Matchless tolerance of the 18th century brass astrolabe

The 18th-century instrument is a fine example of craftsmanship that embraced Islam, but also other faiths and cultures. After a showing in Dubai, the device is set to take its place beside other superb Islamic art at the soon-to-open Aga Khan Museum in Toronto, Rym Ghazal reports

Engraving on an astrolabe belonging to the Aga Khan’s private collection shows Latin, Arabic and Hebrew characters. Centre, A 15th-century painted tile from Syria. Right, a 16th-century folio from Shah-Nameh (Book of Kings) from Iran.
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The 18th century brass astrolabe, an instrument for measuring movements of the Moon and stars, was engraved by maker Haji Ali in Latin and Arabic, but Hebrew characters are also faintly visible.

For Dr Henry Kim, the director and chief executive of the new Aga Khan Museum, this object is redolent of a more tolerant age about which we may have forgotten.

“What people often find surprising about art and artefacts from the Islamic civilisation is their secular nature, and how often they embraced all religions and different facets of cultures,” Dr Kim says.

Driven by the need to know prayer times and better navigate across an expanding empire, the Muslim world perfected the astrolabe, which was first described by the Greeks.

It helped to establish the times of day and night, measured the movements of the stars and determined positions when travelling.

The astrolabe, along with four other items, are from the private collection of the Aga Khan and have been passed down through the family.

With the museum to open in the Canadian city of Toronto this year, they were flown to Dubai for a brief display at the Ismaili Centre last week as part of Art Dubai’s VIP Collector series.

“Every object tells a story and reflects a world so diverse and so intricate that one cannot make generalisations about the Islamic world,” says Dr Kim.

“There are layers and layers of stories, and the museum will showcase the artistic creativity and achievements of Muslim civilisations over 1,400 years, from the Iberian Peninsula and North Africa in the West to China and South-east Asia in the East.

“I think people will be pleasantly surprised when they discover just how much the arts of Islam are part of our shared global cultural heritage.”

On display next to the astrolabe was a 16th century folio from the Shah-Nameh or Book of Kings produced for Safavid Shah Tahmasp I. The piece, depicting a battle scene, is entitled Alkus Slain by Rustam.

The Persian epic composed by Abu Al Qasim Firdausi in the 10th to 11th centuries was gloriously illustrated in an era when the best miniature artists immortalised scenes and stories from history and mythology in vibrant colours, in gold and silver.

Other items included an almost perfect mother of pearl from the 18th century with intricately carved inscriptions of blessings and protection.

There are two ceramic pieces, one with a floral design from the 15th century Mameluke era in Syria and the other from Turkey in the 16th century, its blue Iznik glaze reflecting Chinese influences.

When it opens in autumn, the 10,000 square-metre museum will be the first in North America dedicated to Islamic arts and cultures.

It will house a collection of more than 1,000 artefacts and artworks including ceramics, metalwork, ivory, stone and wood, textile and carpet, glass and rock crystal objects, parchment and paintings on paper.

The aim is to present an overview of the artistic accomplishments of Muslim civilisations from the Iberian Peninsula to China.

There will also be an active Islamic performing arts and learning programmes aimed at all ages.

Guests in Dubai have already been given a taste of what to expect with a live performance from the renowned sitar player Mohammed Assani and tabla virtuoso Shahbaz Hussain.

The Aga Khan Museum will include a 350-seat auditorium and recording studios.

One of the highlights of the museum’s collection is the earliest surviving manuscript of volume five of the Qanun of Medicine of Ibn Sina dated 1052 CE.

The work dates back to early 11th century Iran, but was eventually was used all over the Middle East and Europe as a standard medical text for 500 years.

One of the most important encyclopaedias of medieval medical knowledge, the Qanun, or canon, formed the basis of medical teaching at European universities.

“There is a renewed interest in Islamic art and artefacts, where all the world museums are currently redoing their galleries, for as a discipline it is relatively new and it took the western world time to recognise Islamic art and culture,” says Dr Kim.

“There is also a larger number of Muslim populations in North America and Europe that recognise Islamic art as part of their culture and want to know and see more of it.”

This week, Australia’s very first Islamic museum was officially opened in Melbourne.

One of the guests of honour at the preview organised by the Aga Khan Museum in collaboration with the Canadian ambassador to the UAE, was Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak, Minister of Culture, Youth and Community Development.

Sheikh Nahyan admitted he wished the Aga Khan Museum was opening in the UAE, adding: “The museum preserves important artefacts of our Islamic heritage.

“They communicate our history, culture, and art. Those artefacts convey a clear sense of Muslim diversity, a diversity that deserves global prominence.

“I strongly believe that culture and the arts are important catalysts for peace, understanding and harmony in the world.

“Art allows us to celebrate the principles and values that unite us across national and cultural boundaries. and highlights our common values and pursuits.”

The theme of pluralism is at the heart of the vision of the current Aga Khan, the spiritual leader of the world’s 15 million Ismaili Muslims, who was made an honorary citizen of Canada in 2010. It is a distinction he shares with the Dalai Lama.

On the museum’s website, the Aga Khan says: “The 1,428 years of the Ummah embrace many civilisations and are therefore characterised by an astonishing pluralism.

“In particular, this geographic, ethnic, linguistic and religious pluralism has manifested itself at the most defining moments in the history of the Ummah.

“The Aga Khan Museum collection will highlight objects drawn from every region and every period, and created from every kind of material in the Muslim world.”

With a global reputation as a patron of arts, culture and social enterprises around the world, the current Aga Khan is Prince Shah Karim Al Hussaini, who became the 49th Imam of the Shia Ismaili Muslims in 1957, when he succeeded his grandfather, then a member of the 10 richest families in the world.

The Aga Khan has been to Dubai three times – in 1983 for his 25th anniversary as the Imam, in 2003 for the foundation ceremony of the Ismaili centre, and five years later for its opening.

In 2010 the centre received the “Patron of the Arts Award” by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President and Ruler of Dubai, in recognition for its contribution to Dubai’s cultural landscape.

The co-host for the event, Arif Lalani, the Canadian ambassador and his country’s special envoy to the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, said that: “Canada, like the UAE, brings together people from different cultures and backgrounds and values pluralism.

“It is natural, therefore, that a museum that helps people understand the history and value of different cultures should find a home in Canada.”

To find out more about the Aga Khan Museum and its collection visit