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Monday, June 27, 2022

Conjuring some museum magic

Altair Brandon-Salmon is astounded by the Ashmolean’s Islam exhibition, Power and Protection

An eighteenth century “Hand of Fatima”, made in Hyderabab, encrusted with rubies, diamonds, and pearls, is a symbol of the Prophet Muhammad’s daughter and is one of the most ubiquitous amulets in the Islamic world, meant to ward off an Evil Eye. Is it a devotional object, like the Cross of Christ in Christianity, or a superstitious talisman which exists in parallel to strict theology? In truth, it is both, and the intersection of religious and supernatural beliefs is at the core of the Ashmolean’s new exhibition, Power and Protection.

As such, the exhibition tries to trace links between Islam and supernatural beliefs diachronically and geographically, ranging from Turkey and Egypt to India and China, attesting to the diversity of cultures in the Muslim world. Split into three sections, “Interpreting Signs”, “The Power of the Word”, and “Amulets and Talismans”, it attempts to off er an overview of the ways Islamic cultures made sense of the world: astrology, geomancy, bibliomancy, practices also familiar to European cultures.

Astrolabes, illuminated manuscripts, astrological charts, and more are covered. The exquisite artistry, the manipulation of material by the finest craftsmen from continents united only by a shared religion (but not necessarily branch—the divide of Sunni and Shia Muslims is acknowledged but not tackled), is frequently astonishing and fascinating. The Perfect Calender by Yusuf ibn Hasan al-Husayni and the charts of Iskander Mirza’s workshop fuse astronomy and astrology together, taking Ptolemy’s Almagest and combining it with Arabic astronomical findings, so that religion and science cannot be separated.

The exhibition stresses that such a dichotomy, similar to the Islamic versus supernatural divide posed in its title, is a false one. Instead, the mystical and the religious cohabit and intermingle, influencing Persian, Egyptian and Indian societies, bearing fruit in objects like magical-come-medicinal bowls, which span continents but have clear formal structural and symbolic similarities. We really see both the global nature of Islam and its local manifestations on display here, in only two small rooms.

However, the way Islam intersects with other cultures, such as its dialogue with Christian Europe, is neglected. The Seal of Solomon, which appears in an eighteenth century Turkish collection of passages from the Qur’an, with its long association with Judaism, could have offered a way into exploring the overlap between Abrahamic cultures and the importance they attach to objects with “supernatural powers”. Power and Protection also virtually ignores the role of these talismans in contemporary Muslim society. It is impossible to go to Jordan or Tunisia or Egypt without seeing the Hand of Fatima or decorated Qur’ans. A small display of fridge magnets, CDs and key rings, meant to bring good luck or protection to their owner, show a line from the past to the present which could perhaps off er insight into the modern world. Yet due to constraints on the exhibition’s size and purview, it only glances at this potential avenue.

If the scope of the exhibition can at times be frustratingly restrictive, then what is on display is of unimpeachable interest and quality. The “Power of the Word” section is probably the most enthralling, as it roots the supernatural powers of the written word in Islamic theology. As Power and Protection explains, one strain of thought in Islam is that ‘the universe is thought of as an immense book waiting to be read and deciphered’, and as such, there is a tangible power ascribed to words. Islamic metaphysics, resting on a religion where a text, the Qu’ran, has central authority over all people, is thus translated into items of practicality. Holy words are inscribed on tunics, swords and banners to protect those in battle. A particularly well preserved set of twelfth century Persian armour demonstrates the life and death power granted to text. Calligrams (images made of words) dominate in the final room, where talismans and language become one and the same. One calligram, from 1866, is of a ship with the Dutch flag, as it was made in Indonesia, a colony at the time. It raises a whole raft of unanswered questions: did these talismans undergo a change during the colonial era, and if so, in what ways? Instead, the exhibition only ruefully recognises this crucial aspect of Islamic history and moves on.

It is true that Power and Protection often raises more problems than it solves; we are left wanting more by the huge scope of the exhibition, a desire which can never feasibly be satisfied. Indeed, maybe it is no bad thing that it might send some of its audience into the library to read further on the many cultures which subscribe to Islam, and the wealth of beautiful, intriguing objects on display is a testament to the skill and talent pervasive in Middle Eastern and Asian cultures, expertise all too often bundled into “oriental anthropology”. It is a major exhibition and worth seeing, even if we should be alert to the areas it does not, and cannot, cover.

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