EMBRACING 1,300 years of history over a vast arena the arts of Islam are evidence of the magnificent, but often little known, accomplishments of one of the world’s major civilizations. With its vast repositories of architecture, calligraphy, book illumination, paintings, ceramics, textiles, glassware and metalwork, it’s hard to imagine how a single museum could do it justice.
It’s not an easy task, but the Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia has not only taken it on, but has succeeded admirably. The first museum of its kind in the Asia-Pacific region, it not only serves to present the arts of Islam to the public, but also educates them in the finer points of the religion and its civilization.
Situated in the middle of Kuala Lumpur’s “tourist belt”, adjacent to the National Mosque, the museum mirrors the Islamic ideal of paradise: fountains play in the courtyard and views of verdant gardens appear through the transparent walls. With architecture being the most dominant and spectacular of all Islamic arts, the museum doesn’t disappoint. Built at a cost of RM70 million, the four-level building combines contemporary museum style with superb Islamic detailing.
“Travel through the Earth and see how Allah originates the creation”, is but part of the peculiarly apt Qur’anic inscription that greets visitors entering the Iwan, the traditional Persian mosque gateway. Its flowing calligraphy and arabesque tilework were created on site by Iranian craftsmen.
The museum is an oasis. Kuala Lumpur’s heat and humidity disappear when you enter, substituted by the welcome respite of an almost Arctic cool, essential for the preservation of the many priceless objects. Traffic noises are replaced by sonorous Qur’an recitals.
Ascending the marble staircase visitors arrive in a spacious hall to gaze up at another architectural triumph, a unique inverted dome. Created by Uzbekistan craftsmen, this pure white dome protrudes from the lofty roof. Qur’anic verses in gold pattern its rim and arabesques of cut glass glitter over its surface.
From this level, resist the impulse to experience the cuisine at the museum’s restaurant or be tempted by one of Malaysia’s most sophisticated gift shops. These can wait till later. Take the lift directly to Level 3 for the Art of the Mosque and the Art of Architecture. Here are intricate scale models of some of the Islamic world’s most enduring architecture. Discover the immensity of Al-Haram, the Islamic world’s holiest mosque in Mecca, the soaring façades of Samarkand’s Great Mosque and the infinite purity of the Taj Mahal, among others.
For anyone who has longed to visit the great mosques of the world, this exhibition is a wonderful introduction not only to these houses of worship but to the underlying factor that encompasses all Islamic art — it may appear disparate, but it is all essentially a physical manifestation of the worship of God (Allah). Art and faith are interchangeable in Islam since the precepts of the faith pervade all aspects of life and work.
The Art of the Mosque is even more revealing, especially for non-Muslims, as it shows the interior aspects of mosques, featuring essentials like the Minbar, or pulpit, from which the Imam delivers his Friday address, and the Mihrab, a false door which shows the direction of Mecca. But even more fascinating, because only Muslims are allowed to view them in the original in Mecca, are the large velvet cloths embroidered with Qur’anic verses that formerly covered the Kaabah, the “House of God”.
Islam’s glorious history is well reflected in both the museum’s permanent and changing exhibitions. Of course, the most important exhibition is of the Qur’ans, reflecting the importance of the Muslim holy texts. The beauty of the calligraphy, and the delicate illuminations can be viewed at leisure while listening to Qur’anic recitals. It’s a lesson in the ageless appeal of the Qur’an: while many of the written works are ancient, the source of the audio is high tech at its best. It’s an interactive Qur’an with monitors giving a simultaneous translation in English. The wall display is linked to a touch-sensitive panel from which the viewer can select any surah — verse from the Qur’an — and then play to hear the celebrated Mohamad Jebril recite the selected passage.
A recent invention, the Fraser-Nash Sundial, calculates astronomical movements to an accuracy of less than three seconds. Five coloured bands across a world map indicate the five prayer times across the world at that instant, showing at a glance the global impact of Islam.
Another highlight of the museum is the lavish, wood-panelled Ottoman Room, formerly from a rich merchant’s summer house in Damascus, which was reconstructed by a Syrian craftsman. Panels are painted with calligraphy, floral arrangements and depictions of old Istanbul houses, while the intricate ceiling is carved, gilded, painted and mirrored to an astonishing degree.
This intricacy of work, a constant in Islamic art, is repeated in many of the exhibitions. There are manuscripts, ceramics, textiles, prayer rugs, coins, metalwork, weapons, jewellery and glass. The unique Chinese calligraphic scrolls inscribed in Arabic, are a personal favourite of Dr Norbert Heinrich Holl, the German Ambassador to Malaysia. “I’ve never seen anything like them anywhere else”, he remarked. He should know as not only does he collect Qur’ans and Islamic art, but he has also handed over his collection to the museum for public viewing during his tenure in Malaysia.
Dr Holl’s generosity was praised by Syed Mohamad Albukhary, the director of the museum and the Albukhary Foundation, the Malaysia-based philanthropic enterprise, which provided the majority of the funds for the museum. “It will certainly create an impetus for others”, he said, “to come forward and work with the museum in educating the world on the timeless beauty of Islam and its Arts”.
Others have also been forthcoming, particularly the Sultan of Brunei whose fabulous collection of artefacts certainly enhances not only the viewer’s pleasure, but the prestige of the museum.
It has only been two and a half years since the museum first opened, but it is well on the way to realising its commitment to be the custodian, restorer, preserver and educator of Islamic Arts, not only in Malaysia but also in the Asia-Pacific region.
The Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia
Jalan Lembah Perdana, 50480, Kuala Lumpur.
Tel: (603) 2274 2020
Opening Hours: 10am to 6pm, except Monday.
Entrance Fee: RM8 (adults); RM4 (children).