A Search for Ilm: “The Glories of Islamic Art”

By Craig Considine
Washington, DC


Ambassador Durrani of Pakistan, Ambassador Cynthia Schneider, Hady Amr and Ambassador Ahmed at the panel presentation

On January 17th, 2007, The Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution in Washington, DC welcomed distinguished guests from around the world to the Falk Auditorium where Ambassador Akbar Ahmed premiered the much-acclaimed documentary “The Glories of Islamic Art” produced by Channel 5 in London. The evening, one which will be remembered as one of the largest gatherings at the Brookings Institute, was essentially a “Who’s Who?” in Washington, DC, with over 300 guests.
Following the viewing of the documentary hosted and narrated by Ahmed, a panel discussion was held with several important figures in the Islamic world. Ambassador Mahmud Ali Durrani of Pakistan, Ambassador and current Professor at Georgetown University Cynthia Schneider, and Hady Amr, a fellow of the Brookings Institute, all made insightful comments and shared their understanding of the documentary with the audience. Ambassador Ahmed refused to take credit and said the success of the documentary belonged to the directors of the work. The documentary has received rave reviews throughout the United Kingdom. The London News congratulated Channel 5 “for giving us something refreshingly different…The series moves at a fast pace…whetting ones appetite to pack up at once and head for Muslim lands.”
In this striking and rich documentary, Ambassador Ahmed explores ways in which Islamic art and architecture can help both non-Muslims and Muslims understand the true beauty and essence of Islam. Most importantly, Ahmed explores Islam’s respect and lifelong quest for ilm, or knowledge, in an effort to clarify the much exacerbated perceptions of Islam in the 21st century.
The time has never been more ripe for learning and understanding the true meaning of Islam. “The Glories of Islamic Art” is a unique stepping stone for Westerners to begin the process of enlightenment and acquiring a better understanding of the history of Islam. Islam is a religion which places a special emphasis on the quest for knowledge. As the Prophet Muhammad stated in the 7th century, “The ink of the scholar is more sacred then the blood of a martyr.”
The quest for knowledge is infinite and subdued, yet very powerful. The power of the sword is temporary and obvious to all, but the quest for knowledge is less obvious and does not seek martyrdom -- it merely “is.” Martyrdom and terrorism are mere byproducts of aggression in which the end is the means, and vice versa, yet knowledge should not be taken for granted, as Ahmed noted, for it is at the heart of Islam.
Ahmed’s documentary exemplified ways in which Muslims have pursued the quest for knowledge in which the spiritual being is enabled by technology to become architecturally and artistically integrated into society. Ahmed believes that Islam can reinvent its much acclaimed success between the 7th and 15th centuries by ridding itself of the extreme branch of Islam and executing a timely return to the virtual quest for knowledge that permeates Islam’s storied legacy.
In the film, Ambassador Ahmed acknowledged the new library in Alexandria, Egypt, built in 2003, as a great center for learning of all scholarly fields. The new Alexandria Library replaces the renowned Royal Library of Alexandria, Egypt, which between the 3rd and 7th century was regarded as the largest and greatest library ever created. The creation of the Alexandria Library, as Ahmed noted, is a stepping stone for Muslims to successfully integrate themselves in a scholarly way, not a violent way, into the 21st century. Rather than resorting to contemporary motivations like religious fanaticism and extremism, Muslims around the world could reconnect with their religious tenants and look to scholarly work as a way to accomplish their goals and to recreate and publicize the old and new foundation for Islamic society.
The library has several research institutes, including a web library, museums, art galleries, and hundreds and thousands of books. The library stands for the true meaning of Islam – the search for knowledge and truth. It embodies the future of the Islamic faith along with the great potential for Islam to return to its influential past.
Islam today, according to Ahmed, is “plunged into globalization.” The feeling of anger resting amongst many young Muslims can only be subdued if they search for knowledge through learning and other scholarly manners. It is in their interest, along with Muslim leaders throughout our world, to discover the glorious past of Islam.
The conclusion of this influential and inspiring premiere was followed by a panel discussion. To begin the panel, Ahmed pondered the question, “why understand Islam”? He answered his own question by stating powerful statistics with a self-explanatory reasoning: 1.4 billion Muslims in the world, 57 Islamic states, 6-8 million Muslims in the United States, along with several key nation states as allies in the War on Terror. Ahmed stressed that as a collective race of human beings, “we cannot afford to be ignorant of Islam – this is our major challenge.”
His Excellency Mahmud Ali Durrani emphasized the necessity for all religions to build bridges. In analyzing contemporary problems facing Muslims, he characterized many as having an image of “firebreeding” which is an ever growing and ugly scare. He concluded his short speech by stating that Islam is a religion that “loves mankind, accepts others faiths’ prophets, respects humanity, and is a religion in harmony with nature.” To Durrani, Islamic art “reflects beauty and Islam’s harmony with nature, blending in the old with the new.”
The third panelist in the open discussion session was Ambassador Cynthia Schneider, a distinguished Professor in the Practice of Diplomacy at Georgetown University. As an art historian, Ambassador Schneider emphasized the potential that art can have in cultures better understanding each other. She said, “We can see each other in our diversity.” She noted the many commonalities that Islamic art shares with Western art. Ambassador Schneider, like Ambassador Ahmed, sees “tremendous potential in the new library in Alexandria, Egypt.” She hopes that the library’s theme of modernity and tradition can find ways to explore ourselves in these new trends along with increasing the exchanges between the Islamic world and the West.
Hady Amr, a Fellow and Director of the Brookings Doha Center on Middle Eastern Policy, evaluated the documentary and believed that the central question that it inspired was “to see how Americans embrace our common Abrahamic tradition in America”. He encourages American Muslims to get involved in domestic art and hopes that American society will be more inclusive of Muslims in the future.
The difficulties facing the world’s religions in the 21st century are numerable. Not only are their divides amongst worldly religions, but there are problems and difficulties within each branch. Knowledge and learning cannot only bridge the divides within the Abrahamic tradition, but it can also create a better, healthier, and more stable world for all human beings.
It is in all our best interests to work in making “The Glories of Islamic Art” a frequently watched film and a popular and positive topic of dialogue that can help US citizens better understand the Islamic culture but it can also encourage Muslims living in the US to understand their role in bringing the glorious history of Islamic culture to a nation in dire need of some knowledge of Islam.

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Editor: Akhtar M. Faruqui
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