The Smithsonian’s Freer Sackler gallery has long been one of the best, and most under-appreciated, museums on the National Mall in Washington D.C. With most of its gallery space tucked below street level, the Freer Sackler offers a refuge for those looking to escape the tourist throngs pressing their way into the more popular Smithsonian buildings.
At a time when a toxic, Islamophobic atmosphere has enveloped the highest echelons of the federal government, it is comforting to know that D.C. area residents and visitors who visit this quiet corner of the Mall will be greeted with the magnificent The Art of the Qur’an: Treasures from the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts exhibition.
This beautifully curated exhibition showcases some of the most stunningly illuminated and important Qur’anic manuscripts in the world. It also does an admirable job of introducing the visitor to Islam, in general, and the contents and layout of the Qur’an specifically. The manuscripts and related objects on exhibit are on loan from the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts in Istanbul and were collected over the centuries by various members of the Ottoman ruling family and their political consorts.
The exhibition begins with an explanation and exploration of the history of Islam and the origins of the Qur’an. Before delving into the bulk of the richly illuminated manuscripts, visitors are introduced to the main themes in the Qur’an (stories of prophets, warnings to heed God’s call, and legal pronouncements) and the origins and organization of the Qur’anic text. Passages exemplifying important themes or passages are translated next to the original ancient manuscripts, including some of the oldest copies of the text in existence.
As the visitor moves from the introductory section to the main part of the exhibition, they are treated to a bird’s eye view of a massive Qur’an, with each of the carefully rendered Arabic letters as large as your hand.
While admiring the luminous illuminations and embellishments in gold and lapis, the visitor learns not only about the history of Arabic calligraphy and the artistic history of the Islamic Middle East and Central Asia, but also the power structures within the Ottoman Court.
The Art of the Qur’an’s curators not avoid tired stereotypes and actively work to refute perceptions, by connecting the manuscripts on display with the people who owned, read, and bequeathed them. It may come as a surprise to some, for example, to learn that many of the texts on display were once the property of female members of the Ottoman royal family. These elite Muslim women wielded power, money, and spiritual cache on their own terms.
The Art of the Qur’an: Treasures from the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts at the Smithsonian’s Freer Sackler Gallery in Washington, DC closes February 20th.