Feature The new Museum of Islamic Art in Doha is a building that captures the devotional spirit of the artefacts within.
Long before visiting the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, Qatar, a week before its grand opening on Nov 22 (the public opening is on Dec 1), I had lifted off the internet a low-resolution reproduction of my favourite tughra, or Ottoman imperial monogram, that of Sulaiman the Law Giver. There are a handful of originals of this image on scrolls scattered around the world, none of which I had had the opportunity to see. But I grew so attached to it that I set it as the wallpaper on my mobile-phone screen. Little did I know that I would, on my tour of the permanent-collection galleries of the museum, finally have a glimpse of a 1559 ferman, or imperial decree, with an actual, magnificent sample of the emblem executed in gold and ink at the bottom. No one would be allowed in the galleries until HH Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, the Emir of Qatar, had personally inspected them. So I could only see the tughra at a distance through a glass door. But it was reward enough for years of admiring it from afar; and I felt grateful that, from now on, my favourite tughra, the real thing, would be accessible so close to home. Other highlights I could glimpse from afar on the first and second floors of the museum, housing the permanent collection, included a late 10th-century astrolabe from Iran or Iraq, the silk Chessboard Garden carpet made for Temur in Samarkand between the 14th and the 16th centuries, an enormous Mughal emerald from India dating back to 1696, and a Chinese-style earthenware bowl from ninth-century Iraq - one of the earliest to be glazed in blue. Notwithstanding the objets d'arts, it was rewarding simply to be in the space itself, with interlocking streams, arched vistas of sand and sea, distorted views of the downtown Doha skyline and glittering circular structures - all interspersed with the visual art perhaps most associated with Islam: patterns - some stable, some shifting as the sun changes position in the sky, most based on simplified versions of traditional arabesques. A minimalist, somewhat cubist structure commanding its own seemingly limitless expanse of surrounding space from a 45,000 sq m artificial island 59m off the Corniche the main, five-storey building is connected by a bridge to a two-storey educational wing, which will open late next year. Reachable by dhow as well as by car, it is inspired by the 13th-century, Mameluke sabil or the ritual ablution chamber attached to the ninth-century Ahmad ibn Tulun Mosque in Cairo, replicating and developing the principle of geometric progression on which the sabil is based on a larger and more complex scale. According to Earl Roger Mandle, the executive director of the Museums Authority, the Museum of Islamic Art was to be the Pritzker Prize-winning Chinese-born American architect IM Pie's swansong, for which he undertook a year-long Islamic architecture world tour, finally settling on the ibn Tulun sabil as his point of departure. "It's remarkable that a man of his age went on this quest to find the inspiration for this building," says Mandle. "You can see how seriously he took this project." Abdulla al Najjar, the museum's CEO, remembers Pie telling him that "every piece in this building has its meaning in Islamic civilisation and Islamic history," which is perhaps the most cogent definition of what it means for art or architecture to be Islamic, whether secular or religious. "He even told me that he read the translation of the Quran and he was inspired when he read about the honeycomb," in Surat al Nahl, or the Chapter of the Bees, which includes extensive, allegorical references to beehives and how the honeycomb comes into being. "The ceiling we are looking at is what he thought of when he read the Quran."
In Pie's own words, the sabil is a "severe architecture that comes to life in the sun, with its shadows and shades of colours". In making use of it he managed the all-but-impossible feat of producing architecture that is simultaneously modern and Islamic in spirit. Unpretentious, almost modest on the outside, inside the space subtly evokes almost every Islamic model. The permanent collection galleries on the second and third floors, for example, recall the early Ummayyid style that occurs, with variations, everywhere in the Islamic world: an elongated space arranged in rectangular formation around a square atrium, sometimes (as here) with a circular centre as well. On the ground floor, much like the Ummayyid Mosque in Damascus and the Jama Masjid in Delhi, the centre is occupied by a fountain; but at the top, at a height of 50m, concealed from external view by walls stacked to call to mind the Sultanahmet Mosque in Istanbul, is an intricately patterned dome - the ceiling to which Najjar refers while recalling his conversations with Pie - generates ongoing dramas of light. "All, as Najjar insists, "very Islamic." Indeed, even the lift that brought me to the meeting room where we are speaking has strategically placed, backlit arabesques that manage to whisper rather than shout "Islamic" in the midst of what is otherwise a thoroughly contemporary interior-design set-up - the work of Jean-Michel Wilmotte - and without the slightest hint of kitsch or overstatement. The director of the museum, Dr Roger Watson, arrives a little later while Mandle is explaining how the collection came into being: "I should tell you that the collection was started over a decade ago by the Emir himself. His Highness had the thought to create a great collection for Qatar and for the Middle East that shows the diversity of art in the Islamic world, broadly speaking from roughly the eighth to the 19th century. But I think the other important matter is that the Emir and Sheikha Mozah [bint Nasser al Missned] and Sheikha Mayassa [bint Hamad], who is the daughter of the Emir, had in mind to create a museum that is for this nation first and foremost ?" Mandle then trails off to introduce Watson, handing the subject over to him. "I think one can see what the intention was from the start," Dr Watson begins. "This is a collection which has concentrated on getting pieces from right across the Islamic world, from Islamic Spain to Central Asia and India. But the particular focus is on pieces of very high quality. So, although this collection is not as big as some in much longer-established museums, the core of it is a group of objects of absolutely top quality that certainly can match, but in many areas even beat any collection anywhere in the world. And I think the intention of this is to show through the visual arts, not just the achievement of artists or the production of works of art, but to show that these are the products of cultures and civilisations at the very height of sophistication." As Najjar indicates, the collection, featuring items numbering into the thousands, and of which 800 pieces will be on display (with light-sensitive objects periodically rotated), "is 100 per cent owned by the state of Qatar", having been gifted to the Museums Authority by HH Sheikh Hamad. "One of the important effects of that," Watson goes on to point out, "is that not only the collection on display but the collection on reserve, becomes a resource for research into the subject. This is something you can't do if you don't have your own permanent collection." Occupying the two, Ummayyid-style floors and named, respectively, The Language of Islamic Art: A Celebration of Unity and The Journey of Islamic Art: A Celebration of Diversity, the collection is split into two presentations: thematic and chronological. On the first floor, starting with "a room that shows just a group of top-quality, beautiful things", objects are gathered together to make statements about topics that unify Islamic art across place and time. They include the Arabic script, the figure in art," an element," as Watson puts it, "that many people think doesn't exist", and the achievements of science, with precision instruments from various eras doubling as impressive art objects. On the second floor, a linear, narrative approach displays the development of Islamic art through time, crosscutting locations which become important at various points in history. "We have very important collections of carpets, inlaid metalwork, early manuscripts. But I think the line of pieces of historic interest - documentary pieces, signed pieces, pieces owned or made by known people - these are particularly special."
Of the inaugural exhibition, Beyond Boundaries: Islamic Art Across Cultures (running until Feb 22), nothing could be seen on the first-floor temporary exhibition space as yet. But on my way out I met with Hubert Bari, the head of the temporary exhibition gallery (which will house selections on loan and special exhibitions, not necessarily Islamic) and the Mughal collection curator. Bari described the impressive display gathered from 20 museums in 15 countries and divided into three themes: Islam and World Religions; Islam and the Transmission of Design; and Islam and the Transmission of Knowledge, including manuscripts of the early Arabic translations of ancient Greek texts. "The concept," he says in an endearing French accent, "is to show that even if there is a lot of controversy around Islam today, we can find beautiful examples of Islam in relation to other cultures and religions and maybe to use the art to deal with problems between communities; this is the wish of HH Sheikha Mayassa, this is why you have examples of tolerance in this exhibition." He cites a page from the Mughal Emperor Akbar's translation of the Ramayana, the 15th-century Florentine painter Gentile da Fabriano's Mary of Humility, (which shows the Muslim profession of faith replacing the halo in Arabic script above the Virgin's head), jade bowls from Central Asia carved with poems by the emperor Qianlong, a scroll showing Hindus and Muslims praying at the same shrine, an Ottoman bowl executed in the Muslim style but showing the Twelve Apostles. Beyond Boundaries has a fourth section featuring the first 20 paintings in the 93-year-old Indian artist Maqbool Fida Husain's cycle of 99, representing the 99 names of God, begun during a sudden bout of creativity after he moved to Qatar. Controversy generated by his work had upset both Muslim and Hindu extremists, Bari recounted, and his safety was at stake when "the Emir of Qatar, as an example of the tolerant ruler, decided to offer him a studio in Qatar so that he could continue to paint without trouble, especially at his age." Husain's cycle will have its own exhibition on being completed. "There is a piece which will form the centre of the exhibition, Cross-Cultural Dialogue, which is exactly what we're trying to show," Bari adds. "You have a representation of the three heavenly religions talking together, and Sheikha Mozah, the wife of the Emir, listening to what they are saying."