International Day of Islamic Art: Five must-see collections around the world

Proclaimed by Unesco in 2019, the day is being officially celebrated for the first time today

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This November 18 marks the inaugural International Day of Islamic Art.

It is a day meant to commemorate past and present artistic expressions of Islam and celebrate the contribution of Islamic art to artistic movements and culture around the world.

The International Day of Islamic Art was proclaimed last year at the 40th session of the Unesco General Conference. Audrey Azoulay, director general of Unesco, said marking the day will also “foster tolerance between peoples and support cultural rapprochement, both of which are possible through the power of art".

“To engage with Islamic art is to discover a history made up of exchanges, contacts and influences, from Europe to Africa and from the Mediterranean basin to the Indian Ocean,” she said in a statement.

To mark the occasion, The National looks at five must-see Islamic art collections from museums around the world.

Museum of Islamic Art in Cairo, Egypt 

The Museum of Islamic Art has one of the largest collections of Islamic art of any institution. At any given time, it displays more than 4,000 artefacts from across the Islamic world.

The museum is also home to more than 100,000 artworks from all periods of Islamic civilisation. The collection includes rare manuscripts of the Quran, as well as calligraphy works written in silver ink and on pages with decorative borders. It also includes rare woodworks and artworks made of crystal, metal, wood, glass and textiles.

The exhibited works in the museum are categorised by the Umayyad, Abbasid, Ayyubid, Mamluk and Ottoman periods in one wing, whereas another is divided into themes of science, astronomy, calligraphy, coins and textiles from various periods.

The building itself is also a work of art, designed by Italian architect Alfonso Maniscalco in the neo-Mamluk style. The museum was completed in 1902 and its upper storey is home to the National Library.

In 2014, a car bomb that detonated outside the nearby police headquarters caused significant damage to the century-old museum's exterior and destroyed 179 artefacts. The museum went through rigorous renovations and reopened three years later.

Sharjah Museum of Islamic Civilisation, UAE

With more than 5,000 artefacts, the Sharjah Museum of Islamic Civilisation has one of the most important Islamic art collections in the world. The objects in the museum's collection include calligraphy, carvings, ceramics, manuscripts and scientific instruments.

Located along Corniche Street on the opposite side of the Sharjah Creek, the museum, which opened in 2008, is instantly recognisable because of its size and distinctive golden dome.

The museum exhibits its collections across seven thematic galleries, six of which are dedicated to its permanent collection. There are galleries that focus on the history of Islam, displaying rare copies of the Quran, as well as a Kiswah used to cover the Kaaba in Makkah. Early black-and-white images show people from Sharjah preparing to go to Hajj.

Other galleries in the museum are devoted to Islamic science, technology and innovation, exhibiting early complex clocks, navigational tools and weapons. Galleries are also dedicated to artworks and displays of modest fashion and contemporary pieces.

Aga Khan Museum in Toronto, Canada 

The Aga Khan Museum is the first museum in the western world dedicated to Islamic art and objects. The space is home to more than 1,000 rare objects including artefacts from the private collections of Aga Khan IV, the 49th and current Imam of Nizari Ismailism, the Institute of Ismaili Studies in London, as well as objects from the collection of Prince and Princess Sadruddin Aga Khan.

Its collection features rare manuscripts of diverse artistic styles and materials embodying more than 10 centuries of human history. Among the most prized items in the collection is the earliest known copy of Ibn Sina's Qanun fil-Tibb (The Canon of Medicine), which dates back to 1052, as well as a page from the famous 9th-century Blue Quran.

Established in 2014, the museum was designed by Pritzker Prize-winning Japanese architect Fumihiko Maki. Clad in white granite, the rectilinear building is meant to be a celebration of light, oriented 45 degrees to the solar north.

Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia 

Located in the heart of Kuala Lumpur’s tourist district, the Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia houses more than 7,000 artefacts across its 12 galleries.

The museum, which is believed to be the largest of its kind in South-east Asia, holds samples of Islamic architecture, Quran manuscripts, traditional jewellery, ceramics and textiles.

The museum’s unique architecture features an open gallery plan, eliminating spatial divisions so that visitors walk through one exhibition space to another without interruption, giving a sense of continuity.

The museum also has a robust education programme, aimed at both children and adults, with workshops and courses in Islamic calligraphy, glass design and soap-making. There are even online resources dedicated to teaching calligraphy to children.

The Pergamonmuseum in Berlin, Germany

The Pergamonmuseum, located in the historic city centre of Berlin, is one of the most visited art museums in Germany. The museum includes three wings, two of which are the Middle East Museum and the Museum of Islamic Art.

The latter contains artworks produced between the 8th and 19th centuries in countries from Spain to the Middle East and India. One of the most important objects in its collection is the Mshatta facade, which was once part of the 8th-century Umayyad residential palace of Qasr Mshatta, an unfinished early Islamic desert palace located in present-day Jordan. The facade was a gift from Ottoman Sultan Abdul Hamid II to Emperor Wilhelm II of Germany.

The Aleppo Room is another of the museum’s notable attractions. The exhibit shows the reception room from a prosperous broker’s home in Aleppo during the Ottoman era. The room features crimson walls made of wood and metal coatings, with intricately decorated and painted panels consisting of floral and geometric compositions based on Islamic book illustrations.

The museum is currently closed but is scheduled to reopen on Monday, November 30.

Other museums

There are a number of other notable Islamic art collections around the world, including the collections at Louvre Abu Dhabi, the Turkish and Islamic Arts Museum in Istanbul, the Musee du Louvre in Paris, the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, as well museums in Makkah such as Al-Zaher Palace Museum, all of which contain intricately crafted objects from different periods of Islamic history, highlighting its contribution to artistic styles around the world.