Friday, 2 April 2010

Islamic treasures find their way to two Berlin museums

By Catherine Hickley, Bloomberg News | March 31, 2010

BERLIN — The Aga Khan, the spiritual leader of the Shia Ismaili Muslims, is a generous man. He heads a network of nonprofit development agencies and plans to open a museum for his collection of Islamic art in Toronto in 2013.

Until then, he is loaning the art to museums worldwide. The current beneficiary is Berlin’s Martin-Gropius-Bau, where “Treasures of the Aga Khan Museum’’ is showing through June 6.

The 73-year-old philanthropist, in an introduction to the catalog, says he believes that tensions between Islam and the Western world are less about a “clash of civilizations’’ than “a battle of mutual ignorance.’’ Exhibiting his collection, which spans a vast area from Spain to China, is a way to fight that ignorance.

Koranic scripts, inscribed in gold and bordered with gouache arabesques in blues and reds, originate from Iran, Turkey, and India. Verses are written on a sea shell from the 18th century, and in tiny letters across a piece of green Indian cotton bordered in gold and blue.

The most astonishing script is on a gilded chestnut leaf whose filaments shine like filigree jewelry. The calligraphy is shaped to resemble a boat. It is a virtuoso piece of 19th-century Ottoman craftsmanship — so fragile and delicate, it’s hard to imagine how it survived.

The Aga Khan and the Hungarian-British lawyer Edmund de Unger must have found themselves competing for the same Islamic art treasures in their collecting careers. Now the two rival (or complementary) collections are on display in the same city.

De Unger has promised his Keir Collection to the Museum for Islamic Art, housed in Berlin’s Pergamon Museum, as a long-term loan after his death. The museum is home to the 17th-century Aleppo room from Syria and the eighth-century facade of Mshatta palace from a Jordan desert town.

An exhibition of the first 112 of 1,500 objects that De Unger plans to loan to Berlin provides a taste of what is to come. His passion for Islamic art began with carpets; every floor in his home was covered in them — three-deep.

De Unger turned to lusterware, glazed metallic ceramics that he describes as “the greatest gift the Islamic potter has made to mankind.’’ He also acquired metalware, books, and rock-crystal ornaments, including an exquisite bead in the shape of a crouching hare from Egypt, about 1,000 years old.

© Copyright 2010 The New York Times Company

Tuesday, 30 March 2010

Mystical Form of Islam Suits Sufis in Pakistan

New York Times: 25th February 2010

LAHORE, Pakistan — For those who think Pakistan is all hard-liners, all the time, three activities at an annual festival here may come as a surprise.

Thousands of Muslim worshipers paid tribute to the patron saint of this eastern Pakistani city this month by dancing, drumming and smoking pot.

It is not an image one ordinarily associates with Pakistan, a country whose tormented western border region dominates the news. But it is an important part of how Islam is practiced here, a tradition that goes back a thousand years to Islam’s roots in South Asia.

It is Sufism, a mystical form of Islam brought into South Asia by wandering thinkers who spread the religion east from the Arabian Peninsula. They carried a message of equality that was deeply appealing to indigenous societies riven by caste and poverty. To this day, Sufi shrines stand out in Islam for allowing women free access.

In modern times, Pakistan’s Sufis have been challenged by a stricter form of Islam that dominates in Saudi Arabia. That orthodox, often political Islam was encouraged in Pakistan in the 1980s by the American-supported dictator, Muhammad Zia ul-Haq. Since then, the fundamentalists’ aggressive stance has tended to eclipse that of their moderate kin, whose shrines and processions have become targets in the war here.

But if last week’s stomping, twirling, singing, drumming kaleidoscope of a crowd is any indication, Sufism still has a powerful appeal.

“There are bomb blasts all around, but people don’t stay away,” said a 36-year-old bank teller named Najibullah. “When the celebration comes, people have to dance.”

Worshipers had come from all over Pakistan to commemorate the death of the saint, Ali bin Usman al-Hajveri, an 11th-century mystic. Known here today as Data Ganj Baksh, or Giver of Treasures, the Persian-speaking mystic journeyed to Lahore with Central Asian invaders, according to Raza Ahmed Rumi, a Pakistani writer and expert on Sufism. He settled outside the city, a stopover on the trade route to Delhi, started a meditation center and wrote a manual on Sufi practices, Mr. Rumi said.

Few here last week knew many of those facts but that did not seem to matter. The dancing and drumming was part of a natural rhythm of life that after nearly 10 centuries was as much about culture as it was about faith.

“It’s a festival of happiness!” shouted a cook, Muhamed Nadim, over the din, when asked what was being celebrated. “People feel comfort here.”

Vast crowds of men walked barefoot, pushing past police barricades and vendors selling fabrics and sweets. A neon sign advertising chicken with the words “Chicks, Chicks, Chicks” glowed in a second-floor window. Underneath it, brightly lit bookstores remained open, their owners gazing out at the crowds.

One of them, Naeem Ashraf Rizvi, settled easily into a conversation with a foreigner about life in Pakistan. The overwhelming majority of Pakistanis are Sufi, he explained, and despise violence inflicted by the more hard-line Deobandis, the school of thought that was supported by General Zia.

Last year was Pakistan’s worst for militant attacks since 2001, with the death toll more than triple what it was in 2006.

“Sufis have not spread terrorism,” Mr. Rizvi said, his small daughter on his lap. “We are its victims.”

The violence, he said, has damaged not only Pakistan, but also the reputation of Muslims, who he said “are seen with suspicious gazes everywhere in the world.”

He added, “We are condemning the violence, but no one is listening to us.”

For all of Mr. Rizvi’s enlightened views, his opinion veered back in a grimly familiar direction on the question of who was responsible for the attacks. It was a list of culprits most Pakistanis recite by heart: the United States, India and Britain. Outsiders are often at the center of Pakistan’s many conspiracy theories, a kind of defense mechanism that serves as a way to avoid a reality too painful to confront.

Worse than the violence, Mr. Rizvi said, was the weakness of the government, which seemed unable to accomplish much of anything. Nor was a military takeover the answer. The only solution, he said, was a revolution by the people, like the one in Iran in 1979.

But in Pakistan, where illiteracy is rampant and leaders are more focused on jockeying for power than fulfilling a political vision, that is a distant wish.

“Everyone is quiet,” he said. “They are not listening yet. They are sleeping.”

Waqar Gillani contributed reporting.