What is the true significance of the objects you can find in a mosque? Artefacts such as pulpits, prayer rugs, doors, lamps and manuscripts all have meanings that go beyond their function and they can tell us a great deal about the social, religious and artistic history of the mosque and the people who worship there.
The King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture (Ithra) has produced a new and globally significant exhibition, Shatr AlMasjid – literally, “towards the mosque”. Opening under its English subtitle of The Art of Orientation in January in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, the exhibition, curated by Idries Trevathan and Mona Jalhami, draws together artefacts from Ithra, the National Museum, Riyadh and the Museum of Islamic Art in Cairo, which is loaning 84 items.
Visitors will experience a unique collection of Islamic art comprising some of the most important masterpieces ever created and including pieces from the Two Holy Mosques of Makkah (Mecca) and Medina, on loan from the National Museum in Riyadh and, from Ithra’s own collection, a signed silver astrolabe made in around 1250 by Muhammad Ibn Fattuh Al Khumairi, the most renowned astronomer of Islamic Spain.
In addition, Ithra has organised loans from other museums, which include:
- A portable prayer niche, dating from 1154 and intended for the mosque of al-Sayyida Ruqayya in Cairo. This was probably used on occasions such as Eid when it could be put outside for the crowds that could not fit inside the mosque
- A glass lamp made in 1304 and bearing the name of Sultan Al-Nassir Mohammad ibn Qalawun and verse 35 of Sura 24 of the Holy Qur’an: “Allah is the Light of the Heaven and the Earth”
- A carpet fragment, part of a communal multiple niche prayer rug from the 16th century Selimiye mosque in Edirne, Turkey
- An 18th century Berber minbar which originally occupied a small Friday mosque in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco
As well as intricate and striking artworks, the display includes specially commissioned, high-quality models and virtual reality walkthroughs of mosques from around the world which will provide a truly interactive experience.
Through the medium of dozens of Islamic artefacts, the exhibition tells the story of the mosque, from the humble mud-brick structure of the Prophet’s first mosque in Medina to the imposing stone mosques of Cairo and Istanbul. Traditionally, the mosque was a multipurpose building and had many functions beyond worship including learning, charity, contemplation and rest. The objects found in mosques can tell us a great deal about this. While a multitude of styles have emerged from the Islamic artistic tradition found in mosques, there have always been features that make the art and architecture recognisably and uniquely Islamic. From the Great Mosque in Makkah to the Great Mosque of Djenne in Mali, there is a pervading representation of unity that spans the diverse art and architecture of the mosque from around the world.
Most mosques have domes, for instance, which can symbolise the vault of heaven, and minarets, which act as a visual reminder of Islam. There is often a large prayer hall, linked to a courtyard open to the sky and with shaded arcades and a fountain, important for the ablutions required before prayer but also a source of respite from the heat. A mihrab – a niche in the wall that indicates the direction of Mecca, towards which all Muslims pray – is essential for practical purposes and can vary in size from a shallow niche to a small room.
Inside the mosque the furnishings also have much to teach us. Calligraphic inscriptions including quotations from the Qur’an will often be found above the mihrab. There will be decoration, perhaps carvings or tiles, in the form of plants or complex geometric patterns running the length of walls, pillars, ceilings and floors. Hanging lamps, essential because some daily prayers occur before the sun rises and after it sets, are often designed to create beautiful patterns of light. There are colourful carpets. There is a minbar or pulpit, sometimes a plain platform above three steps, sometimes an elaborate and highly decorated structure: it is from here that the imam delivers the sermon at Friday prayer. And, perhaps most important of all, there are book racks to hold copies of the Qur’an and other religious texts, along with wooden book holders used so that worshippers can avoid placing the Qur’an on the ground.
Shatr AlMasjid: The Art of Orientation is a truly significant event. And not just because it showcases so much exquisite Islamic art. The exhibition is an example of how partnerships between cultural institutions across borders can create enormous value. In this case, the collaboration between Ithra in Saudi Arabia and the Supreme Council of Egyptian Antiquities presents a historical partnership, and one that demonstrates the close co-operation and friendship between Saudi Arabia and Egypt.
In addition, the exhibition will do much to encourage people from around the world to visit Saudi Arabia. By welcoming international tourists, the exhibition will help demonstrate Saudi openness to global culture, and Saudis’ eagerness to share their own cultural identity with the rest of the world and to become a global cultural player. There are more than 1.5 billion Muslims today, nearly a quarter of the world’s population. And yet for many people Islam is an unknown and often misunderstood religion. Shatr AlMasjid will help explain the intrinsic purpose and beliefs behind Islam to a much wider audience. By focusing on the objects found in mosques, explaining their purpose and showcasing their beauty, the curators of this exhibition will do much to promote the global significance of Islamic culture.
The Art of Orientation launches in January 2021, in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia. The book that accompanies the exhibition, The Art of Orientation; An Exploration of the Mosque through Objects, is available from Amazon.
In conjunction with this exhibition, the King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture (Ithra) is also hosting a three-day conference to address the historical meaning, culture, evolution and functions of the mosque in November 2021.