The Aga Khan's Spirit & Life Show Comes To London

By Rose Shillito | 27 July 2007
Shows richly coloured manuscript page illustrating Arabic interior with Arabic people busy performing tasks

Folio from the Akhlaq-i Nasiri, a philosophical treatise dating from the late 16th-century and illustrated with 17 full-page miniatures © The Aga Khan Trust for Culture

Some of the most rare and precious examples of Islamic art ever produced - and which have never before been exhibited in this country - can now be seen gracing the exhibition spaces of the Ismaili Centre in London until August 31 2007.

The exhibition, entitled Spirit and Life, features over 165 objects that have been cherry-picked from the Aga Khan’s private collection and includes precious manuscripts, intricate metalwork, beautifully decorated ceramics, painted miniatures and exquisite jewellery among other treasures.

The Aga Khan is the 49th Imam, or spiritual leader, of the Shia Imami Ismaili Muslims and has direct lineage to the Prophet Muhammad through the Prophet’s cousin and son-in-law, Ali, the first Imam, and his wife, Fatima, the Prophet’s daughter.

Shows metal object in the shape of a bird with decoration on body

11th century bird incense burner made from bronze © The Aga Khan Trust for Culture

The timing of the exhibition could not be more pertinent - it was 50 years ago exactly on July 11 2007 that Prince Karim al-Hussain became the present Aga Khan IV. To help celebrate the Aga Khan’s Golden Jubilee, HRH the Prince of Wales opened Spirit and Life with a speech about the significance of the exhibition to both East and Western cultures.

“I understand that this is the first time these masterpieces of Islamic art have been seen in London. They are of quite exceptional historical importance and beauty,” said Prince Charles.

“But, perhaps still more importantly, they also convey the clearest possible message about the close ties between the Abrahamic Faiths. For example, the magnificent Eleventh Century Canon of Medicine, which originated in Iran, was equally indispensable to Western scholars for the better part of five hundred years.”

Shows blue page of paper with golden Arabic writing on it

Page from the Blue Qur'an, created for North African rulers in the early 10th century © The Aga Khan Trust for Culture

Certainly, Spirit and Life celebrates much that our two cultures have in common and the fact that our similarities are greater than our differences. It is this message, in a spirit of peace and understanding, that the Aga Khan hopes to convey by presenting us with some of the choice pieces from his treasure-trove.

As Prince Charles touched upon, the best example of this shared culture is the extraordinarily rare Canon of Medicine dated 1052 CE, which was created by the ‘Prince of Physicians’ Ibn Sina or Avicenna.

This medical encyclopedia became the standard medical textbook used throughout the Middle East and Europe until the 16th century. To be able to look upon the title page gives a real sense of history. Just how many eyes have looked upon it and how many lives have been saved as a result of the wisdom contained within?

There are many other precious manuscripts, including a folio from the Persian epic, Shahama or Book of Kings. This was made for the Safavid ruler of Persia; it took the poet Firdausi almost 35 years to write and is decorated with 258 minatures, meticulously painted by many of the finest Persian artists of the 16th century.

Shows traditional style Asian robe with skirts and long sleeves

Mongol robe, likely to have originated in Central Asia in the late 13th or early 14th century © The Aga Khan Trust for Culture

Of course, no collection of Islamic art would be complete without the Qur’an, the holy book of the Islam faith, and Spirit and Life does not disappoint. Here you can see a page from the Blue Qur’an, which was created for the Fatimid imam-caliphs ruling North Africa in the early 10th century. With its gorgeous blue paper and swirling gold-leaf calligraphy, it’s surely one of the most luxurious and sumptuous manuscripts ever produced.

The exhibition gives a real flavour of the diversity of Muslim artistic traditions. It also provides a fantastic geographical range of artefacts coming from as far apart as India in the East to Morocco in the West and spanning over a thousand years from the ninth to the 19th century.

Another highlight is a complete robe from the Mongol period – again, another rare and sumptuous example. It is typically Mongol, with full skirt, broad wrapover and long sleeves and is thought to originate in Central Asia in the late 13th or early 14th century.

Shows round pottery dish decorated with Islamic style pattern

Slip-decorated pottery dish produced in the eastern Iranian world in the 10th century © The Aga Khan Trust for Culture

Then there are everyday objects that have been beautifully decorated so as to elevate them above the ordinary, such as the ornate11th century bronze bird incense burner, a masterpiece of medieval bronze casting.

Spirt and Life celebrates all that is life-affirming about the Muslim world and the Islam faith and pays homage to the devotion that goes into artworks created from spiritual passion. Let’s hope by reminding us of what good humans are capable of it helps in some small way to bring peace and harmony once again between the cultures of the East and West.

As the Aga Khan himself says: “I hope that this exhibition will hold a special significance at a time which calls for enlightened encounters amongst faiths and cultures.”

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