The magic quill
Yasmin Khan explores whether public attitudes towards religion can be swayed through a new exhibition at the British Library
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Frontispiece to the Book of Isaiah. Gold carpet page with illuminated word panel on blue background. This Bible was completed in three volumes in 1482. Lisbon was one of the last great schools of Jewish art on the Iberian peninsula.
What is sacred to you? This profound line of questioning will be aroused in anyone who ventures to visit "Sacred", a new landmark exhibition recently launched at the British Library, one of the world's greatest research libraries. Showcased is an impressive array of the earliest and rarest ancient samples of holy texts from the Abarahamic faiths: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. This, apparently, is the first time that the British public will have privileged access to such a volume and range of priceless manuscripts at one sitting. The books are deservedly the stars of the show, with multiple debut appearances which feature some of the very first examples of the Torah, the Bible and the Quran.
The aspirations of the organisers are somewhat ambitious in striving to contribute towards a greater understanding of the three faiths in today's troubled world. The curators claim the chosen style of exhibition display to be an appropriate representation of modern civilisation; that of co-existence and an acknowledgement and appreciation of the interconnectivity that lies within it. The lavish selection of texts is intentionally juxtaposed side-by-side, avoiding categorisation into faith sections. It serves as a deliberate metaphor for society: if the most sacred of texts can be placed side by side then, surely, so can people? This may seem a naïve or far fetched tactic, but in fact the mode of line-up is entirely effective in enabling visitors to identify the many similarities that exist between the texts; resemblances which range from subtle to striking. Take, for example, the 15th-century Lisbon Hebrew Bible, a rich amalgamation of ornamental Hebrew lettering and decorated with intricate floral arabesque designs. The same combination is employed even earlier in the book of Psalms contained in the ninth-century First Gaster Bible. A sample from the 14th- century Palestinian set of Gospels written in Arabic offers further opportunity to enjoy the exquisite adornment of this Christian manuscript containing traditional carpet pages heavily influenced by Islam in its decoration, script and layout. Such cross-religious influences would have been bound to have permeated into other spheres of society, although this is not mentioned in this exhibition. What is made clear is that the artistic evolution of these texts demonstrates the crucial role that interconnectivity has played between the three main faiths, and that we all share a Jewish, Christian and Muslim heritage. Even more intriguing is the apparent ease and acceptance of this co-operative phenomenon in terms of how such cross- fertilisations were consciously normalised into the presentation of texts that have now come to be so highly revered.
The puritanical believer may worry about emphasis shifting to aesthetics rather than focussing on the meaning and substance of words. When probed about the possibility of early Muslims slipping into innovation or deviation by developing a fixation with décor and beatification of the Quran, Colin Baker, head of the Middle Eastern Collection at the British Library, is quick to jump to the defence of such an assertion, claming that these forms of illumination artistry were undertaken as an expression of piety. However, the exhibition has not resisted paying homage to our material culture; the display includes an extravagant gold shalwar kameez. This traditional wedding gown was worn 12 years ago by Jewish convert to Islam Jemima Goldsmith at her marriage to the former Pakistan cricket captain Imran Khan, which recently ended in divorce. Supposedly, this symbolic attire will lure in the curious folk who might be more tempted by a dashing of glitz and glamour on the wayside.
Many of the texts have been cleverly positioned to reveal the most flattering or eye- catching image. A particular text that one may choose to dwell on is Silos Apocalypse, which has an eerie resonance with a Neocon-style perspective. This late 11th- or early 12th-century copy of the Book of Revelations, named after the Silos in Spain, contains a vivid and dramatic illustration of the great dragon with seven heads and 10 horns let loose upon the world and being fought by St Michael and other angels. This image has been inventively interpreted by some as a contemporary reference to the spread of Islam. Clearly one cannot escape the political context of the exhibition.
In his latest Reith lecture, renowned economist Professor Jeffrey Sachs also spoke cautiously of the perceived fear of the rise of Islam in Europe. The approach he advises in order to handle this perceived anxiety is actively to seek ways of cultivating mutual trust. Contrast this rational viewpoint of building bridges with the highly contentious recent decision by the United States to construct a concrete wall around a Sunni enclave in the Iraqi capital, Baghdad.
The exhibition is certainly timely and offers much pause for thought concerning other key events such as the controversial alleged desecration of the Quran by US guards at Abu Ghraib perpetrated as a form of torture to prisoners. Similarly, one thinks of Nick Griffin, chief of the British National Party, who was acquitted last year of inciting hatred through instigating a vicious public tirade against the Quran. Could those leaning towards the far right movement learn a thing or two from the exhibition's core message of peaceful and respectful co-existence and interaction within and between faiths? The exhibition certainly goes some way in helping to convey that it is politics, not religion itself, that leads to conflict and war, but it will take more than a single exhibition to transform perceptions.
Perhaps we ought to take inspiration from the concept of La Convivencia ("the co-existence"), a notable feature of Spanish history from about 711 to 1492 -- concurrent with the Reconquista ("Reconquest") -- when Jews, Muslims and Catholics in Spain lived together in relative peace within the different kingdoms, demonstrating the interplay of cultural ideas between the three groups and manifesting ideas of religious respect and appreciation.
Since all three holy texts have stemmed from the East, there is little surprise that there is some element of an Orientalist slant detected in the exhibition narrative. However, the curators can be commended for their even-handedness in not consciously attempting to sanitise or romanticise the representation of texts, neither hinting any favour to their ascendancy. Although comprehensive and plentiful, the exhibition is not absolute as some significant texts are absent such as the controversial Gospel of Barnabus, believed by some to be the only true authentic gospel. It would have been wonderful to have been able to view one of the original versions, but visitors can resort to Amazon for now.
One does not need to subscribe to any particular belief in order to appreciate the artistry and craftsmanship involved in the production of these sacred texts. Yet admittedly, this may not automatically render a genuine respect for the existence and essence of all faiths. Nevertheless, the rich programme of supporting events taking place at the British Library over the summer period will allow the public to interact and engage fully and reflect on the raison d'être of the exhibition.
The official inauguration was attended by patrons and dignitaries including the husband of the British Queen Elizabeth, the duke of Edinburgh, and Prince Moulay Rachid on behalf of Mohamed VI, king of Morocco. The impetus for the exhibition was initially triggered by a proposal from the Moroccan British Society, which is of the key sponsors along with the Coexist Foundation and Saint Catherine Foundation; these donors are representative of the three faiths. The original concept has taken three arduous years to reach fruition as an exhibition and to use some of the libraries' own collections and loans from across the globe.
"Sacred" is part of the library's long-term plans to feature other major world faiths which are represented within its collections. Graham Shaw, head of the Asia, Pacific and Africa Collections, acknowledges that this is precisely the sort of exhibition of which the US in particular is in dire need, and he hopes to see parts of the temporary exhibition subsequently touring the Atlantic in the future and possibly other parts of the world, including the Emirates and the Middle East. It will take some time to gauge exactly how successful the exhibition has been in terms of impacting on visitors, but what is certain is that the subject of the role of faith in modern society is proving to be an enduring theme and that exhibitions like this are pivotal in promoting dialogue and understanding of current news issues which effect us all. One sole exhibition by itself won't pave the way to global harmony, but it might remind us to want to.
Yasmin Khan currently works in the UK museum sector and was previously project manager for 1001 Inventions.
For more information about the British Library's free exhibition "Sacred: Discover what we Share", the accompanying book and programme of events visit: www.bl.uk/sacred.