Power and Protection – Islamic Art and the Supernatural

Cleo Cantone reports on a current exhibition at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford - Through15 January 2017

“The fear of death shall avail nothing, nor [shall avail] attachment of amulets and blue necklaces,” wrote al-Isfahani in the tenth century.

While the idea that aspects of the future could be disclosed by God was not uncommon in medieval Islam, today such a belief largely belongs to the realm of superstition. Through the medium of a wide range of objects, “Power and Protection” explores this fascinating aspect of Muslim culture: from divinatory practices such as astrology to the protective hand of Fatima, artefacts date from medieval times to the present and span a swathe of the earth from North Africa to China.

It is worth a trip to Oxford to see “Power and Protection” at the Ashmolean and also popping round the corner to the Bodleian Library to see a much smaller and focused display of manuscripts called “The Mughal Hunt.” Although thematically these two exhibitions are wholly unrelated, both possess Islamic artefacts held in Oxford’s prestigious institutions and are on display for the benefit of the public.
As with all exhibitions in the context of museums, one of the guiding questions is: Who is the intended audience? The answer almost inevitably is the same: middle-class, educated, adults. In exhibitions of Islamic art, there are other issues to be addressed: Is the exhibition primarily addressed to a non-Muslim audience? And if so, has it been curated exclusively for such an audience?

Arranged thematically, the exhibition occupies three rooms, the first concentrates on astrology, the second on dream interpretation, sciences of the sand or geomancy, the medicinal power of words; in the third are amulets and talismans, sacred symbols and between text and image. The relationship between Islam and the supernatural is complex and the exhibition makes a brave attempt to showcase a variety of objects depicting the relation with the supernatural. Instruments such as the astrolabe were originally used to calculate the position of the stars in relation to the horizon and were later adapted by Muslim astronomers to determine the qibla (direction of prayer towards the Kaaba) as well as being indispensable devices for travellers.

Common in all three monotheistic religions, particularly in their mystical dimensions, pious invocations were used in various media to help to memorise the Qur’an, as a relief from misfortune or sickness.

The Qur’an itself, used by the Muslim worshipper not just as an essential element in daily worship, but also as a container of blessings for his home where it occupies a special place, needs careful consideration when displayed alongside an array of other books or objects.

Included in the case of bibliomancy (istikhara), for instance, along with Fa’alnmama (Book of Omens), there is a Qur’an with Table of Prognostication from mid-sixteenth century Shiraz as well as a Qur’an from Ethiopia from the mid-eighteenth century. Along with the two amulets containing Quranic excerpts from West Africa, these are the only pieces from sub-Saharan Africa which has nevertheless been Islamised for over a millennium. Protective talismans using Quranic verses and worn around the neck are still used in the region today, much in the same way as miniature Qur’ans carried on journeys or pilgrimages. The display panels designed to echo letters of the Arabic alphabet used in divination has added a sensitive and attractive dimension to the overall design of the exhibition.

Among the most noticeable objects in the exhibition are the jewel-encrusted hand of Fatima – also known as khamsa in Shi‘a tradition, accompanied by a detail from a miniature depicting the hand-shaped finial, and the tablet accompanying the Kitab al-mawlid by Abu Ma’shar al-Balkhi. This marvellous twenty-first century tool offers the possibility to leaf through a fourteenth century manuscript from Baghdad much in the same way as a literate reader of the period. As digitised material from the past is becoming increasing available, such displays will surely become more commonplace, allowing contemporary audiences to appreciate frail objects from the past.

In addition, given the ubiquity of technology amongst today’s youth, such interactive devices encourage the participation in an otherwise entirely visual experience of museum exhibits.  The objects’ inherent historical and aesthetic value, combined with their provenance from several important wworldwide collections of Islamic art, including local ones in Oxford, make this an engaging experience and the accompanying programme of events, including children’s activities, and broaden the educational aspect of the exhibition thereby reaching out to diverse sections of the community.







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