The International Day of Islamic Art: from history to the present day

18 November 2020


What is Islam? What associations do you have when you hear about Muslims? Unfortunately, in light of the tragic events of recent years, these associations are becoming increasingly of negative nature. This is a certain “merit” for terrorist organizations, which, it is worth emphasizing once again, have neither a nation, nor a religion. More and more often in the media, we encounter references to negative facts alongside “Islam”. We also witness the widespread denigration of the Islamic religion and that precious contribution, which has been made by the Muslim civilization to various areas of society.


Bahrain’s role in this regard is particularly important. It is at Bahrain’s initiative that the whole world now has the opportunity to celebrate the International Day of Islamic Art on 18th November. After all, what is art? It is a reflection of culture, a reflection of faith. It is the most vivid opportunity to immerse oneself in the characteristics of a particular culture –Islam, in this case. Islamic art today is the most efficient way to introduce the entire world community to the culture of the Muslim civilization and to immerse in the centuries-old teaching of Prophet Muhammad, which is based on peace, harmony, acceptance and study of cultural and historical diversity of the world.


And it was Bahrain, a kind of lawyer of Islam in general, which managed to convey this idea not only to its colleagues, but to the entire world community. In September of the year 2018, Bahrain Authority for Culture and Antiquities launched a rather extensive campaign at UNESCO headquarters to establish the International Day of Muslim Art. The city of Muharraq was proposed as the center for the world Islamic art. At the 205th session of the UNESCO Executive Board in Paris, the proposal was accepted and since then the 18th of November has been considered the International Day of Islamic Art.


In order for UNESCO to support the initiative, Bahrain selected and presented to the public the brightest pieces of Islamic art from the collections of the Bahrain National Museum. A calligrapher dressed in traditional Bahraini costume, welcomed guests and wrote down their names in classical Arabic calligraphy as a gesture of gratitude for supporting this event. In addition to it, the English and French translation of a book by Egyptian historic scholar Mohammed Abdulaziz Marzouq on the uniqueness and beauty of Islamic art was distributed.


It is fair to emphasize that our society had long needed to establish the International Day of Islamic Art because even nowadays, when anybody can find an infinite amount of information on any issue, the contribution of the Islamic civilization to the development of art and society as a whole remains unstudied in depth. It is extremely important for us not to just preserve Islamic art, but also to popularize and develop public awareness of this issue. Moreover, this is a good opportunity to get to know Islam more deeply and effectively combat Islamophobic attitudes within society.


On the International Day of Muslim Art it is especially important to visit exhibitions that reveal pages of the history of the Muslim civilization that were unknown until now, to imbue the spirit of Islamic art and visit museums, the entire halls of which are dedicated to the beauty and splendor of centuries-old Muslim art.


We invite you to take a virtual tour of such museums and start your journey through centuries-old Islamic art, which has found expression in various hypostases.



Museums of Islamic Art


The Berlin Museum of Islamic Art was founded by a German art historian Wilhelm von Bode in 1904. It is a part of the Pergamon Museum located on Berlin’s Museum Island in the center of the city. The formation of the local Islamic collection began after Ottoman Sultan Abdul Hamid II presented German Emperor Wilhelm II with a collection of ancient carpets and friezes from the palace in Mshatta.


Von Bode’s attempt to establish a museum in which works by masters from all over the Muslim world would be collected faced strong opposition from conservatives. At the beginning of the XX century, little was known in Europe about the ancient and distinctive culture of Islamic countries. It took a long time to educate and persevere in order to overcome prejudices by opening up the civilization unknown to visitors.


The very first exhibit of the future museum, the frieze from the unfinished palace of Caliph al-Walid II ibn Yazid, turned out to be a real masterpiece of early Islamic art. The ruins of the Caliph’s palace were discovered 30 km south of Amman, the current capital of Jordan, in 1840. The palace was built during the brief reign of one of the latest Caliphs of the Umayyad al-Walid II dynasty in 743-744. The Caliph probably wanted to build his residence as a magnificent castle, away from the busy capital, Damascus, where political unrest was constantly taking place.


Al-Walid did not manage to implement his plan. He was killed in April 744. After the Caliph’s death, construction of the palace was no longer resumed. After a while, it was destroyed by an earthquake. After that, the ruins of the structure were then covered with sand and were only partially excavated in the middle of the XIX century.


The Berlin Museum of Islamic Art has exhibits that cover all regions and historical periods. The museum displays the rarest exhibits from Al-Andalus, Morocco, Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Persia, Afghanistan, India and Uzbekistan. One of the most amazing works in the museum is the Aleppo room. It was designed by Syrian masters under the direction of Halab Shah ibn Isa at the beginning of the XVII century on request of a rich Christian merchant from the city of Aleppo. The room is made of wood panels covered with multicolor paintings and inlaid with non-ferrous metals. The themes of the paintings are based on the traditions of Islamic book illustration, consisting of floral and geometric compositions made in the Ottoman style.


The Museum of Islamic Art in Cairo is one of the largest in the world. It has a unique collection of wooden artifacts, ceramic, glass, crystal and textile objects from all over the Muslim world. Over the years, the museum has exhibited about 2500 artifacts in 25 galleries, despite the fact that there are more than 102 000 exhibits in the museum. One of the most famous exhibits is a rare manuscript copy of the Quran written in silver paint.


In the capital of Qatar, Doha, there is another Islamic museum, which has had its own building since 1980. It is one of the most complete collections, which has been composed from the three continents for 1400 years. The exhibits on display are from Spain, Iraq, Iran, India, Turkey, Egypt and Central Asia. There are objects made of ceramics, metal, wood, textile, glass, as well as jewelry that date from the VII to the XIX centuries. Each artifact has its own history.


The Aga Khan Museum, located in Toronto, Canada, deserves special attention. This is a museum of Islamic and Iranian art, in particular. It has collections of Islamic art from all periods of Islam’s existence. Besides, a private collection of King Aga Khan, prince and princess Sadruddin Aga Khan, and the Institute of Islamic Studies in London, is presented here. The museum was named after 77-year old Prince Shah Karim al-Hussayni.


The Aga Khan Museum is also a scientific institution, the mission of which is to collect, research and exhibit pieces of art from the Islamic civilization. They are portraits, textiles, miniatures, ceramics, books, manuscripts and musical instruments, representing over ten centuries of human history and covering a geographical area from the Iberian Peninsula to China. Before the exhibits received a permanent building, they often had been exhibited in museums around the world.


One can find here the earliest known copy of Avicenna (Ibn Sina)’s work “Canon of Medical Science”, dated 1052, and the pages of the Blue Quran of the IX-X centuries. The pearl of the permanent collection became 150 illustrated pages of the X century poem “Shahnameh” about Persian kings and heroes.


According to Aga Khan, one of his favourite exhibits is an astrolabe from Spain. On its copper surface there are engraved inscriptions in Latin, Arabic and Hebrew – a reminder of his multifunctional use among merchants of the XIV century.


The Turkish and Islamic Arts Museum is also interesting. It is located in Fatih district, Istanbul and was founded in 1524 at Ibrahim Pasha Palace. The museum’s collection includes the best examples of calligraphy, tiles, carpets and ethnographic images on objects reflecting the diversity of Turkish culture. Muslim dwellings of different periods are recreated and exhibited here. 


There are amazing museums of Islamic art and culture also in Spain, which, as we know, was a Muslim country for a long time. Granada became the capital of the Moors during their rule in Spain. Wishing to recreate a peace of heaven on earth, in the XIV century they built the Alhambra architectural and park ensemble, which is translated as “red castle”. This palace is undoubtedly an architectural masterpiece in every respect and is an open-air museum. The composition of the building itself the inclusion of wonderful gardens and reservoirs is a vivid example of Muslims’ vision of Paradise and its eternity, which the worthy will be rewarded with.


Alhambra was celebrated by poets because its image against the background of snow-covered mountains and green trees looks really marvelous. All buildings are buried in flowers and decorated with the ornament typical of Moorish buildings.


The complex is huge and one can easily lose their way in it. The palace itself is a separate city, which has since been greatly expanded, and each ruler has left their own indelible mark. For instance, Charles V even built his own palace within the complex in the post-Nasrid era. 


Generalife deserves special attention. It is a famous garden, which consists of flowers and a wonderful labyrinth of carved shrubs and fountains. These palaces take one’s breath away - extreme attention to details, symmetry, beautiful Quranic verses and perfect interplay between open courtyards and interior spaces. 


For many centuries, the Nasrid palaces remained their specific Islamic identity. Despite the destruction of many parts of Alhambra by Catholics, French bombardment in the 1800s and total oblivion in the XVIII and XIX centuries, the Nasrid palaces remain largely untouched. They consist of three separate buildings called the Mexuar, the palaces of Comares and the Palace of the Lions.


The most ancient part of Alhambra is Alcazaba. This is an original fortress, which had been built before the emergence of palaces and gardens. The Nasrides used the fortress as a military base for the Royal Guard. Climbing the towers, each higher than the previous one, one can look around and see what the Sultans themselves once saw - Granada in all its inexpressible beauty, surrounded by the majestic snow caps of the Sierra Nevada.



One of the youngest Russian museums of Islamic culture, the Saint Petersburg Museum of Islamic Culture, closes our selection. The idea to establish the Museum of Islamic Culture belongs to two people – Director of the Hermitage Mikhail Piotrovsky and now former Deputy Director of the Kunstkamera (Peter the Great Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography) Efim Rezvan. According to the creators’ idea, the museum of Islamic art should become not just a venue for exhibitions, but a cultural centre. One part of it will operate as a museum until 7 p.m., while the second part will be a creative space, which means not only lectures by specialists, but also film screenings and even international Islamic fashion weeks. There are no analogues to this space in Russia. According to Efim Rezvan, the main purpose of the museum is to show Islam from an unusual point of view for Russian visitors, to present to the general public a true, not false, image of Islam, which is called by the media and social networks.


Ilmira Gafiyatullina

Photo: Creative Commons