My exploration of Kuala Lumpur runs contrary to most people. Instead of starting my tour from the Petronas Tower, I began my journey from the Islamic Art Museum. KL’s Islamic Arts museum gave me what I was looking for-A perspective on what Islamic Art is. As confirmed by many, it is also one of the best places in the world to do so (Rated by Trip Advisor travelers as one of the top 10 museums in Asia to visit: 2014&2015)
At the start of my visit, I struggled with a question – What is Islamic Art? Art for me cannot be defined, yet I was looking for a definition of what Islamic Art is. So I reluctantly admitted to moving beyond the definition, to understanding its various forms.
I was not disappointed. The museum gives an insight to what these forms are. Islamic Art, is a mix of everything: The beautiful architecture inspired by local designs, reflected in mosques around the world. Different calligraphy forms adorning Qurans. Chinese pottery with an Islamic influence, Islamic metalworks, Persian Carpets. The list is endless.
The museum introduces you to Islamic art with a glimpse of Islamic Architecture. Replicas of various mosques from the world give a sense of the diversity of architecture. My curiosity led me to dig out images of what these monuments actually look like. These now inspire me to travel to yet more destinations.
An interesting idea dawned upon me as I walked through the museum corridors – the intersection between religion and nationalism. As a child growing up in India, when I saw the Taj Mahal- I never defined it as Islamic Art. For me it was an Indian monument. The museum challenged my perspective. It forced all monuments (mosques, mausoleums) built by Islamic rulers over the world in one single set. This global set it called Islamic Architecture. It is an interesting and bold summation.
In the labyrinth of replicas, a few stood out to me. These were:
The Djenne Mosque, Mali:
Nothing like I’ve seen before, the Djenne Mosque brought out a perfect mix between African (Sudano-Sehelian) and Islamic architecture. Even today, the Djenne Mosque stands to be one of the most famous landmarks in Africa.
The Court of Lions, Spain:
The Court of Lions, intrigued me due to its perfect blend of European, and Islamic Architecture. The domes of the mosque, looked very church like. Yet the foundational pillars reflected Islamic influences.
Kalyan Mosque in Uzbekistan:
I was drawn to the Kalyan Mosque mostly due to its blue dome, which to me symbolized the peace and tranquility of heaven. On reading more about it, I discovered that its white minaret – was used as a killing tower. Criminals (obviously defined as those who violated the Sharia) were thrown off the minaret. Maybe it was then that their souls would move on to visit the mosque.
The beauty of integration emerges in the Chinese ceramics section of the museum. The intersection of Asian ceramics, and the Islamic museum can be seen with the inscription of Islamic calligraphy on Chinese pottery. What stood out me was the influence of Islam on China, which although I had heard of, had never seen in any tangible form in real life.
It was interesting for me to note, that the arrival of Islam to China was slow but steady. It came through two routes: From the spice route, in South East Asia emerging from the Chinese provinces Fujian and Guandong, and the second from the Silk Route in Central Asia.
Another point of similarity between the Chinese culture and the Islamic one, was the acknowledgement of Calligraphy as a revered art form. An Arabic proverb, quoted in the museum, which beautifully summarized this was: “Wisdom reveals herself in the dialect of the Greeks, the craftsmanship of the Chinese, and the language of the Arabs”
Drawing Persian Carpets to the umbrella of Islamic Art, was the next section in the Museum. The pinnacle of this form of art, was during the reign of the Safavids in Iran, where royal guilds were established solely for serving the Iranian courts.
Central Asian Textiles:
An interesting find for me was the textiles from the Central Asian regions of Samarkand, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan. The horse, as my Kazakh friend, has long tutored me, are both revered and eaten. The equestrian legacy, was well drawn out in the artifacts of the museums. The link between history and the present, couldn’t be clearer in this section.
Venetian Metal works:
Anything Italian obviously catches my eyes. Primarily housed in European collections, the Veneto Sarcenics, refers to 15-15th century metal works that were created by Muslim Artists in Venetian, Mamluk and Ottoman workshops. The pots were mostly made of brass and bronze, with occasional traces of gold.
Last thoughts: My random favourites
Its hard for me to summarize my all what I saw in the museum. With so many things to see, and several sections, all brought under the umbrella of Islamic Art, the Integration of Islam with local arts, is the biggest takeaway you can get from the museum. Some of the artifacts, which contributed to my parting thoughts were:
Iranian Ceramics or Persian Pottery: