Qatar unveils Islamic arts museum

Qatar unveils Islamic arts museum

Celebrating a legacy of 14 centuries of art and culture across three continents, Qatar will unveil the region”s first Museum of Islamic arts which will feature works and crafts that have never been displayed in public.

Located on Doha”s seashore, the museum, designed by I.M. Pei, a Chinese-born architect who uses geometric shapes that beckon Islamic science and architecture, will open on November 22.

The museum is part of Qatar”s ambitious drive to preserve Arab and Islamic history and create a cultural hub in the region.

The curators say they will work in partnership with the British Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of New York, the Louvre, the Royal Collection of Morocco, Egypt”s Museum of Islamic Art, and the Cartier Collection of France to exhibit rare works of art spanning a 1000-year period.

Al Jazeera interviewed Sheikh Hassan Al Thani, one of the founders of the Museum of Islamic arts. 

An artist who holds a PhD in Arab history, Al Thani, 48, has been a driving force in many regional initiatives to foster Arab art and provide Arab artists with the aid they need when their governments fall short of their support.

He credits Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, the emir and head of the state of Qatar, for first suggesting the project.

Al Jazeera: What is the significance of creating a Museum of Islamic art?

Al Thani: Islamic history comprises one of the most important stages of human development and civilisation. Usually, civilisations are evaluated by their artistic production and we wanted to display to the world the uniqueness and finesse of arts and crafts that were produced by Islamic civilisation.

Islamic arts were produced in regions which covered two-thirds of the ancient world stretching from Indonesia to Morocco and Mauritania, in addition to countries that had been under Islamic rule or contained Islamic communities like Spain and China and even southern Italy.

The museum will exhibit a millennium of Islamic art – those which were produced from around the time that Islam took root in the 7th century to the 18th century. We think this stage is very important in human history.

Will the works of non-Muslim artists who lived under Islamic rule be displayed at the museum?

When we refer to the term “Islamic arts” we are not conjuring up the literal meaning; we do not mean this is art which represents the religion of Islam.

What we have brought together in this museum is artwork that was inspired by the Islamic civilisation. For example, we will exhibit pieces done by Hindu and Buddhist artists, but which reflect a sense of Islamic influence and styles.

This is the theme of the museum – art that has been inspired or adopted from Islamic civilisation and is not necessary Muslim.

You will find artists from Persia, India, Spain and Europe but nevertheless, when you inspect the theme and style of all of them you would easily find out that they are inspired by one background. 

What distinguishes this museum from others which also exhibit Islamic art?

What distinguishes us is that we are focused. We are not folkloric; we are not a museum which deals with what people used in their daily lives, what they wore, what they ate and so on.

We are dedicated to art, and Islamic arts in specific; we are hoping to reveal to the world the achievements and contributions of Islam to world civilisations and how this helped the Muslims achieve the pinnacle of their scientific and artistic glory.

Let me offer you one small example of how Islamic arts and sciences influenced the development of human history and innovation.

Until the 15th century, the Vatican used to embroider the Papal robes with Arabic letters.

During the middle ages, china plates in Europe were found to have been inscribed with Islamic motifs, specifically calligraphy of the words Mohammed (in reference to the prophet of Islam) and Allah.

Of course there is no problem with calligraphy of the word Allah, because Europe and the Arab world worship one God, but it is nonetheless astounding to discover that such Islamic patterns could be found on non-Muslim European items.

These specific issues are not properly displayed anywhere else other than the Museum of Islamic arts in Qatar.

The Museum of Islamic Arts is also a research centre with a magnificent library that contains references in history and many other fields. Islamic authoritative texts are also available for researchers who seek deeper interpretations of Islamic law and religious instruction.      

How did you manage to collect the museum”s items?

We have been collecting items from all over the world for more than 10 years. We also have coordinated with leading international museums that were kind enough to cooperate with us and lend us many of their valuable items for temporary display.

I hope people will benefit from and enjoy the museum.

I would like to say that for 1,000 years the path of civilisation was from east to west. However, for centuries now that path has been reversed to be from west to east … and tomorrow who knows?

However, all civilisations no matter what we call them and how we label them all fall under one umbrella, the human civilisation.