A new exhibition offers a powerful new perspective on Islam's relationship with the supernaturalby / October 24, 2016 / Leave a comment
It is one of the most important questions of our age: how should we go about studying other cultures? And can we make value judgements about them? Take, for example, the ever-topical subject of Islam. Since 9/11, there has been an avalanche of articles, books and analysis—of variable quality—telling us what Muslims actually believe. Usually the commentators quote from normative traditional sources: the Quran, stories about the Prophet, sharia regulations. The logic is: if it says it in their holy books, they must believe it. It’s as if religion were a computer programme that believers download and whose instructions they passively obey. This view is far from confined to non-Muslims. Many current authority figures in the religion, especially those who like seeing their faces on television, feel the same way, except rather than deploring it, they encourage Muslims to “download” the truth (preferably from their own websites). For both sides, the definition of what it means to be a Muslim is defined by what is most conservative.
But as I wrote earlier this year when reviewing Shahab Ahmed’s stimulating book What is Islam?, the history of Islamic culture has been more various and open to paradox than we moderns like to imagine. A more profitable approach might be to examine what scholars, in contrast to “orthodoxy,” call “orthopraxy.” That is: what believers historically have actually done, rather than what they were supposed to believe. (This is central to any sophisticated anthropology, as William James, author of The Varieties of Religious Experience, was well aware.) For what defines a culture is how it has been practised, rather than an imagined theoretical ideal.
In that light, this is the perfect time for the Ashmolean Museum’s excellent new exhibition, Power and Protection: Islamic Art and the Supernatural, which opened last week. Curator Francesca Leoni has gathered over 100 objects from Morocco to China that show how over the centuries Muslims have been fascinated by semi-official practices such as omens, horoscopes, dream-interpretation, talismanic charts, bibliomancy and divination. Some of these have been condemned by theologians: predicting the future, for example, could be seen as infringing God’s foreknowledge. The medieval theologian Al-Ghazali claimed that magic and divination were powerful forces, but advised they should be avoided in favour of a sober religious life. Others, such as the philosopher Ibn Sina (Avicenna), thought dream interpretation was legitimate—hadn’t Joseph interpreted the Pharaoh’s dream?—but Ghazali’s view was the dominant one in scholarly circles. Yet even in an atmosphere of official disapproval, as this exhibition bears testimony, many people couldn’t resist dabbling in superstitious practices.
Abu Ma’shar al-Balkhi, who lived in the ninth century, was the most authoritative astrologer in medieval Islam. A beautiful illustrated page dating from 14th-century Baghdad—one of the exhibition’s highlights—shows an interpretation of al-Balkhi’s analysis of people born under the sign of Taurus. Saturn, a semi-naked dark-skinned man, hovers over the bull Taurus, being ridden by its planetary master, Venus, depicted as a louche lute player.
In a stunning blue and gold 15th-century Timurid nativity book, a prince by the name of Iskandar ibn ‘Umar Shaykh (a grandson of Tamerlane) had his court astrologer describe the auspicious signs present at his birth. Massaging the constellatory evidence somewhat, the book predicts great military victories and a long life for the prince. The efficacy of this gorgeous piece of political propaganda relied on the general population trusting in the truth of horoscopes. The exhibition does not record what the people thought when, contrary to the predictions in the nativity book, the prince was executed by his uncle after a failed rebellion aged 31.
The most intricate object on display is a 13th-century geomantic tablet made in Damascus. Geomancy was a peculiar science, involving the interpretation of dots and lines made in sand. According to the catalogue essay by Venetia Porter, the curious mainly wanted to know, “the possible infidelity of a spouse, the sex of an unborn child, the safety of a future voyage, or the success or failure of a business deal.” Women were especially keen on futurology and often visited backstreet geomancers—a secret mixing of the sexes that worried religious authorities. If you were wealthy, though, you could do your own geomancy at home—perhaps at at special party, in the way people use ouija boards now. Made of brass alloy, inlaid with silver and gold, the geomancer works by turning its dials to align the dots which predicts the future. Inscribed in white among the cluster of dials is the instrument’s purpose: “Examine the tablet and memorise it, for in it there is meaning from the tablet of [God in heaven] when it was marked by the pen. It [the tablet] shows hidden secrets of the unseen which were determined from time immemorial.” The “tablet” here refers to the Lawh al-Mahfouz, or “the preserved tablet,” which according to Islamic tradition contains all the information about anyone who has ever lived or will live. This device was thought by its owner to give him access to secret supernatural knowledge.
The Quran itself was often valued—and still is— for its talismanic quality rather than purely for its laws and edicts. Tiny scrolls with intricately calligraphed verses were often put in pouches or carved boxes to ward off evil spirits; examples abound here. The holy book can also be used for istikhara or bibliomancy—treating it as a set of symbols to decode the future. The seeker, or holy man they are paying, opens the Quran at random and counts down seven lines from the top. Then he counts seventh letters along, the significance of which is revealed by a colour-coded prognostication table, sometimes printed within a Quran codex, as it was in this lovely example (below) from 16th-century Iran. (Bibliomancy was also practised with other books, including the poetry of Hafez.)
Where did all this come from? Islam spread incredibly quickly, and absorbed and transformed many of the older practices it encountered. It borrowed from the Jewish kabbalah, took on the Roman horoscope system and the Sortes Vergilianae, using the works of Virgil to predict the future. Modern-day rationalists may dismiss such beliefs as mere superstition; many modern-day Muslims, who prefer the streamlined purity of text-based religion, will see it as misguided or even heretical. Both miss the point. Such objects offer a window onto the common experience of a culture. The superb Ottoman talismanic shirts, stitched with prayers, magic symbols and holy names were supposed to protect their wearers during battle. (Is the charming child-sized version for protection against illness, or a present for a boy who wants to play soldiers?) In Shia traditions, the Hand of Fatima (the Prophet’s daughter), a symbol similar to one found in Buddhism, was a standard embodying the saint’s power. These symbols have an unearthly resonance, working beyond the rational; they function more like works of art than conventional religious symbols.
Examining such objects on their own terms helps us understand how pre-modern religious cultures worked. Writing about Christianity, the philosopher Charles Taylor argues that before the Reformation religion was something fully embedded within the social system; it was not something you believed, as such, but something that permeated your whole life, along with divergent religious practices. Something akin to that pre-modern spirit remains in Islamic cultures today.
Perhaps that is the lens through which to view controversies such as satirical depictions of the Prophet Mohammed. Muslims are upset by these images not because they are “blasphemous”—that is a Christian term with no exact equivalent in Islam; or “offensive,” which is a modern secular term. It is more that in Islamic folk religion images are incredibly powerful—in a literal sense. Meddling with sacredness produces a sense of fearful violation, an ominous sense of disorder, more like you are being cursed, rather than mocked. How we deal with the violent fallout from these feelings and their exploitation by terrorists is another debate. (I touched on it in this month’s Prospect Book Club with Tim Garton Ash: listen here.) But as a first step we should try at least to understand what we are dealing with. As this important exhibition reveals, understanding Islam requires not only a knowledge of its set texts but also the sometimes eccentric and esoteric interpretations of their readers.