No traveller to Toronto should miss the Aga Khan Museum, which I had the pleasure of visiting on a recent trip. The museum’s permanent collection comprises objects highlighting the artistic, scientific and scholarly heritage of Islamic civilisations.
As is often the case when I visit the Islamic collections of museums in the West, I was struck by the irony that such great effort is made to promote awareness among Westerners about the contribution of Muslims to world heritage even though knowledge of this erudite past is now most lacking — or actively denied — within the Muslim world itself.
I was first struck by those objects that betray a hunger for knowledge and love for science, innovation and experimentation, which is sadly increasingly rare in many Muslim-majority countries today.
The museum holds one of the oldest surviving copies of Ibn Sina’s Qanun, which aggregated medical knowledge from the Muslim, Greco-Roman and Chinese worlds.
Another highlight is a glinting planispheric astrolabe dating back to 14th-century Spain that was likely made by Muslim scientists working closely with Christian and Jewish peers. A 13th-century Arabic translation of Dioscorides’s De Materia Medica with rich illustrations of medicinal plants is yet another gem, and a reminder that Muslims preserved and enhanced much ancient knowledge, which was then re-appropriated by Europeans during the Renaissance.
Curated in the spirit of Canadian multiculturalism, the museum highlights those objects that illustrate how connections were forged between different cultures.
The astrolabe, for example, has cosmological annotations in Arabic, Latin and Hebrew, suggesting different owners from across the region.
Annotations for ceramic bowls with lotus flower motifs and blue-and-white colour schemes highlight early cultural and trade exchanges between the Middle East and China; the slight shift in the angle of a Mughal-era portrait sitter from profile to three-quarter tilt is presented as evidence of growing awareness of new artistic practices of the European Renaissance.
Islamic art is being overshadowed by IS’s cultural cleansing.
Above all, the collection is arranged to emphasise the pluralism of Islamic practice and highlight that the faith has always engaged with indigenous beliefs and traditional practices, making its observation unique from place to place. The diversity is most apparent in the collection of copies of the Quran, each produced using different scripts, colours, schemas and motifs from North Africa to Syria and India, and reflecting local practices: a copy of the Quran from Java with annotations for non-native Arabic speakers; one from Tunisia in the Kufic script, with local methods for preserving the parchment.
Visiting the Islamic wings of museums has always been an informative exercise for me, but it is now also a deeply emotional one. I was walking amidst the museum’s treasures while Islamic State militants in Iraq were destroying the ancient fortress city of Hatra with sledgehammers and gunfire. Every artefact that showed previous Islamic civilisations’ appetite for knowledge of history and other cultures reminded me of IS’s recent rampages at the Mosul museum and in Nineveh, and the Afghan Taliban’s destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas.
Violent extremist groups’ disdain of history — ‘idol worship’, as IS has termed it — is as grotesque as their rejection of the fact that Islam has always been interpreted and embraced through the lens of local cultures and experiences, making it diverse, resilient and relevant. The fundamentalism that drives these groups is perverse and antithetical to the trajectory of the Muslims, and yet effective in producing fear and insecurity among people who are made to believe that their cultural heritage is somehow inadequate.
Pakistan is not immune to the threat of cultural cleansing that violent extremist groups pose. Taliban militants have persecuted musicians and bombed Sufi shrines.
Under now TTP chief Mullah Fazlullah’s watch, they also tried to destroy seventh-century statues of Buddha in Swat’s Jihanabad area in 2007.
No National Action Plan to counter terrorism in Pakistan can be deemed complete if it does not include provisions to protect and promote the country’s unique cultural heritage, especially its origins in an ancient civilisation and its unique position as a major centre of Buddhism. Armed guards at museum doors are not the only answer — the government must also promote curricular activities to ensure that students are exposed to Pakistan’s historic treasures and taught about their indigenous heritage, as well as the fact that Islamic civilisations have historically celebrated knowledge and cultural diversity.
It is not difficult to imagine a near future in which evidence of our rich cultural and scholarly past will only survive in the museums of the West. Given how toxic public discourse in Pakistan (and other parts of the Muslim world) has become, any attempt to reclaim this heritage will easily be discredited by fundamentalists as a ‘Western’ project or conspiracy. We must pre-empt such a future, for nothing could be more tragic than willful ignorance.
The writer is a freelance journalist.
Published in Dawn, April 13th, 2015