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“The Divine Word of Islam”

Though the Jews are known as the people of the book, it might just as rightly be said that the Arabs are the people of the word. The prophets Moses, David, and Jesus are all recognized in the Koran for having delivered their own books to the religious tradition —Torah, Psalms, and Gospels, respectively—but these are superceded by Mohammed, to whom the word of Allah is thought to have been revealed directly by the angel Gabriel. The Moslem tradition holds that one night in Ramadan around the year 610, the angel ordered the sleeping Mohammed, “Recite! Your Lord is the Most Bountiful One, who by the pen taught man what he did not know.” When the prophet awoke, the angel’s words were said to be “inscribed upon his heart.”

Because Allah is believed to have spoken in Arabic, the Koran—it means “recitation”—is considered a transcription of a tablet preserved in heaven, and any translation of the holy book into another language is, strictly speaking, not the Koran. Unlike, say, the early Irish monks whose beautifully ornamented copies of the Bible were translations from a distant, foreign tongue, the Islamic calligraphers who copied the Koran were imbued with an overwhelming sense that each and every word of

“Purity of writing is purity of soul,” said the prophet, and the Koran folios now on exhibit in “The Divine Word of Islam” at the Sackler Gallery are beautiful testimony to just how sensually meditative and mystically complex such purity can be. Collected by French jeweler Henri Vever in the early part of this century, these Koran pages—taken from the Sackler’s extensive Vever collection and organized by Marianna Shreve Simp son, curator of Near Eastern Islamic art—shine light upon a faith that remains little understood and certainly underappreciated here in the West. Korans have traditionally been crafted in every conceivable size and shape; one, it is said, so enormous that a single man could not possibly carry it alone, another so minute it was inscribed on the head of a pin. Like Buddhists who keep their copies of the I Ching wrapped in silk, the Moslem faithful keep copies of the Koran at home, where its mere presence is believed to bring blessings upon the house. The elegant, calligraphic volumes on display here, crafted for the likes of sultans, are the products of the very finest court artisans working with the most splendid of materials and display a sensual reverence that at first seems strange to those accustomed to worshiping the deity and not his words.

Indeed, the most powerful impression of this exhibition is of an all-encompassing loveliness. Every page is akin to a physical manifestation of the Koranic image of paradise, the words of Allah literally suffused with splendor and delight. In one manuscript from 16th-century Persia or Turkey, an eight- pointed medallion surrounds the holy text with a blissful field of midnight blue, dotted with pink and yellow flowers. The verse is set off in a globe of glowing gold: “If men and jinn combined to write the like of this Koran, they would surely fail to compose the like, though they helped one another as best they could.” Two pages from 14th-century Persia adorn the bismillah (the holy invocation that begins all but one of the Koran’ssuras, or chapters) with characters and ornaments of a kind that today remain inscrutable to scholars and the faithful alike. Several suras are headed by cryptic figures; it has become traditional for commentators on the Koran to explain them simply by saying: “Allah alone knows what he means by these letters.”

This enigmatic quality is quite beautifully embodied in two pages from a 16th-century Persian manuscript; the curvaceous text is enmeshed in a swirl of elaborate design, seeming to wind within and without in the sensorily unreliable manner of mystical experience. Sometimes the verse is plainly visible. At other times, it seems almost indistinguishable from the luminous celebration that encompasses it, as if to make manifest the unity promised in the Koran’s antepenultimate sura: “Allah is one.” The standard art-historical explication of Islam’s unique force is that it presented a blend of the universal and the ethnic—that like Christianity, it was equally open to all, and like Judaism, it was the faith of a particular people with a distinct language, and so retained its integrity as it was borne from place to place. These folios indeed present the viewer with powerful images of a faith largely inscrutable to the outsider; the uninitiated would hardly know they are bearing witness to the sacred words of faith—indeed, to any words at all. But the universal appeal of the beautiful calls out in equal measure; the gold and pulverized pearl, the rose water and lustrous lampblack infuse these

The weakness of “The Divine Word of Islam” is its modest size; fewer than two dozen objects are on display in the exhibition, and the overwhelming number of these are from 16th- and 17th-century Persia. While they are marvelously evocative of the faith’s correlation between word and reverence, they hardly do justice to the depth and breadth of the tradition. One wishes the Sackler had troubled to include examples from other periods and places, such as the 15th-century Turkish calligraphy which, with its colorful abstractions, prefigures the work of 20th-century painters like Mondrian and Rothko. That small cavil aside, “The Divine Word of Islam” is positively illuminating.