With Quranic verses skillfully embroidered in different calligraphic forms in threads of pure gold and silver on the finest and most luxurious black silk in jacquard technique, the sumptuous fabric laid out in a glass case before us is a majestic sight to behold. This embellished curtain, measuring 3.50m by 6.50m and known as ‘sitara’, is one of Islam’s most sacred items as it graces the door of the Holy Kaaba.
Embroidered with invocations to Allah that are displayed in a traditional system of panels, circles and borders, the sitara’s appearance has changed little over the centuries, explains Thikra Bakhet Al Ketbi, visitor services coordinator, as she leads us on a tour of the galleries at the Sharjah Museum of Islamic Civilisation, situated in the historical heart of Sharjah on the Majarrah Waterfront.
The Kaaba, meaning ‘cube-shaped’ in Arabic, she adds, is Islam’s holiest site and rests within the Grand Mosque in Saudi Arabia’s Mecca. ‘For more than 1.4 billion Muslims around the world, the Kaaba is considered to be the House of God, and is also the Qibla (direction) that Muslims have to turn to for their daily five prayers.’
We soon learn that the sitara is only one part of the kiswah – the heavy cloth of black silk lined with cotton and embroidered with gold and silver threads that covers the Kaaba.
‘The tradition of draping the Kaaba with an elaborately designed cover dates back to pre-Islamic times and is said to be a more than 600 years old tradition,’ she elaborates. ‘The kiswah is changed annually during the Hajj pilgrimage season, on the 9th day of Dhul-Hijja, the final month of the Islamic calendar, when the millions of pilgrims leave the Holy Mosque to visit Mount Arafat. The old kiswah is taken down and the walls of the Kaaba are cleansed with rose water and incense before it is adorned with the new one.’
Made of several parts that are eventually assembled together on the Kaaba itself, the kiswa is one of the most important ornaments in the House of God, and also one of the most highly recognised and revered sacred textiles in the Islamic world. Measuring a total of 14 metres in height and 655 metres in area, the production and embroidery of the cloth takes one year, using 670kg of silk, 100kg of gold-plated thread and 120kg of silver thread.
A monumental section of the kiswah belt is also on display here which, says Thikra, belongs to the part that runs along the western flank of the Holy Kaaba. The belt (hizam), measures 47 metres, consists of 16 embroidered calligraphic panels, four on each side of the Kaaba.
Yet another important exhibit is the Qandil (lamp) section of the kiswah – so called because its shape resembles real lamps. The phrase "Oh Ever Living, Oh who Sustains and Protects All That Exists" is embroidered in gilt silver thread in the thuluth script.
It is at the Abu Bakr Gallery of Islamic Faith on the ground floor of the Sharjah Museum of Islamic Civilization that we gain our first introduction to Islam, its five tenets and a fascinating account of the Hajj or Islamic pilgrimage that includes several symbolic walks to and from two mountains, as well as the tawaf, an act of worship that involves circling the Kaaba seven times in an anti-clockwise direction.
Through a well-constructed model, we are also introduced to the main parts of the Kaaba including the Black Stone which, according to Islamic traditions, was brought from Heaven by the angel Gabriel when Prophet Abraham (Ibrahim) rebuilt the Kaaba. A model of the Black Stone is also on display here.
Some of the other priceless highlights at the Abu Bakr Gallery of Islamic Faith – named after the first Caliph – include a Quran manuscript from 1816 AD written in black Naskh script and accentuated with red detailing. Chapter headings and margins are highlighted in gold.
The facsimile of the Quran of Uthman Ibn Affan, the third Caliph, occupies pride of place here. ‘The original, written in Kufic calligraphy, is at the Topkapi Museum in Istanbul, Turkey,’ she explains.
The earliest written passages of the Quranic revelations were recorded in an informal cursive form of early Arabic script that could easily be misinterpreted, explains Thikra. ‘A clear script was therefore developed to ensure that the Word of Allah was copied down in a pure and unambiguous form. Later, various calligraphic styles such as Kufic, Naskh and Thuluth were developed to capture the beauty of the words without distracting them from their meaning.’
A large collection of printed and handwritten copies of the Holy Quran on display here feature intricate borders with entwined floral designs and complex geometrical patterns while gold and other coloured inks bring the pages to life.
‘Muslims treat the Holy Quran with great reverence,’ she adds. ‘By tradition, it is kept on the highest shelf, wrapped in a protective cloth or stored in a box. It is never placed on the ground nor are other objects put on top of it.’
Several boxes made of wood, silver or brass, and inlaid with mother of pearl, to hold the Holy Quran are also featured in the gallery.
In another section, we encounter mosque designs from around the world – some noted for their simplicity, others for their grandeur.
‘The first mosque in Islam,’ Thikra informs us, ‘was Qiba’a in Madina al Munawwarah, followed by the Prophet’s Mosque which is known as the famous Madina Mosque. This was a simple building with an open courtyard, and its basic layout has been adopted in the building of other early mosques.’
Mosque decoration too could be minimal or ornate, she adds. ‘Since Islam forbids the use of human or animal images in the decoration of mosques or religious objects, artists turned to the Holy Quran for inspiration, and began to incorporate geometric and abstract patterns of leaves and flowers in a style known as arabesque.’
Although designs and decorations could vary, certain features are common to all mosques, she explains. ‘The Mihrab is a quintessential feature in all mosques and refers to a recess set into the qibla wall to indicate the direction of the Kaaba. Mostly all mosques also generally feature one or more minarets – the tall tower from where the call to prayer is made; and the minbar – a pulpit from where the Friday sermon is delivered.’
At the Ibn Al-Haytham Gallery of Science and Technology – named after the pioneering Arab scientist who made significant advances in optics, mathematics and astronomy – we learn about the scientific contributions of great Islamic scholars in fields as diverse as astronomy, medicine, geography, architecture, mathematics, chemistry, military technology, marine navigation and engineering.
An entire section is devoted to reconstructed astrolabes, probably one of the most important astronomical instruments developed by Islamic scientists to determine local time and latitude, measure the angles of stars, and locate the positions of the Sun, Moon, planets, and to locate desired destinations. ‘It was one of the major astronomical instruments until the modern times and astrolabes are renowned both as objects of beauty and of function,’ explains Thikra.
Islamic engineers also understood hydraulics and other complicated mechanisms, she says, as we observe models that harness the power of wind, water and animals to keep freshwater flowing and millstones grinding.
Not to miss here are the large collection of water-clocks, the earliest known timekeepers, that are astounding for their originality and engineering prowess.
Al-Zahrawi’s contribution to modern science is evident in the wide range of surgical tools that have been reconstructed based on his treatise on medical instruments.
On the upper floor of the Museum are four art galleries designed to give an insight into Islamic art and culture. Set in chronological order, they contain many beautiful and intricately crafted works of Islamic art, religious and scientific manuscripts, ceramics and glass, arms and armour, woodwork, textiles and jewellery. Here again we see how Islamic potters decorated objects of all kinds with stylised calligraphy, transforming the Arabic script into graceful patterns that circled glazed dishes, pots and bowls.
We notice that there are several artefacts bearing images of humans and animals. One of the highlight is the 11th-12th century, feline-shaped bronze incense burner with a hinged head from Eastern Iran. Thikra explains that although figurative images have always been forbidden in religious buildings, these are permissible in palaces and other secular areas.
Examples abound of the sophisticated firing techniques developed by potters across Iraq, Iran, Central Asia and Egypt that led to the production of lusterware which had a metallic sheen on the surface. The increasing global trade from 13th to 19th centuries AD is reflected in creative interaction between artistic, cultural and religious communities leading to the creation of exquisite objets d’art from Ottoman, Safavid and Mughal lands.
Look out for a 12th century AD original manuscript of the Quran from Iran, the first Islamic Mongol dirham minted in Baghdad following Mongol invasion in 1258 AD, a 17th-century stringed wooden rabab from Afghanistan, 11th-13th century decorative brass astrolabes, a copper and silver-inlaid Neo-Mamluk table, and a replica of the Generalife gardens, that was designed as a place of rest for the sultans and emirs who resided in the grand Alhambra palace, and now features on the Unesco World Heritage List.
We climb a flight of stairs to observe the magnificent dome that adorns this impressive museum building, which before its opening in 2008 had served as a traditional souq. While 24-carat gold covers the exterior of the dome, the interior depicts a magnificent mosaic of the night sky with signs of the zodiac. Up here is also a vantage point to marvel at the building’s arched ceilings and two arcades featuring early Islamic coin collections and other impressive objects that together make up the more than 5,000 artefacts representative of 1,400 years of Islamic art and culture.