Claire Davis explores the pages of the Ashmoleon’s Al-Qur’an al-Karim exhibition.
What better way to spend your time on a rainy Oxford afternoon than to go and visit a new exhibition at the Ashmolean? In through the busy entrance, up the white stairs teeming with chattering tourists and ducking to your right, you enter a moment of calm, away from the bustling streets and the pressure of your next essay, to ‘Al-Qur’an al-Karim: Sacred Verses, Beautiful Pages.’
Housed in a modest but warm room, tasteful frames line two walls, whilst a glassy cabinet runs along the final side of the triangular space. A show dedicated entirely to the holy book of Muslims, the Qur’an is not only the core of religious belief, but also to their culture’s creative insight. Studying the Islamic text in masterful calligraphy, and experiencing the word of God through artistic means, the viewer is invited to meet the convergence of hand and soul, the purity of creation and spirituality.
The works of Syed Tajammul Hussain and Ahmed Moustafa take a contemporary slant, abandoning orthodox materials and proving that the noble verses of the ancient text are still applicable today. The highlights, however, are still the old restored pages of particular versions of the Qur’an; one has had to be so repaired that it has become quite removed from its original 2-dimensionality, transforming into a sculptural form. Bumps, creases and folds turn it into a tangible object, so the viewer yearns to reach out and brush it with their fingertips whilst it resides dutifully behind the glass.
If you choose to look past the Islamic words, a love of mark-making and book-making is what will leave a weighty impression on all those who go to see this show. Golden sweeps of a pen, blue strokes of a brush, and elegant black lettering own the surfaces of the yellowing parchment, leaving dancing trails of language and history, dripping with – for most of us – unreadable meaning. Decorative gold flowers, shapes and symbols scatter between the words, leaving the resounding sense that this is a text full of joy and harmony. It is a text that embraces the world in its entirety, as well as the word of God. Golden pages jostling with artistic touches remind us that a love of religion should be a joy in life, and not a chore or act of conscience; beauty and delight emanate from every page.
Turning to the cabinet on the back wall, different forms of the Qur’an confront you from velvet-topped shelves, playing with your perception of what a book can be. The traditional codex – a text made of pages stitched together and held between two covers – is the most common, but the Ashmolean has collated a few more for the purpose of this exhibition. Some come with flaps which tuck under the front covers to protect the text, and others are in the form of scrolls, copied onto strips of paper and rolled around a core, stored in leather cases. One sculptural Qur’an stacks thickly on top of itself, the pages heavy and still, daring someone to leaf through it, whilst its leather bag sits beside it, empty of its contents. A tiny Qur’an whispers up at you from beside the bag, and its markings are so incredibly delicate and tiny, it could have been transcribed by fairies.
This exhibition is not only for those interested in Islam, but for anyone with a love of drawing, books, and the materiality of paper. Equally, if you just want to soak up a little bit of culture for half an hour, this show won’t take up too much of your time, and will leave you feeling humbled by the incredible commitment and artistic skill that is invested into each and every page.