Why visit the Aga Khan Museum and learn about Islamic art?

Today, Toronto has the first and only museum of Islamic art in North America. This excellent collection art from around the globe of over 1,000 years of Islamic culture belongs to the Aga Khan, who is the Imam of the Nizari Ismailis. This is a hereditary title currently held by Karim al-Hussain Shah. The museum and surrounding gardens are breathtaking spaces that reflect the Aga Khan’s interest in the arts. It is an honour to live in a city distinguished by its diversity and pluralism, and these aspects of our urban community are why the Aga Khan and his foundation chose to build their museum in Toronto.

Perhaps the idea of Islamic art is intimidating and confusing? It encompasses all art made in Muslim-dominant countries, including art made by non-Muslims, and art by Muslims living in non-Muslim-dominant countries. This expansive definition emphasizes broad cultural traditions, not the spiritual or religious aspects of the art. Because the collection spans such a range of human achievement and activity, it is impossible to generalize about it except to say that the works in the Aga Khan fundamentally bear witness to our common humanity. This is art made for and used by people who loved their families, hoped and dreamed for a better future, and sometimes suffered deep loss and grief.

I’d like to direct the rest of my comments to fellow Christians who may be reluctant to make a visit or who are ambivalent about the museum’s importance within our city. There are two main reasons why Christians should make an effort to visit the museum. First, we love others by learning about them. Educating ourselves about others’ histories, beliefs, languages, and cultures is essential for us to love others, which is the greatest commandment that Jesus gave his disciples. Fearing others, however, makes it impossible for us to reach out and accept their invitation to meet and share. The reality is that although we fear terrorist organizations like ISIS, that group has distorted and corrupted Islam for their own purposes. ISIS is fundamentally different from the beliefs and practices of the 1.7 billion Muslims in the world.

Second, learning about Islamic art opens our minds to the bigness and interconnectedness of our history. It’s no surprise that many Christians tend to cherry-pick the key historical moments that shape their world views: Jesus’ lifetime in the first century, Luther and the Reformation in the sixteenth century, the Enlightenment in the eighteenth century, and the twentieth century with wars, feminism, and rock ’n’ roll. Learning about Islamic art highlights different key moments in history, from the seventh and eighth century emergence of the Islamic caliphate that spread from the Arabian peninsula across north Africa to the Iberian peninsula, to the fifteenth century when Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks, the beleaguered Byzantine Empire ended and European Renaissance scholars revived maths and sciences by reading the ancient Greek sources preserved for centuries by Arabic-speaking scholars. The interconnectedness of Christian history with cultural developments among Islamic and other non-Christian groups throughout Europe, the Middle East and Asia is only beginning to be more fully explored by scholars. Recent exhibitions, notably the show in 2012 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC called Byzantium and Islam, highlight some of these connections especially in the ways Christianity and Islam responded and shaped one another.

Our world is constantly changing in unexpected ways. While many North Americans are moving further away from religious practices and beliefs, and while many have assumed that we would eventually “mature” as a modern society and “outgrow” our need for religion, around the world we see that religious practices and adherence to beliefs are increasing. Obviously, you can see in the way I use scare-quotes around mature and outgrow that I disagree with this assumption, that modern societies are nonreligious societies. Evidence from the developing world shows us a different picture, and the sooner we come to terms with this, the better able we are to build productive and enriching relationships and institutions. Now more than ever our openness to and curiosity about other cultures is the way forward as we grow and deepen our connections with one another.

As a student of Byzantine art history, I am thrilled with anticipation for my first visit to this new institution in the city where I live. We are only beginning to scratch the surface in our research about the connections between Islamic  and Orthodox communities. For a long time, our understanding of the ever-changing relationships between these groups was (and, frankly, continues to be) distorted by our contemporary political sphere. Even obtaining access to Byzantine monuments and archaeological sites was made difficult. We are not yet in a utopian world of full-access and cooperation among international institutions and scholarly projects, but changes such as the opening of this museum in Toronto signal a turn toward sharing and openness.

Now is the time to open our minds and imaginations to the manifold expressions of beauty and love from around the world brought here to our doorstep. See you at the museum!

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