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Volume 27, Number 3May/June 1976

In This Issue

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The World of Islam

Its Festival

Written by John Sabini
Photographed by Peter Keen

In London this spring, Queen Elizabeth II opened the World of Islam Festival, a unique cultural event that in concept and in scale was no less than an attempt to present one civilization—in all its depth and variety—to another.

As far as anyone can remember, such an attempt had never been made before—and probably could not have been. It is only recently that one civilization has been capable of looking at another civilization objectively, rather than as a potential rival or convert. It is only within the last generation or two that Western scholars have developed and applied the principles and techniques of research necessary to reach a deep understanding of other peoples. And it is only in the 20th century that technology has enabled scholars in distant lands to reach each other swiftly, to find, pack and transport thousands of rare and delicate treasures and to provide recordings, films and transparencies. In sum, the Festival required an unusual unity in philosophy, psychology and technology.

Unity, indeed, was the key to the Festival's aesthetic success. For although it was a sweeping panorama of historic, geographic and artistic diversity, it was also a model of simplification and unification. As in the form of Islamic art called the arabesque, a handful of themes appeared and reappeared, turned back on themselves, intertwined with one another and, by reinforcing each other, imposed a recognizable unity on the whole Festival—a unity that is the central idea of Islam and that runs like a bright thread through 1,300 years of diverse art, science and society.

This unity was achieved by an enormous logistical effort that raised $4 million, won the backing of 32 Muslim nations, patiently accumulated 6,000 objects from 250 public and private collections in 30 different countries and organized 162 lectures and 50 days of academic seminars involving scores of scholars from many nations. It was also achieved by the support and help offered by most of the world's great museums and many of its universities, some in regions divided in matters of politics and economics. It was an extraordinary undertaking and its success, as Festival director Paul Keeler said, represented "a unique collaboration between scholars, institutions and governments from both the Islamic world and the West."

More than any other individual, Paul Keeler was in the best position to appreciate that collaboration. For it was Mr. Keeler who, in 1964, conceived and proposed the idea of presenting Islamic civilization from an Islamic point of view and who later, in 1971, arranged a small exhibition of Islamic art in London as a sort of rehearsal. In 1973 Mr. Keeler was also the mainspring in the formation of the World of Islam Festival Trust, which thereafter played a central role in the Festival planning and organization.

The Trust took direct charge of some programs, supervised its admirable series of publications and, perhaps most importantly, enlisted the support of the cultural institutions whose facilities and collections were crucial.

Most of those institutions were British. They included the British Museum and the British Library, the Arts Council of Great Britain, the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Hayward Gallery, the Horniman Museum, the Science Museum, the Museum of Mankind, the Royal Scottish Museum, the Architectural Association, the Commonwealth Institute, the Albert Hall, the Royal Festival Hall, museums in the cities of Manchester, Sheffield and Durham, the Inner London Educational Authority and the BBC. The universities notably included Oxford, Cambridge, London, Manchester, Warwick, Durham, Exeter, Edinburgh, the School of Oriental and African Studies and the Polytechnic of Central London.

But many institutions elsewhere participated as well: the Metropolitan Museum of New York, the National Art Gallery of Washington, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, the Cleveland Museum of Art, the Seattle Art Museum, the St. Louis Art Museum, the Art Institute of Chicago and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in the United States; the Hermitage Museum, the Academy of Sciences and the State Library in the USSR; the Bibliotheque Nationale and the Louvre in France; the Museum of Islamic Art and the National Library in Egypt; the Bastan Museum, the Imperial Library and the Imam Riza Library and Museum in Iran; museums in both the Germanys; and museums, galleries and libraries in Austria, Canada, Denmark, Greece, Hungary, Iraq, Italy, Lebanon, The Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Syria and Tunisia.

From the often rich collections and information stored in those institutions the five broad programs of the Festival were slowly developed: the array of exhibitions mounted in London and elsewhere in Britain—five or six of them major contributions in their fields, another two score of more specialized significance; the publications program—linked closely to the exhibitions; the educational and academic program, which provided background for the events of the Festival; the films program—designed to introduce the World of Islam to a wide audience through television; and the performing arts—Koranic recitations, readings from the literature of Islam, and concerts of classical music from the Islamic world.

Among the exhibitions, the main event of the Festival was certainly "The Arts of Islam" at the Hayward Gallery (See page 14). A stunning array of 650 objects ranging from carpets to rock crystal, calligraphy to metal-work, the Hayward exhibit skillfully combined beauty and variety by displaying some of the objects thematically, rather than chronologically or by place of origin. In one large, introductory room, four basic elements of Islamic design—calligraphy, geometrical pattern, the arabesque and the figurative—were outlined and exemplified so clearly that visitors could easily follow the threads of these elements through the rest of the exhibit.

One problem at the arts exhibit was how to show architecture, the art in which Islam excels. For although some architectural details—doors, decorated beams, stone capitals—were presented, entire buildings, obviously, could not be moved from their sites. To solve the problem, the Hayward Gallery constructed a large enclosed cube with a small theater inside and on a multiple screen projected more than 800 photographs. In an unusual audiovisual display, the theater showed entire buildings with their details and their surroundings, some filling the entire screen, some sharing it with other details. The effect was kaleidoscopic and showed the range of Islamic architecture down the centuries and across the globe.

Another major exhibition, the first of its kind ever held, was that on "Science and Technology in Islam" at the Science Museum, which was opened by the Empress of Iran (See page 28). As the exhibit attempted to show its subject as part of the totality of Islamic knowledge and culture, no distinction was made between the pure sciences, applied technology and the so-called occult sciences. The 400 items on loan included scientific instruments, celestial globes, astrolabes, contemporary manuals, maps, simple tools, an Arab sailing vessel and models of such technical devices as waterwheels and water clocks.

In the King's Library at the British Museum, the Festival also offered a magnificent display of more than 140 Koranic manuscripts representing every period and region of Islam (See page 10). Opened by the rector of al-Azhar University in Cairo, a leading center of modern Koranic studies in the Islamic world, the King's Library exhibit brought together Korans from widely divergent sources: Tunisia, which is particularly rich in Korans from the earliest period; Egypt, with Korans of the Mamluk period, when the art of illumination reached the height of its development; and Iran, with a group of 22 Korans including Persian, Mongol and Timurid examples.

Music, not usually considered as the strongest part of Islamic culture, also received considerable attention. In the Horniman Museum in South London, musicologists mounted a display of fiddles, lutes, trumpets, lyres, zithers, drums, flutes and cymbals, in all about 200 musical instruments (See page 22). Collected in 21 Islamic countries over the past two years, many of them were visual works of art, lovingly carved, inlaid and polished by master craftsmen. But as instruments, unlike children, are meant to be heard, not seen, the Horniman also added stereophonic recordings of music made on the instruments, organized a series of concerts featuring the four main schools of Islamic classical music—Arab, Persian, Turkish and Indian—and sold records made over the past 15 years by the organizers of the exhibition. Recorded among pearl fishers in the Arabian Gulf, fellahin on the banks of the Nile, Afghani mountaineers and Pakistani farmers, the records include such touches of authenticity as birdsong, windblown sand and the tinkle of teacups.

Two other fine exhibits were mounted at the Victoria and Albert Museum and the Commonwealth Institute. The Victoria and Albert, England's "attic," dug into its own incomparable collection and with some loans from France mounted a quietly restrained exhibition, "Persian Metalwork," with trays, bowls, ewers, candlesticks and lamps of subdued elegance. The Commonwealth Institute, located in Holland Park, focused on the exuberant "Arts of the Hausa," who, with 25 million souls, are the dominant group in parts of Nigeria, Niger and Chad. Introduced to Islam over five centuries ago, the Hausa decorate their houses, calabash food bowls and clothing with swirling and jagged designs, sometimes in subtle beige on white, sometimes in indigo, sometimes in a rainbow of colors. Many of the men's robes, embroidered in five or six primary colors, might have been designed by Picasso in a particularly extravert mood and the entire exhibit seemed lit by a blazing African sun.

No Islamic festival, of course, could ignore Oriental carpets, the form of Islamic art best known and appreciated in the West. The Hayward Gallery, therefore, presented examples of superb carpets—and other textiles—from throughout the Islamic world, while two other exhibitions, both outside London, focused on special groups of rugs. One, at the Whitworth Art Gallery in Manchester, covered the rugs of the Qashqa'i, the most prosperous of the Persian nomads. Woven with the Turkish rather than the Persian knot, Qashqa'i rugs are geometric in design and run to subtle combinations of shades of blue, cream, burnt orange, yellow, mushroom and brown. The other exhibition, at the Mappin Art Gallery in Manchester, concentrated on examples of weaving from the area near Kirman in Central Persia, showing examples of fine craftsmanship and gorgeous colors from the 16th and 17th centuries.

One particularly unusual facet of Islamic art—figurative painting—was revealed in an exhibition of "Paintings from the Muslim Courts of India," at the British Museum. Figurative painting flourished in the Mogul courts of the 16th and 17th centuries when painters there combined Persian and Turkish techniques with local styles and even drew upon Renaissance paintings and engravings. Unprecedented in Islam, this style produced illustrations of historical episodes, romantic tales, Persian poetry, Sanskrit epics and even portraiture. Although Islamic in pattern, color, line and silhouette, they also introduced European perspective, shading, and atmosphere to produce curious but charming results.

One of the more picturesque of the exhibitions—"Nomad and City"—permitted visitors to stand in a Bedouin encampment and stroll through a marketplace in the ancient walled city of San'a in South Arabia, enjoying the sights and sounds—and even some of the smells—of another world, all within the Museum of Mankind, a department of the British Museum (See page 24). Concentrating on the distaff side, Shelagh Weir, organizer of the nomad exhibit, included a loom, examples of cooking utensils and weaving, the nomad's only art form. But she also included the paraphernalia of coffee brewing and drinking, traditionally a male prerogative, and added articles of clothing and jewelry which the nomads have to purchase in a town. In this exhibit, the town, just a step away, was a photomural leading into a reconstructed street complete with shops selling spices, grains, baskets and daggers, and recorded street sounds. Other scenes of daily life in San'a have been reconstructed and furnished as well—a kitchen, a sitting room, the corner of a mosque, and the atmosphere of a hammam, or public bath, all collected and organized by scholars from the Middle East Center, Cambridge.

This by no means exhausts the list of exhibitions held during the Festival. The Islamic arts of war were deployed at the Artillery Museum at Woolwich and a gallery in Manchester. The Royal Scottish Museum in Edinburgh showed the decorative arts of 19th-century Iran, and Oxford's Ashmolean Museum showed Islamic themes in European art. Photographic displays at various galleries revealed Islamic architecture in Libya and Iran, the face of Oman, and 19th-century life in Isfahan. Contemporary Islam was covered in a display of arts and crafts organized by the Arab Women's League, one on modern mosques in the Commonwealth, and an exhibition at Durham University devoted to economic and industrial development in Islamic countries.

The exhibitions, however, made up just one of the Festival's broad programs. The other four were equally important and two of them—the publications (See page 7) and films program—may eventually reach a much wider audience. The heart of the film program was a series of six half-hour films shown initially on BBC television at 8:30 p.m. weekly, during April and May. Shot on location throughout the length and breadth of Islam over a period of two years, the films and exhibitions were constructed neither geographically nor chronologically, but according to themes expressing the unity of Islam.

The first in the series presented some of the basic ideas of Islamic civilization and set it in its geographical and historical background. Composed like a mosaic, the film focuses on religious unity amid geographical diversity, an idea strikingly visualized by scenes of the Ka'bah in Mecca intercut with a series of shots of worshippers falling on their knees in ever-widening lines throughout the world. Others in the series—films on science, the arts, the interdependence of nomad and city, and the mystical path within Islam known as Sufism—were equally striking and one, on science, was, in an ecology-minded era, especially arresting. In featuring shots of windmills and waterwheels, dams and irrigation canals, ice-domes and wind-towers, it emphasized the Muslims' traditional use of self-renewing natural resources.

Now that the Festival is over, producers Richard Price and Stephen Cross plan to translate the sound tracks and adapt the six shows into a feature film for worldwide distribution. As Mr. Price is also the distributor of the best-selling Upstairs, Downstairs, the prospects for The Traditional World of Islam reaching a worldwide audience are promising.

The educational program was also a bid to reach those who presumably knew little about Islam—secondary and college students and teachers—while the academic program dealt with those who know a great deal, the specialists who are themselves the greatest contributors in that field. The educational program got off to a head start during the academic year 1975-1976 with courses and lectures at the schools themselves, at the School of Oriental and African Studies and at the Commonwealth Institute in London. The program also prepared, and displayed at such institutions, teaching materials, book lists and sources of films and filmstrips. The Festival Trust itself, in collaboration with the University of Chicago Press, is also arranging to get every one of the 6,000 objects on display during the Festival on film, for sale on a nonprofit basis throughout the world.

The academic program was even more impressive. Nine major British universities and five museums supported it and participating scholars were world renowned—scholars like Sir Steven Runciman, author of the monumental History of the Crusades, Richard Ettinghausen of the Metropolitan Museum of New York, and others first in their fields from Australia, Germany, France, Egypt, Turkey, Malaysia, Syria, Pakistan, Kuwait, Lebanon and the United States. At one point lectures on Islamic doctrines and practice, law, history, literature, Islam and the Crusades, Islam and the Renaissance, and Islam and the modern West were filling halls all over London and other cities in Britain.

Given the renown of the participants, the conferences and symposia accompanying the Festival provided a rich intellectual harvest. Among the most interesting were an international colloquium on the Islamic city organized by UNESCO at Cambridge University, a colloquium on Islamic coins by the Royal Numismatic Society and a symposium on Islam in the Balkans at the University of Edinburgh. Durham University provided a conference on modern developments in Islam entitled "The World of Islam Changes Itself," and the School of Oriental and African Studies organized an international conference on Oriental carpets, the first ever to be held in Europe.

Two international congresses were also held in conjunction with the Festival. One was "Islam and the Challenge of Our Age," organized by the Islamic Council of Europe and opened by Prince Muhammad ibn Faisal of Saudi Arabia. The other was called "Aspects of Islamic Studies" and was organized by the Supreme Council of Islamic Affairs in Cairo. There were numerous gatherings of learned societies: The Royal Asiatic Society on South Arabian languages, the Anglo-Hellenic League on Byzantium and Islam, the British School of Rome on two Muslim towns in Italy, the Pakistani Society on Sufism and the Royal Society for Asian Affairs on Islam and the British.

The fifth of the broad programs—the performing arts—dealt with aspects of Islamic culture that may be less abstruse but are rarely accessible in the West. During the Festival, therefore, the directors organized such unusual performances as recitations of poetry translated from Arabic, Persian, Turkish and Urdu; Koranic readings by two famous cantors from Cairo; and a series of exotic concerts that included virtuosos on the 'ud, ancestor of the European lute; Turkish musicians performing classical music of the 13th to the 19th century, a Moroccan orchestra playing the music of Muslim Spain and, perhaps the best known in the West, the Indian musician Mahmud Mirza on the sitar.

Unquestionably, the full intellectual effects of the Festival will be delayed. Yet even as it opened it was clear that it would certainly have an impact. The prestige newspapers— The Times, The Guardian, The Financial Times, The Observer, The Sunday Times —were offering features and special supplements on Islam, television was giving Festival events wide coverage, the international art reviews Apollo and Connoisseur, published in Britain, had devoted entire issues to the Islamic arts, publications as far apart as Vogue, Reader's Digest and the left-wing Time Out were coming out with feature stories, and it was a rare publisher's book list that didn't contain at least one title this season touching on the Islamic world.

There was a commercial impact as well. Islamic art, already big business in England, registered a measurable upturn. April art magazines showed 24 fine art galleries advertising Islamic wares and the two major art auctioneers in Britain—Sotheby's and Christie's—held week-long sales devoted to Islamic art. At one of them a bidder paid a record $130,000 for a north Persian "shrub" carpet. Still further afield, designers of textiles and wallpapers were ferreting through the exhibitions for fresh patterns and colors, and one large department store clocked in with a line of spring neckties in Islamic designs—a far cry, no doubt, from the intellectual goals of Paul Keeler and the Festival Trust, yet a natural part of their more basic aim: the furtherance of knowledge of the World of Islam.

This article appeared on pages 2-4 of the May/June 1976 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for May/June 1976 images.