Art of the Islamic Worlds, A proper representation of Islam and its effects on the eastern world

After having been under the weather for four days and unable to visit the “Art of the Islamic Worlds” exhibit in the MFAH, it wasn’t until I left class after my fifth period that I was able to step into the museum, determined to meet my deadline. After rubbing my hands together and reminding myself that cold weather is a thing in Houston, I took my admission ticket and began walking in the general direction of the exhibit. As I made my way towards the collection I thought deeply about what kind of representation the museum would put on Islam.

As a Muslim, I often find myself thinking about how poorly my religion is displayed in the public sphere. How is it that the media constantly misrepresents 1.8 billion people? Day in and day out news outlets and Instagram pages label Islam as a ‘religion of violence’ and Muslims as terrorists, warmongers, and all sorts of hurtful terms. Growing up I would hear my peers in middle school yell “Allahu Akbar” in the hallways while faking explosions, without knowing the sanctity of those words. In high school, I’m told by people who haven’t the slightest idea of what Islam is, that Muslims are intolerant and barbaric.

This has had a profound effect on me, pushing me to study Islam and seek out whatever little proper representation that it has in the western world. 

The opening piece of the entire collection was an ancient bronze door from Morocco. It was nothing grand or spectacular, in fact, it was quite the opposite. It was dull, worn, and oxidized from years of being exposed to open air now taking on a green hue. However, it was the Arabic inscription at the top of the door that made it so deserving of an opening piece for the exhibition. The makers of the door had embossed a hadith- a saying from the prophet Muhammad (PBUH) that read “And enter a person house through a proper door with humility and greetings of peace.” The spiritual profoundness pressed into the door, inviting the viewer as a guest to the collection, rid me of any feelings of misrepresentation that I had been harboring in my mind.

On display was a menagerie of Islamic art ranging from intricate calligraphy of the Quran -Isalm’s Holy Book- to bedazzled daggers and jewelry. Esteemed artists from China, India, Egypt, Morocco, and Spain all had at least one piece in this exhibit. It was so unlike what we see in the media which almost ties the definition and look of a Muslim to the Middle East. Here in this exhibit alone, I had the opportunity to view how Islam had woven itself into the cultures and art of people across the globe serving as a testament to the statement “Verily this (Islam) is no less than a message to all mankind.” (Surah Takwir: 27)

The pinnacle of this exhibit, and a majority of it, had to be calligraphy. Poems, hadiths, and even entire Qurans were gathered here from across the world. Calligraphy is seen as the fundamental form of Islamic art, people who partake in the art believe that beautifying the words, it brings an elevation of spirit to the reader. In this small collection, there were seven different styles of calligraphy starting with the original Kufic calligraphy from Northern Arabia to Nastaliq calligraphy from Iran.

Each stroke of each scripture was perfect. One could tell that there was a certain level of mastery these calligraphers had which separated them from other artists. All of it was so meticulous and so beautifully put together, even though I couldn’t understand the meanings of all the words, it resonated deep within my heart. Every time I looked down at one of the calligraphers’ works it would envelop me in a sort of serenity. I would end up looking at each one for many minutes at a time. As I slowly moved from one piece to the next, admiring with wide eyes the complex geometric patterns and shapes these great artists formed using Arabic letters, a harsh realization hit me. These works were hundreds of years old. These beautiful works of art were not from the era of Pablo Picasso, these were from the 14th century and earlier. It brought me back to the reality that was the current state of the Muslim world which was such a stark contrast to the work I was viewing. 

The Middle East is in constant turmoil, the Islamic golden age ended hundreds of years ago, and many of the countries which were once under Islamic rule underwent European colonization and are now considered third world countries that struggle with basic social infrastructure. Every time pictures come out of these areas it has to do with a problem they are undergoing. The refugee crisis, the mass genocide of Rohingya people in Myanmar, the illegal occupation of Palestine, and the concentration camps of Uyghur Muslims in China just to name a few. All these photos are so chaotic and desperate, seeing this time after time makes it easy for one to just assume the Islamic world has always been like this, in constant conflict with opposing groups, not a ‘refined civilization’, but what they often won’t see are things like this exhibit which showcase the richness and serenity of Islamic art and how it juxtaposes what the media portrays of Islam and its teachings. The way I was in awe of the letters ‘Alif Laam Meem’ written on a 14th century Quran from India was not how I reacted to seeing a little Syrian boy washed up on shore in Greece in 2019. 

These thoughts stayed with me as I came to the end of the exhibit which brought me viz a viz with Islamic Jewelry. The enormous 84.5-carat emerald engraved with the Aytul Kursi- a verse from the Quran that is recited for protection, was nothing short of marvelous. Various glass-blown vases set with sapphire and turquoise were jaw-dropping in their own right, their companions of heavy gold necklaces and coins also held considerable prestige. My favorite piece from amongst all the different works was a dagger from the Mughal Court. Its hilt was made of ivory which was then lined with gold in a floral design and its ends set with rubies, the part right before the heel of the blade was wrapped around with emeralds. It froze me in my tracks, the blade itself was likewise in an amazing condition having been so old. I couldn’t move my eyes away from it, there was something so hypnotic about how beautiful it was. 

Apart from the admirably detailed calligraphy and precious gem set jewelry, what struck me the most was the way almost every artist beautifully expressed God in their art. The exhibit had been fantastic, the descriptions provided were holistic of Islam and didn’t skew it one way or another, something that I greatly appreciated. As I ventured back out into the cold I was pleased with what the “Art of the Islamic Worlds” had to offer, and was left wishing I could’ve lived during the Islamic golden age to have seen all of this art unfold in front of me.