A few days ago, I visited the Islamic Middle East Gallery at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. It had been a few years since I had last been to the museum and the experience provoked some thoughts.
The artifacts on display were undoubtedly beautiful, from the calligraphed stone wash basin from Syria to the ancient but clear Quranic manuscripts and the Egyptian stained-glass lamps. However, as I walked around the gallery I realised that most of the museum’s visitors were viewing the displays in a very different way to me.
Yes, the Syrian washbasin with its intricate stonework was most definitely a work of art, but I also appreciated its design as a practical tool. Why then was it being admired by everyone else solely for its artistic value? Yes, the stained-glass lamps from Egypt were breath-taking, but it seemed that I was the only one who could see they had once served a purpose, and that in their current position, sat inside glass cases, they had been stripped of their true function. How many people viewed, admired, photographed and reflected on these rich cultural and historical objects while never pausing to wonder why they had ever been manufactured, or which problems they had been designed to solve?
Perhaps the best example to explain what this myopic attitude was a man I saw explaining the wash basin to his children. His semi-mystical description of the daily Islamic ablution sounded exotic and glamorous, something that any Muslim who has ever been caught with their foot in the office sink can testify is untrue. The wash basin existed solely to aid in the preparations for prayer, it had never been intended as an adornment to be displayed, dry as a bone, in the middle of a museum gallery. The lamps, which had lit classrooms of Islamic knowledge for centuries, also had never been designed to sit, permanently extinguished, and admired for their design rather than their function.
It occurred to me that these objects, misunderstood and reduced to pieces of art, are a metaphor for how we view our religion. We have been given a mighty doctrine, one which brought justice, peace, and progress for centuries to the lands it ruled. Above all, one which came as a complete way of life to be implemented in everything we do, not as a mere culture or disconnected rituals.
However, if we remove the function and practical purpose of our faith then it becomes a decoration, something to beautify our lives, but at the same time something that has been stripped of its purpose and forced into an unfamiliar environment. Some of us may have forgotten the practical applications of what we believe and favoured some of the more superficial artistic interpretations of our faith. As such, we have lost sight of our purpose in life. Worst of all, we reflect our own short-sightedness onto those around us. Is it any wonder then that we are studied, wondered at, and judged by people, most of whom can’t see beyond the superficial cultures and rituals we blindly subscribe to?
Most poignant of all the gallery’s artifacts was a large Quranic manuscript, which could clearly still be read centuries after it had been written. It was open on the first page of Surah Al-Infitaar, where Allah describes the Day of Judgement. For anyone who understands the verses, they fill the soul with fear and motivate one to adhere tightly towards what we have been commanded. But now the verses lay openly displayed, appreciated by hundreds every day for the beauty of their pages, but understood and followed by almost none who view them.