Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York
During the past decade of fulminating and fretting, those of us who live in Europe and North America have become quite familiar with the term "the Islamic world". Rarely do a few words try to say so much
. The phrase scrapes by as a kind of shorthand, an easy way of fusing geography and sociology.
It allows us to speak in the singular about a great profusion of peoples and places. The "Islamic world" is not simply a space where 1.5 billion Muslims happen to live, but a space that can be understood in generalisations. We hear of the Islamic world almost always in reference to its political and social problems: the plight of democracy in the Islamic world, the crisis of women's rights in the Islamic world, the rise of extremism in the Islamic world, and so forth.
The Brookings Institution, a leading Washington think-tank, maintains a division to study the thorny subject of "US relations with the Islamic world". This broad remit still seems logical to many politicians and commentators - never mind the diversity of Muslim communities and countries across the globe, or the vastly different levels of religiosity and freedom from Indonesia to Somalia to Morocco.
Strangely, the "Islamic world" has no real counterpart in the 21st century. It is untenable now to speak of a "Christian world", or a "Buddhist world", or even a "Hindu world". In each case, the adjective proves entirely insufficient, even misleading in understanding the noun - can millions of people be distilled to their faith? And yet the "Islamic world" has proved a more resilient concept, routinely invoked by Muslims and non-Muslims alike.
Some institutions are wary of the vagueness of this language. Eight years ago, New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art closed the galleries then known as the "Islamic Wing" for renovation. They were reopened this November under a new name. Visitors now pour into the redesigned permanent collection of "Art from the Arab Lands, Turkey, Iran, Central Asia and Later South Asia".
What the galleries' new name has lost in brevity it gains in precision. There is safety in inelegant fact. A monolithic Islam does not loom over the exhibition. The collection's numerous books, rugs, and pots - the holy trinity of much Middle Eastern and South Asian art - appear as representatives of particular periods and places, from early medieval Spain to Mughal South Asia. As you move through the various galleries, you travel from region to region, dynasty to dynasty. The emphasis here lies in the diversity and complexity within the cultural heritage of Islam. Navina Haidar, the curator of the collection, insists that the Islamic world is "not one world, but many; not another world, but our own".
Anybody should want to claim the exquisite world of this exhibition as their own. To roam the galleries is to drift from wonder to wonder. A 12th-century incense burner from Seljuk Iran is shaped like a lion, engraved in fine filigree. When used, it would breathe smoke through its bronze teeth. Turn the corner and you come to a cavernous room filled only with carpets, each several centuries old. They tumble from ceiling to floor like waterfalls in imperious red and gold cascades. Elsewhere, an astrolabe from medieval Yemen demonstrates both aesthetic and scientific accomplishment, with inscriptions dancing over the careful gradations of the cosmos. The viewer can easily get lost in all the shimmering ornamentation. There need be no reason to immerse yourself in the collection apart from surrendering to its undeniable beauty.
Of course, it would be silly to pretend that there is no unifying logic at work, that somehow Islam can be erased from the framework of the exhibition. The objects on display were all produced in the cultural centres of Muslim-dominated societies over a period of 1,300 years, beginning with the first caliphate. Magnificent editions of the Quran gleam in nearly every room, testament to the spread of the religion across Eurasia. One text, pinioned open in the first room of the exhibition, is the size of an adult torso. Another, embossed with gold leaf, could fit comfortably in your palm.