Islamic Arts Museum in Kuala Lumpur

This past week, I traveled to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia to renew my non-immigrant visa at the Royal Thai Embassy. While there, I had a chance to visit with some friends and also to stop at the Islamic Arts Museum, something that has been on my to-see list since I first went to KL a few years ago.

The Islamic Arts Museum is located in a large park not far from the central train station. It is surrounded by expressways, though, making it very difficult to reach on foot. The museum is just up the street from the National Mosque, a beautiful blue-roofed complex that is worth a visit.

The collection is not as well-curated as I had hoped, although it covers a diverse range of subjects from architecture to textiles, ceramics to metals. Also, the collection represents all the major cultures in the Islamic world from Africa to the Middle East to India to Southeast and East Asia. Here is a selection of some of the pieces I saw.

There was a large selection of beautiful Quran. This book is the central religious text for Muslims and there is a wonderful tradition of hand-painting copies of the text, complete with exquisite illustrations, calligraphy, and gold-leaf decorations.

The exhibit also explained the different fonts of calligraphy – Arabic and otherwise – used in the displayed Quran. The scripts are beautiful, written from right to left, some highly stylized and others with more distinct characters. 

There were many examples of fine metal working, especially silver. My understanding is that Islamic art generally avoids representations of humans or animals and so there is a lot of emphasis on geometric patterns (which represent the perfection of creation) and floral patterns.

There were many ceramic pieces. Blue seems to be a popular color and this turquoise glazed three-legged pot was practically glowing, the color was so vibrant. If you look closely (sorry, hard to see clearly through the glass), there is stylized calligraphic script around the top band of the pot.

This example of cloisonné, metalwork decorated with enamel. Very fine detail and, again, very vibrant colors.

This piece, a painted glass bottle, is one of the few exceptions I found to the “no people, no animals” prohibition. A little bit of research while writing this entry and I discovered that this type of restriction is known as aniconism. New word for the day. 

The final piece I want to share with you is this finely sculpted chess set. The detail was amazing and I can only imagine the pressure the craftsman must have felt to not make a mistake and waste all the hard work completed so far.

I hope you enjoyed the selection of pieces from the museum. Sorry for not posting more while on the road. I’ve found the Xanga site to be uncooperative in the past few weeks, often freezing while a page is loading.  

 

Would Someone in Al Qaeda Be Allowed to Burn a Quran?

Two weeks ago it was the furor over the inaccurately named “Ground Zero Mosque”.  This week, everyone is up in arms about a small-time Gainesville, Florida preacher’s plans to burn copies of the Quran on September 11th.  Reverend Jones, leader of the 50-member Dove World Outreach Center, has received oversized attention for someone who leads so small a flock.  Surely we are giving him more attention than he deserves.

With such a deep hatred of Muslims and an uncivil way of expressing it, Reverend Jones is a world-class jerk who doesn’t live his life as an example of the teachings of Jesus Christ.  There is no loving of his neighbors, doing unto others, etc. that we would reasonably expect from a man who claims to be a man of God.

book-burn

But there is one point I find very interesting in all this fuss.  While burning a Quran is a rather stupid and insensitive way to express his beliefs, isn’t the fact that the wrong Reverend Jones has and can freely exercise freedom of speech actually a big raspberry in the face of those who despise the freedoms that America represents? 

Wouldn’t Osama bin Laden and his Al Qaeda ilk like nothing better than to see Americans stifle our own civil liberties and freedoms? 

While I’m sure there will be plenty of people in Muslim lands and elsewhere who will be outraged at the sight of an American “Christian” minister burning copies of the Quran, I have to wonder if there won’t also be a whole lot of people who will be amazed that there is a country out there where someone can express contrary opinions without fear of persecution, repression, or execution by the authorities?

That is not the case in many countries out there, certainly not the ones where Al Qaeda likes to spread their poison.

 

“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”
Evelyn Beatrice Hall

 

Is America Saudi Arabia?

Not to get bogged down in this topic, but I was amused to read this quote in a newspaper article today:

“Ground zero is hallowed ground to Americans,” Elliott Maynard, a Republican trying to unseat Representative Nick J. Rahall II, a Democrat, in West Virginia’s Third District, said in a typical statement. “Do you think the Muslims would allow a Jewish temple or Christian church to be built in Mecca?”

What the Saudi government would or would not allow in their own country is irrelevant to the question at hand.  Saudi Arabia is a theocratic monarchy.  The United States is a federal constitutional republic and a representative democracy.  Is Mr. Maynard proposing that we change our system of government so that we can meet out religion freedom (or the absence thereof) in the same manner as the Saudi throne?

Oh, brother!

There are a couple of salient points made in an op-ed on NYTimes.com that I want to highlight:

The problem with [Republicans’] claims goes far beyond the fate of a mosque in downtown Manhattan. They show a dangerously inadequate understanding of the many divisions, complexities and nuances within the Islamic world — a failure that hugely hampers Western efforts to fight violent Islamic extremism and to reconcile Americans with peaceful adherents of the world’s second-largest religion.

Most of us are perfectly capable of making distinctions within the Christian world. The fact that someone is a Boston Roman Catholic doesn’t mean he’s in league with Irish Republican Army bomb makers, just as not all Orthodox Christians have ties to Serbian war criminals or Southern Baptists to the murderers of abortion doctors.

Yet many of our leaders have a tendency to see the Islamic world as a single, terrifying monolith. Had the George W. Bush administration been more aware of the irreconcilable differences between the Salafist jihadists of Al Qaeda and the secular Baathists of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, the United States might never have blundered into a disastrous war, and instead kept its focus on rebuilding post-Taliban Afghanistan while the hearts and minds of the Afghans were still open to persuasion.

Food for thought…

When Did We Forget the Bill of Rights?

There is a great deal of furor going on about the proposed building of an Islamic community center and mosque a short distance away from the World Trade Center site in New York City.  On Friday, President Obama made a public statement about the issue, pointing our that “This is America, and our commitment to religious freedom must be unshakable. The principle that people of all faiths are welcome in this country, and will not be treated differently by their government, is essential to who we are.”

Republicans jumped right on him, accusing the President of “pandering to radical Islam” and saying he “caved in to political correctness.” 

I’d like to ask the Republican leaders a simple question: When did you stop supporting the Bill of Rights?

bill-of-rights

In case there’s any confusion out there, or Americans who didn’t get civics lessons because their teachers were busy ensuring no child got left behind, let’s quickly review what the Bill of Rights is.  Namely, the Bill of Rights is the first ten amendments to the United States Constitution, and came into effect in December 1791. They include such “golden oldies” as the First Amendment:

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

The Bill of Rights is about our civil liberties.  It is about our freedom, the freedom for which men and women in uniform are fighting and dying.  Protecting our civil liberties is not “pandering to radical Islam” or “caving into political correctness.”  Denying our civil liberties plays into the hands of terrorists, letting those who would undermine American values, win.

Conservatives go on and on about the importance of upholding the Constitution.  Their claim is that President Obama has been “trampling” the Constitution throughout his first 20 months in office.  But suddenly, when he explicitly upholds the Constitutional rights of Muslims to build a place of worship on private land, these “staunch defenders” of the Constitution are nowhere to be seen.

Let’s give credit to Flordia Governor Charlie Crist, the former Republican now running as an independent candidate for senator, who supported Obama’s statement.  Let’s give even more credit to New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg who actually led the way making a powerful speech in favor of religious freedom on August 3rd.  The video of this 7-minute speech is here.  Here’s the bit that I thought was most important:

“Whatever you may think of the proposed mosque and community center, lost in the heat of the debate has been a basic question: should government attempt to deny private citizens the right to build a house of worship on private property, based on their particular religion?”

As we head into the midterm elections in November, before you make a decision about who deserves your vote, I’d ask that you take the time to ask the candidates whether or not they support the Bill of Rights.  Use this case of the New York City mosque as a litmus test, because there really is only one way to support the Bill of Rights and the US Constitution.  That’s to answer “no” to Mayor Bloomberg’s question: the government should not attempt to deny private citizens the right to build a house of worship on private property, based on their particular religion.

 

“I am a Muslim”

Zakiah I think a number of you read Zakiah’s (ZSA_MD) blog, but if you don’t, I’d encourage you to stop by.  Not only does she write beautiful poetry and share stories of her fascinating childhood in India, she speaks eloquently about her beliefs as a Muslim. 

Most of my Muslim friends are not very devout, so I rarely get to hear them talk about their beliefs and how their beliefs measure up against the way they are represented in the western media.

Recently, Zakiah gave a speech in the community where she spent her career as a doctor, and in it she talks about the misconceptions surrounding Islam and, particularly, the term “jihad”.

I encourage you to stop by and read excerpts of that speech which is included in her entry here.