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Diversity Tour

Islamic art encompasses works produced in a vast array of techniques, materials, forms, and styles over 1,400 years of history. The artists who produced these works, and those who used and treasured them, have come from a variety of ethnic, religious, and class backgrounds. This audio guide has been designed to highlight objects that illustrate how such diversity has fundamentally shaped the arts of the Islamic world.

Hanging Lamp

Near East, probably Syrian region, 10th to 12th Century
Glass, light aquamarine and dark blue, inclusions and numerous bubbles; blown, tooled, applied, worked on the pontil

More About Hanging Lamp

In many Islamic societies, lamps from pre-Islamic periods continued to be used in both secular and religious contexts. Over time, however, changing needs and tastes inspired craftsmen to reshape these older forms or invent new ones. Though clay or metal remained popular materials for these vessels, glass was highly valued for its translucency and ability to transmit light. This lamp, probably made in the Syrian region due to the use of aquamarine glass, is a beautiful example of Islamic glasswork. Its globular body, with a wide neck of the about the same diameter as the body rests on a footring that was achieved by folding and pushing-in the underside of the base. Six suspension rings or handles of dark blue glass were applied on its shoulders. Its shape is a recognizable type; a nearly identical lamp—though larger and with a dark blue thread around the rim—can be found in the Khalili Collection.[1]


Further Reading

The decorative elements on this lamp are typical of Islamic glasswork, particularly that of the 10th to 12th centuries.[2] Each of the lamp’s suspension rings has a flat disc and a looping trail on top of a thin glass thread. To create the suspension rings, dark blue glass discs would have been applied on the shoulders and then continuing threads would have been pulled down the body to the footring. The thread was pulled up again in numerous loops and curls and thus serves as a decorative element already introduced in late Antiquity. If used in a hanging position, chains were attached to the suspension rings. With its thick footring which has a pontil mark, the lamp could also have been used in a standing position. The lamp may have been made for a secular building, a mosque, a religious school, or even a tomb of a venerated person.

Like others of its type, this lamp has no cylindrical tube to serve as a wick holder. A wick (perhaps held by a metal strip attached to the rim) could have floated on a layer of oil and water. Cost and availability generally determined the type of oil used; sesame oil was a popular choice. Such a wick-holding system meant that any open vessel could have served as a lamp.

During the excavations in the northeastern Iranian town of Nishapur, different kinds of lamps used in the 9th and 10th centuries were found.[3] These include smaller examples of cylindrical beakers with a wick holder attached to the bottom of the lamp, and lamps with applied handles (both coloured and clear) around their shoulders.

Hanging lamps from other regions could also be plain and even without a foot.[4] A type of lamp excavated in Old Cairo/Egypt and datable to the 9th or 10th century has the shape of a conical vessel which sat on a stem, and may have been placed in a metal ring to be used as a hanging lamp.[5]

The famous large lamps with enamelled decoration and inscriptions used in the Ayyubid (1169–1260) and Mamluk (1250–1517) periods in Egypt and Syria can reasonably be called “mosque lamps” because inscriptions identify the names of Sultans who ordered them to be made for newly built mosques or other religious buildings.[6] Only these lamps feature a Qur’anic verse from the Chapter of Light: “Allah is the Light of the heavens and the earth. The similitude of His Light is as a niche wherein is a lamp. The lamp is in a glass. The glass is as it were a shining star.”[7]

— Jens Kröger

[1] Goldstein, 82–83, no. 80. See also Goldstein, 82-83, no.82 and E. Marianne Stern, 321, no. 183.
[2] Pinder-Wilson, 123, no. 154.
[3] Kröger, 179–183; Carboni and Whitehouse, 20, Fig. 5.
[4] Carboni and Whitehouse, 77, no. 7.
[5] Ibid., 76, no. 6.
[6] Ibid., 226–238, nos. 113–118.
[7] Quoted from Pinder-Wilson, 135, no. 167.

Planispheric Astrolabe

Spain, Toledo (probably), 14th century
bronze, engraved and inlaid with silver

More About Planispheric astrolabe

This little object made of bronze and silver—heavy in the hand and cool to the touch—speaks of a dynamic time in Spain’s history, when many advances in art, science, and mathematics were made. It is an astrolabe, used for finding the positions of stars and planets in the heavens in order to determine the time of day in a particular location. First developed by the ancient Greeks, the astrolabe was refined and improved by scientists working in medieval Islamic lands. Its primary function in Islamic societies was to find the times for daily prayer. By rotating the movable parts that indicate the relative positions of heavenly bodies, the user can determine exact times and distances on earth. It is also a fine example of the art of metalworking. This particular instrument is unusual among other astrolabes of the period due to the inscriptions on its surface in three languages: Latin, Arabic, and Hebrew. The presence of these three scripts reflects the social and cultural diversity of al-Andalus, medieval Muslim-ruled Spain.


Further Reading

The study of the heavens is as old as humanity. Learning and predicting the movements of the stars and planets may have afforded a sense of control to people who otherwise considered themselves at the mercy of the elements. Ancient civilizations in the Indus Valley and Mesopotamia have both left material evidence of using the observation of the heavens to make calendars.[1]

The word “astrolabe” and the Arabic word asturlab are derived from the Greek term astrolabon for “star taker.”[2] The instrument has been called many names, some of them quite poetic: the polymath medieval scholar Al-Biruni identified it as a Greek instrument, calling it “mirror of the stars” and “taker of the stars.”[3] These epithets imply a certain mastery over the skies by being able to read them. Just as the ancient Greeks inherited Indian and Babylonian knowledge and developed it further, scientists and philosophers in Muslim-ruled societies took Greek and Indian scientific discoveries and carried them forward. This activity was enabled by the Translation Movement, starting in the 8th century in Baghdad, which saved ancient knowledge in philosophy and science.[4]

The astrolabe is a two-dimensional model of the three-dimensional celestial sphere as seen from earth. Although the astrolabe had a range of functions in the societies that used it, its primary purpose in medieval Islamic societies was to ascertain the times for prayer.[5] Contemporary humans are surrounded by devices that inform us of the time of day; however, before mechanical clocks were in widespread use around the 17th century, the time was measured in unequal hours no matter how long or short the day or night actually were, and it was difficult to establish consistent prayer times. Each planispheric astrolabe—the most common type—has a series of plates showing the sky at a specific time and place. The four plates of this instrument are for Mecca, Jerusalem, Algiers, and Reims, France.

This astrolabe was fashioned in Spain, probably in Toledo. For three hundred years, from 711 to 1085, Toledo was an important centre of astronomy.[6] It was also a centre of what has been called the “convivencia,” the time in Spain when Muslims, Jews and Christians lived together and got along without living in a constant state of opposition and war. From the inscriptions on the plates we can identify three makers. This first maker added the Latin inscriptions, so he was probably Christian, and most certainly an expert astrolabe maker and engraver.[7] A Spanish Arab named Mas’ud added the Arabic inscriptions. He would have been living in Christian-ruled Spain as a mudejar, a Muslim who remained in Spain, but perhaps he planned to flee to Algeria, which is why he added the plate for Algiers.[8] The Hebrew writing appears on three of the four plates: their latitudes are scratched on the rim in Hebrew characters.

— Patricia Bentley

1. Syed Mohammad Ashfaque, “Astronomy in the Indus Valley Civilization: A Survey of the Problems and Possibilities of the Ancient Indian Astronomy and Cosmology in the Light of Indus Script Decipherment by the Finnish Scholars,” Centaurus, vol. 21, no. 2, June 1977, 175.
2. David A. King, In Synchrony with the Heavens: Studies in Astronomical Timekeeping and Instrumentation in Medieval Islamic Civilization. Vol. 2 (Leiden: Brill, 2004), 583; Harold N. Saunders, All the Astrolabes (Oxford: Senecio, 1984), 2.
3. King, 591.
4. Dimitri Gutas, Greek Thought, Arab Culture: The Graeco-Arabic Translation Movement in Baghdad and Early ʻAbbāsid Society (2nd-4th/8th-10th C.) (London: Routledge, 1998), 11–24.
5. Henry S. Kim et al., Aga Khan Museum Guide (Toronto, ON: Aga Khan Museum, 2014), 78.
6.  Sir Roland Jackson, 1001 Inventions: Muslim Heritage in Our World. Ed. Salim T. S. Al-Hassani, 2nd ed., (Manchester: Foundation for Science, Technology, and Civilization, 2011), 282.
7. King, 900.
8. King, 853.

Pharmacy Jars (Albarelli)

Syria, 15th century
fritware, underglaze-painted
AKM567 and AKM568
Two blue patterned ceramic pharmacy jars with a large body and tapered opening. Patterns include flowers, vines, fruits and other cymbals.

Ceramic vessels were historically traded for their aesthetic value or as containers of valuable cargo. These two pharmaceutical jars, known as albarelli, are among a group of four magnificent examples from the Aga Khan Museum’s collection, ranging in date between the thirteenth and fifteenth centuries and used for trading valuable pharmaceutical substances. Collectively, they highlight the active trade between the Mamluks (1250–1517) and Italian city-states such as Venice and Florence. This unique pair of albarelli is typical of the form, style, and design of ceramics made in Syria and Egypt in the fifteenth century, with the decorative motifs organized in clearly defined registers of intricate foliage painted in cobalt-blue under a clear glaze. The fleur-de-lys heraldic shield in the central band of each of the albarelli is most probably the coat-of-arms of Florence associated with the merchants who commissioned the precious cargo held in them or the city in which the lucrative trade was based.

Qur’an Manuscript

Indonesia, 1804/AH 1219copied by: Ismail b. `Abdullah of Makassar
Ink, opaque watercolour, and gold on paper

This rare example of a complete and finely illuminated Qur’an from Sulawesi Island in Indonesia is a magnificent example of the localized artistic traditions in which Muslims chose to copy and decorate their sacred text. The Qur’an has three fully illuminated spreads with complex geometric illuminations in red, black, brown, ochre, and reserved white. What is most interesting here, though, is that in addition to the usual markers at the end of each verse, and the distinctive marker on every fifth verse, this Qur’an has marginal markers in a variety of circle and rosette forms to indicate other points of interest, including the middle of the Qur’an and the beginning of each juz’. It also includes an extensive amount of marginalia on recitation variances, grammar, and interpretation.