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Art review: the Albukhary Foundation Gallery of the Islamic World at the British Museum

07 December 2018

Nicholas Cranfield pays a visit to new galleries at the British Museum

© The Trustees of the British Museum

The Hamzanama, c.1558-73. India. Image side: ink and opaque watercolour on cloth; text side: ink on paper.

The Hamzanama, c.1558-73. India. Image side: ink and opaque watercolour on cloth; text side: ink on paper.

AS PART of the continuing modernisation of the gallery spaces in Bloomsbury, Neil MacGregor (the former director of the British Museum) found monies in Malaysia to provide two display galleries of the Islamic World.

The Yayasan Albukhary Foundation is committed to preserving heritage, with the paramount need to educate the younger generation. Syed Mokhtar Albukhary cites a hadith of the Prophet to claim that, “Seeking knowledge is the duty of every Muslim.”

The British Museum has a substantial collection of Muslim artefacts, and is well placed to show this, bringing together objects from the earliest years of Mohammed’s preaching to the contemporary. Broadly, the objects on show make clear that Islam has co-existed happily alongside other monotheistic cultures for most of its history.

Modern shibboleths may have silenced traditional music, rendered many women invisible, and suppressed figurative art in some parts of the Islamic world, but this intelligent display (which will be changed from time to time) makes clear that this was neither the Prophet’s intention nor has always been prevalent.

The first room is entered between two cenotaphs. One, from the Nile Delta, dated 356 AH (AD 967), is of bare marble and is inscribed in Kufic with the opening of the basmala in Arabic script:In the Name of God, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful, the Compassionate.” The galleries unfold, sermon-like, cabinet by cabinet, and explore Islam from its first manifestations to its contemporary global reach.

© The Trustees of the British MuseumStone inscription of early kufic script, dated AH 356 (AD 967). Egypt, marble.  

The display in the first room begins with objects from the existing Sasanian (AD 224-651), Byzantine and Roman cultures that Islam gradually overtook. It finishes around 1500, by when Al Andalus offered some of the most elegant designs. The second room concludes with the music and graphic arts of our own day, and necessarily stretches as far as South-East Asia.

The earliest expressions of art derived from the dominant Mediterranean civilisations of the day and changed only gradually when a proscription on some figurative forms was introduced. During the reign of Heraclius (AD 610-41), Christian symbols on coinage gradually morphed into abstracted designs; the cross set up on a rake of steps became a single pillar. Abd al-Malik who reigned from AD 685 to 705 was the last caliph to be portrayed on coinage; from 77 AH (AD 696), figurative designs were banned.

© The Trustees of the British Museum    Star and cross tiles, AH 664-65 (AD 1266-67). Iran, probably Kashan. Stonepaste, moulded and painted in blue, turquoise and lustre over an opaque white glaze.

The proscription on figurative imagery has rarely been pan-Islamic, as the illustrated Hamzanama, an epic Mughal romance, of 1558-73, amply shows. Richly decorated geometric tiles from the 1320s Shia shrine Imamzada Ja-far introduce us to the world of leopards and cheetahs, of hares and desert foxes.

Much of the true light of Islam shines out from this display in the heart of Bloomsbury, and, if the changing displays lead to a greater appreciation of the civilisations that have emanated from its understanding of geometry, art, mathematics, science, and music, the investment in these new galleries will be richly rewarded.

A small loan exhibition, from the Islamic Arts Museum of Malaysia, concentrates on the “arabesque” with a staggeringly beautiful display of textiles.


The Albukhary Foundation Gallery of the Islamic World is in Rooms 42-43 at the British Museum, Great Russell Street, London WC1. Phone 020 7323 8000.


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