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Tales and talismans: the supernatural in Islamic art

Published 25 October 2016

A spellbinding show of ritual objects and calligraphic images from the rich pantheon of Islamic art enchants Kamila Shamsie.

  • The last time I saw my grandmother, just a few days before she died, I was leaving Karachi to fly to London. Although I don’t specifically remember this, I know she would have done what she did each time a family member was due to board a plane: hold a Quran up as high as her arm could comfortably reach so that the voyager could walk under the Holy Book. I always felt as though I were walking through a protective door frame, and that my journey started at that moment, even if it was several hours before my flight was due to leave.

    It never occurred to me to think of that act of leave-taking as a “superstition”, a theme included in an intriguing exhibition on Islamic art at the Ashmolean Museum. Instead I had preferred to view my grandmother’s ritual as “cultural practice”. Which is of course how everyone thinks of their own, as opposed to other people’s, superstitions. But however you phrase it, actions that are entwined with a religion while remaining separate from its strict tenets speak of the deep imaginative engagement that individuals and cultures bring to their faith. Such practices also reflect the ways in which religions with a wide reach must be able to absorb existing habits of imagination and sources of comfort and strength, so that they don’t demand a complete rupture with the past. At its most fertile, religion is bound up with every celebration, every fear, every new journey, every dream and every nightmare. And no matter how deep the idea of “the ineffable” runs in a religion, there are always artists who give shape and form to our emotional need for talismans and amulets to encourage the dreams and ward off the nightmares.

  • Calligraphic composition of a camel carrying a coffin, by Mustafa Edirnavi, 1800-1, from Turkey.

    Calligraphic composition of a camel carrying a coffin, by Mustafa Edirnavi, 1800-1, from Turkey.

    Courtesy of the Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford.

  • In the case of Islam, with portraiture of the Prophet strictly prohibited in most Muslims’ understanding of their faith, that outward shape and form to which artists turn their attention often centres around the Quran. While the most austere of adherents to Islam might insist that only learning, reciting and living by the Word of God is what matters, most Muslims recognise the word itself – the Arabic script – as a place of refuge, even those who can’t read, as they can recognise the shapes. Small wonder, then, that so many of the objects in the exhibition include Arabic calligraphy. Words run along the blade of a sword, they embroider a shirt, are caged in the outline of a falcon. The name of Allah is the teeth of a dragon, the name of the Prophet is the dragon’s jawbone.

    One of the first pieces of artwork I bought was a line of calligraphy painted into a desertscape. That particular line is loved by calligraphers for its combination of variation and balance:

    • Calligraphy for Tales and Talismans

      In English, it translates as “How many of your Lord’s blessings can you deny?” The beauty of the works in this show must number among blessings that cannot be denied.

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