The Quran: Form, Fragrance & Feeling
Exploring the Quran through manuscripts, artefacts, recorded sound, and contemporary art from artists Mobeen Akhtar, Ubaydullah Ahmad, Veeda Ahmed, Jethro Buck, Samantha Buckley, Jung Byun, Khulood Da’mi, Elisabeth Deane, Yasmin Hayat, Rizwan Ahmed Khan, Saad Qureshi, Masako Newton, and Daryoush Mohammad Poor. Exhibition fragrance created by Alessandro Cancian.
22 September 2023 – 20 May 2024
Does not the Quran challenge the artist, as much as the mystic, to go beyond the physical — the outward — and to seek to unveil that which lies at the centre but gives life to the periphery?
Shah Karim al-Husayni, Aga Khan IV
The impact of the Quran on the history of the Muslim world is astonishing. It has been, and remains, an inexhaustible source of intellectual and spiritual reflection as well as the inspiration behind a vast corpus of literature, poetry and art. Describing its unique place in global history, one of the Quran’s contemporary translators has called it an “axial text” because of its distinct role in shaping not only the history of Islam but also the contours of spoken and written languages and cultures around the world. With its reticence toward figurative art, the script of Arabic itself has been developed into a highly sophisticated and beautiful art that endeavours to convey the sublime majesty of the Quran. Elaborate and refined variations of the script have also been used to decorate ritual and domestic objects as well as providing a rich vocabulary for architectural decoration.
In the early days of Islam, the form of the Quran was neither static nor fixed. The context and dynamism of the revelation of the text of the Quran in Mecca and Medina tell us that its rhetorical style, poetry, and the awe-inspiring beauty of its phraseology and vivid imagery were almost as deeply valued as the Quran’s universal, ethical and moral content. This Quran’s evocative language as well as its sacred character have given rise to the emergence of numerous calligraphic and visual arts, and the Quran was often copied and adorned by skilled craftsmen and artists using the most valuable materials available.
The Quran: Form, Fragrance & Feeling embraces this complexity and explores the axial power of the Quran by focusing on three ways in which Muslims have engaged with the sacred text across time. As these dimensions of experience transcend time and place, their forms are as diverse as the world of Islam. The exhibition brings together a selection of objects, artefacts, artworks, and a recording that emphasise the Quran’s spiritual force, its divine language, and its diversity of expression. The exhibition brings into conversation items from the Aga Khan Library, the Ismaili Special Collections Unit, and a facsimile of leaves from the famed Blue Quran from the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto, as well as items from private collections. These are contrasted by contemporary artworks inspired by the Quran, and the exhibition showcases a variety of artistic expressions from painting, wood-block carving and printing to textiles and ceramics. From manuscripts, pendants, and prayer mats, to seals, scrolls, and domestic objects, the exhibits in this exhibition encourage the viewer to reflect on the ways in which the Quran exists beyond the page.
The Quran: Form, Fragrance, and Feeling is designed as an inseparable union of historical and contemporary art and artefacts. The design of the gallery is inspired by the pages of a manuscript of the Quran, the patterns and motifs around the space are reminiscent of decorative divisions often used to adorn copies of the Quran and these are perfectly represented in the work of artist Mobeen Akhtar. Gold lines travel across the gallery walls, as a nod to those seen in the pages of illuminated manuscripts of the Quran.
Upon entering the gallery visitors are greeted by the most significant phrase in Islam: Bi-smi llāhi al-raḥmān al-raḥīm. The bismalah, also called basmalah or tasmiyyah, is the titular name of the phrase In the Name of God, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful (بِسْمِ ٱللَّٰهِ ٱلرَّحْمَٰنِ ٱلرَّحِيمِ). It is used by Muslims the world over before starting daily actions, such as eating or performing good deeds, and during prayer and, of course, when reading or reciting the Quran. Below the Arabic text and English translation is a piece of intricate goldwork embroidery of the same phrase by textile artist Jung Bung.
A highlight of this exhibition is an image of a striking leaf of the ‘Blue Quran’ from the collections of the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto, Canada, illuminated by a light box. Undoubtedly one of the most distinctive manuscripts of the Quran, its name derives from its unique appearance – fifteen lines of angular gold calligraphy exquisitely scribed on dark blue parchment. Known to scholars since the beginning of the twentieth century, the Blue Quran has an uncertain origin. Pages from this manuscript, which was probably produced between the ninth and tenth centuries, have been variously attributed to Iran, Iraq, Tunisia, Sicily, and Spain.
Inspired by the herbs and flowers mentioned in the Quran, as well as the scents of the context in which it was revealed, Dr Alessandro Cancian has crafted a unique oud fragrance for the exhibition, gesturing towards the mesmerising yet elusive quality of Quranic recitation. The fragrance surrounds Saad Qureshi’s Silent Quran, twenty-nine graphite drawings depicting verses from the Quran with only the decorative borders and accents of the original text – the words themselves are missing. In contrast to the Blue Quran that displays only the shapes of the letters with no diacritics, Saad Qureshi’s work shows only text’s diacritics, thereby confronting the viewer with absence rather than presence, and bestowing the work with a cryptic and even puzzling character. To a learned Quran reader or scholar, however, the words may be invisible, but they are nonetheless present and illuminated by the soul. The exhibits themselves, displayed in a space lightly perfumed with Cancian’s exquisite fragrance, are further complemented by some of the sound of a twentieth-century audio recording of Quranic recitation, recorded in Egypt on vinyl records and providing a gentle backdrop of the sublime aural qualities of the Quranic revelation.
Various artists whose practice, interests, or style are inspired by, or connected to, the artistic traditions of Islam, have been invited to contribute to this exhibition. Some respond to key items in our collection while others to the overall theme. The textile artists Masako Newton and Jung Bung, both alumni of the Royal School of Needlework, have embellished the display of printed books and objects in a way that reimagines the traditional decorations of the Quran in new ways. Newton’s beautiful manuscript ‘snakes’ and Bung’s expertly embellished cushions help us to see how the beauty of an object, or the illumination of a manuscript, extends beyond its shape or the borders of its pages.
Several artists are alumni of the Prince’s Foundation School of Traditional Arts, including Veeda Ahmed, whose intricate graphite and 24-karat shell gold drawing of wings suggest a more spiritual connection to her subject. They are quietly poised between Daryoush Mohammad Poor’s calligraphy, which captures the first words of the Quran revealed to the Prophet Muhammad by the Archangel Gabriel: Read, in the name of your Lord!
Illumination artist and ceramicist Yasmin Hayat has made a series of plates inspired by traditional Islamic pottery. She has collaborated with calligrapher Rizwan Ahmed Khan on the Quranic texts adorning the plates that include verses or phrases such as light upon light and I am near.
A comprehensive learning programme will accompany this exhibition, facilitated by the Quranic Studies Unit at the Institute of Ismaili Studies, London, in collaboration with the Department of Theology & Religious Studies at King’s College London.
The Quran: Form, Fragrance, & Feeling is a collaboration between the Aga Khan Centre Gallery, the Aga Khan Library, the Institute of Ismaili Studies, the Ismaili Special Collections Unit augmented with a number of loan items from private collections. This multi-sensory exhibition includes materials to entice, intrigue and inspire audiences of all ages and we hope bring a sense of wonder to those who engage with its subject matter, and with the forms, fragrance and feelings it may provoke.