainly, the Aga Khan believes so. The man whose personal wealth is said to exceed $1bn is an anomalous figure. He is, on the one hand, a twice-married jet-setter who owns a chain of luxury hotels, an airline, mobile phone companies, hundreds of thoroughbred racehorses, valuable stud farms, an exclusive yacht club on Sardinia, a grand estate near Paris and more than 90 businesses employing more than 36,000 people. But he is also the spiritual leader of the world’s 15 million Ismaili Muslims who, in what is described as a dizzyingly complex system of tithes, pay him what is thought to be hundreds of millions of dollars a year.
The man who this week celebrated his 50th anniversary as Aga Khan has unconditional control of this massive fortune. Prince Karim Al Husseini, the 49th Imam of the Ismailis and the fourth Aga Khan, does enjoy the appurtenances of wealth, though one of his spokesmen this week, while conceding his boss did own two jets, pointed out that his car is only an Audi and that his yacht is 25 years old.
But the Aga Khan takes his duties as a religious leader seriously. Though his business portfolio is run for profit, most of his investment is in small and medium-size enterprises in Africa, India, Pakistan and the poorer parts of Asia, which he set up as engines of employment to promote economic self-reliance among the poorest people. And he runs the Aga Khan Development Foundation, the world’s largest private aid agency, which gives away $300m a year for rural development, education and healthcare in the developing world.
Now he wants to turn even his private art collection into an ethical instrument. “Political situations with a theological overlay are causing disaffection or antagonism between communities of the same faith, and even more so amongst different faiths,” he said, as the final touches were being put to the exhibition in the Ismaili Centre in London this week. “At the centre of this turbulence is Islam. We cannot let this continue.”
His exhibition, he hopes, will provide the opportunity for a more enlightened encounter and go some way to dispelling the “countless misconceptions and misunderstandings” between Islam and the West, a gap which did not gape so dangerously in the more tolerant time of Ibn Sina. Today, he said in a rare interview on American public radio, “knowledge of the different civilisations of the Islamic world, of the pluralism of that world, of the plurality of interpretations of Islam, is very, very shallow indeed, and is a significant contributor to misunderstanding.” This was true not just of non-Muslims but among many who hold the faith and who falsely believe that the beliefs of the world’s 1.4 billion Muslims “are all identical” when they are not.
That such sentiments are voiced by the leader of the world’s Ismailis is itself an indicator of the possibility of change. For his sect grows out of the very prototype of Islamist terrorism.
In the 7th century, Muslims split into the Sunni and the Shia, in a dispute over who should succeed the Prophet Mohamed. The Sunni wanted the caliph elected. The Shia insisted succession should remain within the direct line of the Prophet’s closest relatives. Sunnis placed the emphasis on primarily political and military leadership; the Shia emphasised the need for wisdom and spirituality. Eventually, the Shia themselves divided. Most, including the majority populations in Iran and Iraq, believe there was an unbroken line of 12 imams, the last of whom will return to usher in a reign of justice.
But the second biggest group, the Ismailis, trace their own leadership from the seventh imam, Isma’il bin Jafar, and believe a mystical teaching is passed down from one imam to the next. The present Aga Khan was a 20-year-old student at Harvard, when, in 1957, his grandfather nominated him (bypassing his two sons, including the playboy Aly Khan) as the 49th hereditary imam of the Shia Ismailis.
What historically defined the Ismailis was a mystic secret society known as the hashishinnya – from which we get our word assassin – whose members specialised in bold, politically motivated murders. Their targets were the Sunni rulers known as the Seljuks. Their aim was to kill only their target, without additional casualties, and they wanted to dispatch their victims in public. Rejecting poison, bows or other weapons which could allow the attacker to escape, they preferred daggers. They never committed suicide afterwards, preferring to be killed by the entourage of their victims.
They soon built up a fearsome reputation which inspired terror out of all proportion to their tiny numbers. They were led by Rashid Al-Din Sinan known to the Crusaders as “The Old Man of the Mountains”. The legends grew wild. The word hashishinnya was said to derive from reports that they took hashish before missions to calm themselves, boost their strength or turn them into madmen in battle. Modern scholarship discounts all this as sheer invention by bewildered opponents desperate to seek some convincing psychological explanation of the fearless zealotry of the assassins. There is no evidence to suggest hashish or any other drug was used in any systematic fashion.
But what is more remarkable is the way that the Ismailis then slowly transformed themselves into a different religious disposition. They became more mystical, seeing particular significance in different numbers, seven being a central one. They began to pray three times a day instead of five. But, most strikingly, they began to acculturate themselves into the different societies in which they found themselves as they spread across Asia and Africa, then Europe and North America.
Ismailis were crucial in translating the Greek texts of Plato and Aristotle into Arabic, preserving them when Western Europe lost the originals. Ibn Sina did not just produce that classic medical textbook but also a philosophy that profoundly influenced that of Thomas Aquinas and thus the whole of Western theology and philosophy. The Ismailis established the world’s oldest universities. Through them, agriculture, commerce, the arts, the sciences and philosophy flourished.
“The central trait of their long history is a remarkable tendency to acculturate to different contexts,” says Ali S Asani, a professor of Indo-Muslim languages and culture at Harvard. Today, though the Ismailis are but a small minority of Muslims – about 20 million, against 120 million Shia and more than a billion Sunnis worldwide – their influence is disproportionate.
It has brought them to an outlook on life which can act to bridge the chasm which some see between Islam and the West. “The role and responsibility of an Imam,” the Aga Khan said, “is to interpret the faith to the community, and also to do all within his means to improve the quality, and security of their daily lives.” At its heart is an active struggle for social justice and human development through wealth creation, one which extends beyond the Ismaili community itself into the wider societies in which it finds itself.
Through the Aga Khan Development Network, it works for reductions in global poverty, advancement of the status of women and the furthering of pluralistic values. It is involved in a great breadth of activities from disaster relief, basic healthcare, rural development, microlending to the poorest and the promotion of private enterprise to architecture, culture and the revitalisation of historic cities. It has more than 300 schools and 200 hospitals and clinics, and finances risky projects of which commercial investors fight shy. It is the biggest single investor in Afghanistan, with a $400m development portfolio there.
“If you travel the developing world, you see poverty is the driver of tragic despair,” the Aga Khan said. By assisting the poor in business “we are developing protection against extremism”.
His view of Islam, as a teacher of compassion, tolerance and upholder of the dignity of man strikes a very different note from the discordant voices of extremism. His exhibition of art, like his other works, will, he hopes, speak that truth more loudly still.
TORONTO (CP) – As Ismaili Muslims around the world mark the occasion Wednesday of the Aga Khan’s golden jubilee, Canadians among them are grateful not only for his guidance and leadership, but also for his assistance in helping them make their homes in Canada.
“We know from our parents and our grandparents the conditions under which we lived in East Africa, the conditions under which we had to flee Africa,” said Amir Karim, a Montreal volunteer with the Ismaili Council for Canada.
“And I think we are very thankful to His Highness that 35 years later we are here, we got ourselves a good education, careers, and are, most importantly, contributing back to the society which accepted us.”
The spiritual leader of the Ismailis is His Highness Prince Karim Aga Khan, who became the 49th hereditary Imam of the Shia Imami Ismaili Muslims on July 11, 1957, at age 20, following the death of his grandfather.
He’s well known beyond his religious community for his wealth and for his good works – the Aga Khan Development Network, or AKDN, a group of private, international and non-denominational agencies, spends more than US$320 million a year on social and cultural development activities, mostly in the poorest regions of Africa and Asia. Among the many honours bestowed on him is honorary companion of the Order of Canada.
The Aga Khan was born in Geneva, spent his early years in Nairobi, was schooled partly in Switzerland and graduated from Harvard University in 1959 after studying Islamic history.
He now resides in France and leads about 15 million Ismailis in about 25 countries, including a vibrant community of between 80,000 and 100,000 in Canada.
Karim said there were two major waves of migration to Canada.
“Idi Amin in Uganda had asked all residents of Indian descent to leave Uganda within a certain number of days. Ismailis had to find new homes, and so a number of them came to Canada in 1972-ish,” he said.
“The second big wave of immigration was in the early ’90s with the collapse of the Soviet Union. There are many, many Ismailis who live in central Asia, and some of them were fleeing the Taliban regime in Afghanistan.”
Eighty to 90 per cent of Muslims are Sunni, while 10 to 20 per cent are Shia, Karim said. Ismailis are Shias, and along with other Shia Muslims believe that after the death of the Prophet Muhammad, authority and leadership of the community was passed to his cousin and son-in-law, Ali, and would continue by heredity though Ali and his wife Fatima, the Prophet’s daughter.
“What characterizes Ismaili Muslims is that we consider the Aga Khan, the 49th direct descendant of the Prophet Muhammad, as our Imam, or spiritual leader,” Karim explained.
“This is not only a commemoration of 50 years of leadership, but it is also a commemoration or a reminder to ourselves, Ismailis, that this is 1,400 years of history.”
Karim said it’s part of Ismaili tradition to mark epochal events in the lives of their imams, and a time to reflect on their work.
Reena Lalji, a Toronto lawyer and volunteer with the Ismaili Council for Ontario, agreed.
“A very fundamental ethos of Islam is to give to the less fortunate, to help the less fortunate, to assist with the betterment of the lives of people around you,” she said. “And that’s what is being accomplished through the AKDN.”
Karim noted the importance of compassion and sharing.
“His Highness tells his community to always remember, not to think about ‘what have I achieved today?’ but ‘what have I helped others to achieve?”‘
A statement issued by the Aiglemont estate in France, headquarters of the AKDN, said jubilee celebrations “offer occasions to launch new social, cultural and economic development projects.”
An event in France marking the jubilee Wednesday will be private, but Karim and Lalji both expressed the hope that the Aga Khan’s travels in the coming year will bring him to Canada.
Jason Kenney, secretary of state for multiculturalism and Canadian identity, issued a statement recognizing the golden jubilee and encouraging Canadians to learn more about the Aga Khan’s “substantial contributions to international development, and the Canadian community’s very impressive achievements.”
Last October, the Aga Khan and Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced the federal government and the Aga Khan would each contribute $30 million to a new Global Centre for Pluralism in Ottawa.
The think-tank and research facility will be housed in the old Canadian War Museum.
The Aga Khan wants “to essentially export the Canadian values of pluralism and tolerance to other countries,” Lalji said.
The Aga Khan is also establishing a representative office on Sussex Drive in Ottawa, designed by architect Fumihiko Maki.
In addition, Toronto will be the site of the Aga Khan Museum, and a new Ismaili Centre with classrooms, a library and a prayer hall.
“The museum will contain works from the Aga Khan’s family collection, as well as other collections,” Lalji said.
The relationship between the federal government and the Aga Khan dates back about 25 years, when the Canadian International Development Agency, or CIDA, became involved with the network.
“I think by building such a strong presence in Ottawa, what His Highness is saying is that this relationship is ready to go to the next level,” said Karim.
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