Understanding Islam at the David Museum, Copenhagen

Today, we have little exposure to the Islamic world and culture. Globally, the tense narrative around Islam has led people to associate the religion with violence; giving rise to a wave of anti-Muslim sentiment. This discomfort mostly rises from a lack of familiarity.

This Museum in Copenhagen, challenges old clichés about Islam, Islamic art and Muslims!

The David Museum is home to one of the world’s ten finest collections of Islamic art. The museum demonstrates how cultural institutions can play a huge role in challenging prejudices, encouraging mutual understanding, and broaden the scope for understanding different cultures.

In this post, we discover Islam, through the art collection of the David Museum.  

Even if you are equipped with basic knowledge about Islam, the museum allows you to explore the depths of it – alongside micro lessons in Geography. 

This is the kind of museum that makes you wonder about the collection process. The curation is beyond perfect, as the museum takes you through three different perspectives :

1) The geographical expanse of Islam & dynasties

There are 20 galleries that focus on the geographical expanse of Islam covering the region from Spain to India during the 7th – 19th century. You learn about the different dynasties : The Ottomans, Mamluks, Ghaznavids, Timurids, and our favourite Mughals amidst others. Each gallery (dynasty / region) has a fascinating information panel on coins. These coins basically set the historical framework for each gallery.

The introduction to the Islamic Art Gallery begins with background information about The Prophet Muhammad. He was born in Mecca in 570 – an important town on the trade routes that passed through the Arabian peninsula. The Kaaba (the cube shaped building) at that point, held idols and images of various Gods worshipped by the Arab tribes. This is where the Prophet first preached Islam, and was met with much resistance. He thus emigrated to Medina (in 622) with his followers – and this emigration marks the start of the Islamic calendar.

Through their conquests, the Muslims came in contact with other cultures. In Central Asia, they experienced great cultural diversity.

The Mughal India gallery is particularly fascinating. This rare Hamida Banu’s Ramayana for example, illustrates Mughal curiosity around a famous Hindu epic.

The galleries include art and architecture of the regions as well. Take a look at this Akbar-period jaali design.

2) The Museum also focuses on Islam in it’s cultural context.

“Islam” means devotion. In the Islamic world, it was believed that this was not a new religion, but stemmed from the same roots as Judaism and Christianity!

In the Quran too : Adam, Eve, the Snake and Peacock are banished from Paradise

The impact of Islamic scholarship cannot be discounted. In fact, an entire “Resource” Gallery is dedicated to 14 themes of relevance to the understanding of Islam and it’s contribution. Discoveries in astronomy and medical science; development in painting, the discoveries made in the fields of mathematic theory, geometry and optics, which shaped artists’ mastery of perspective in painting : all form a picture of Islam hardly known to the present world.

GEMINI: According to the Quran, stars were the creation of God and could help determine the direction for prayer & time for fasts. This manuscript finds its origins in Greek models, and was authored by Abd al-Rahman al-Sufi (903-986), the court astronomer to the Buyid ruler, Adud al-Dawla in Isfahan in Iran.

A touch screen at the end of the gallery gives a very insightful overview. The themes shed light on the religion, the Prophet Muhammad, the five pillars of Islam, the mosque, sufism, and more.

Did you know, one of the five pillars of Islam also include fasting for Ramadan! Eid is celebrated at the end of the fasting month!

3) Craftsmanship in the Islamic World

Ranging from calligraphy to textiles, different techniques were adopted and developed over centuries – and of course, across dynasties. Exchange of ideas, materials, design and decorative details is quite evident in the objects displayed in this section.

For example, the Kesi technique of tapestry weaving was developed in Mongol China. But this particular one above was made in Iran or Iraq (probably under the supervision of Chinese weavers) – we know this because of the gold thread that has animal origin; and is spun around cotton.

You can also spot Spanish-Muslim ceramic traditions in different earthenware displayed. Particularly fascinating was this Calligraphic Style developed in Spain.

One can’t help but muse that there isn’t one type of Islam and there isn’t one type of Muslim – this is evident across the 20 galleries of the Museum which outlines the encounters of the Islamic World with Europe, Africa, Afghanistan, Iran, China and India.

There are plenty of stunning works in this collection – and in league with the British Museum / Louvre or Met. The museum is free admission to all, and even an entire day might fall short to see the 2/3rds of the 3500-objects on display! Yes, for a Museum, it’s quite rare to display so much of their collection.

Paper-cut calligraphic lion from Turkey. The motif was popular amidst the Bektashi Sufi order. The calligraphy reads “May God Bless his countenance and be satisfied with him, God’s victorious lion Ali ibn Abi Talib” in praise of Ali. This work was created using a knife and not scissors!

This gem of a museum deserves to be much better known. If you travel to Copenhagen, and please do not miss this museum. Right opposite is the King’s garden area – which makes for a great picnic spot before or after your visit.

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