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Islamic Art Exhibit Big Hit in London


Ten thousand people have already come to see an exhibition featuring Islamic masterpieces at the Ismaili Centre in London. And the exhibition just opened in the middle of July. The collection is a unique preview of 165 works of art from across the Islamic world -- a collection meant to encourage understanding and dialogue. From the British capital, Paul Burge reports.

The "Spirit and Life" is not just an exhibition showing the history of Islamic art. It has a message for its viewers.

Many of the paintings, manuscripts and ceramics show the early overlapping of eastern and western cultures and Muslim and Christian identities.

The artwork spans more than 1,000 years of history from the ninth to the 19th century. The pieces come from a huge geographical area too -- from as far west as Spain, to Indonesia in the Far East.

The exhibition shows how Muslim and Christian cultures exchanged ideas about medicine, education, philosophy, religion and trade over hundreds of years.

Alnoor Merchant is co-curator of the exhibition. "There must have been the exchange of goods, the exchange of craftsmen who were coming from the West to the East. We know of outstanding trade routes between the Middle East and Italy as well"

Advanced knowledge of mathematics and medicine became the hallmark of the Muslim courts between the eighth and 12th centuries.

One example of the overlapping of knowledge between east and west is shown in Samanid court official Ibn Sina's "Canon of Medicine."

Co-curator Alnoor Merchant says the text is an important encyclopedic body of medical knowledge in the Islamic world. It became the standard reference text in the medical schools of Europe until the beginning of modern times. "You have there a very fine example of a scholarship that had originated with the Greek and the ancients which came down through the translations of the Muslim scholars who added to that corpus of knowledge and then it appears back in the West at the time of the Renaissance. And this exhibition reflects a number of objects and works that relate to that transference."

The team behind the "Spirit and Life" exhibition says showing this history of the mixing of Muslim and Christian cultures and identities reinforces the Ismaili Centre's mission -- to encourage understanding and dialogue between eastern and western societies.

Professor Azim Nanji is director of the Ismaili Centre. "It uses art as a common language. It's a shared vocabulary no matter what culture you belong to. And particularly there are items here that show that the West and Muslim world were always in interaction -- and I think that's an important message for our times. "

After the exhibition in London, these Islamic masterpieces will be shown at Ismaili Centres around Europe. Then they will become a key part of the permanent collection at the new Aga Khan museum opening in Toronto, Canada in 2010.

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