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June 2003

Faith in Art

The pervasive influence of Islam

The current conflicts in the Middle East—from the unresolved problems in Afghanistan and the instability in Iraq, to the unremitting violence between Palestinians and Israelis—have created an increased interest in the Islamic faith and the Muslim world. For those who would like to gain a better understanding of this religion, the exhibition “Nahrung für die Seele: Welten des Islam” (Food for the Soul: Islamic Worlds) currently showing at the Staatliches Museum für Völkerkunde, gives visitors an excellent introduction (every room has texts in English, describing the items on display).

Though the word “Islam” has been variously defined, most interpretations revolve around the idea of “devotion to God” or “submission to the will of God” and this is underlined by the five pillars of the Islamic faith: shahada, the declaration of faith; salat, prescribed ritual prayer; zakat, voluntary charity; sawm, fasting in the month of Ramadan; and hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca. The all-encompassing nature of Islam, its religious aspects as well as its influence on social structures, lifestyle and art are dealt with in this three-room exhibition.

Beautifully painted, glazed tiles in cobalt blue, turquoise and white cover the facade of a mosque—the first exhibit to greet the visitor. From Multan, a city in central Pakistan, the tiles date from the mid-17th century and are laid out as panels and decorated in thuluth—a particularly ornate style of Islamic calligraphy—with quotations from the Koran. As the theme of this room is faith and prayer most of the objects on display are of a devotional nature: colorful prayer rugs, clay flacons used to carry water home from the holy well, Zamzam at Mecca, and a miniature copy of the Koran, folded concertina-fashion into a tiny gold box.

The focus of the second room is on art. “God is beautiful and loves beauty,” says the Prophet Muhammad: a phrase that may well have inspired the craftsmen who created the exquisite collection of pottery, metalwork, miniatures and carpets on show here. Examples of Islamic art, ranging from the 9th to the 19th century, are grouped in four display cases, the central themes of which are calligraphy, floral and geometric ornamentation and figural imagery. Visitors looking for naturalistic illustration, which plays such an important role in Western art, will be disappointed. Naturalism was generally frowned upon by Muslims as imitating the work of the divine creator. Instead a characteristic feature of Islamic art is to cover the entire surface of objects with patterns. One nod to Western art can, however, be found in a miniature of the Mogul emperor Jahangir (1529–1627), a style of painting that was influenced by European miniatures of the time. Capturing the very essence of the Orient is a 17th-century palace window from India. Elaborate latticework cut in stone once served to provide a kind of simple air conditioning in summer, as well as protection from prying eyes, and demonstrates how the artistic and the practical were combined for the best possible results.

For many visitors the third room may well prove to be the highlight of this exhibition. Based on the regional culture of the Punjab in Pakistan, this space is given over to the everyday culture of Muslim life. A 19th-century white stone pavilion, once the property of a distinguished nobleman and cleverly lit here so that its filigree outline is reflected on the blue walls, stands near an intricately carved oriel window, which in turn faces a large room, complete with a bed, a canopy and table and all the other minutiae of an early 20th-century Muslim home. Even an elaborate rosewood door has been included, a construction that though covered with the minutest carvings looks sturdy enough to repel even the most determined intruder. Also shown in this part of the exhibition are a small cemetery with funeral steles and a two-wheeled bullock cart with disk wheels, still used as a means of transport in the lowlands of Pakistan today.

“Nahrung für die Seele: Welten des Islam” is an exhibition that can be enjoyed at two levels: as a fascinating display of decorative Islamic art, and as the first step to understanding the religion itself. Whatever your reason for visiting the exhibition, you will find it an enriching experience.
“Nahrung für die Seele: Welten des Islam” is showing at the Staatliches Museum für Völkerkunde until January 11, 2004. Open Tues.-Sun. 9:30 am-5:15 pm. For more information visit

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