After prayers on a recent Friday my friend Dr. Ahmad Salah, Imam for Brigham Young University, invited me to go with him through the new exhibit Beauty and Belief: Crossing Bridges with the Arts of Islamic Culture at the BYU Museum of Art. For several years, Dr. Sabiha Al-Khemir, Founding Director of the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, Qatar, has been planning and assembling this astounding exhibit containing 250 pieces from 50 collections around the world. Dr. Salah and I have known each other since we spoke at the beginning of the 99 Names project; he’s a civil engineer from Egypt, working here in Utah, and has been the Imam for BYU’s Muslim congregation for several years. A year and a half ago, he presented with me for an exhibit of the 99 Names project at Orem Public Library, and he wanted to visit with me while walking through the fruition of Dr. Khemir‘s work.
While visiting with Imam Ahmad, we took in the many works, never made any smart-alecky comments about other visitors, and shared insights from our different perspectives. Two items were particularly intriguing. One was a bronze griffin:
The Griffin is known as the Pisa Griffin, and comes from a spire of Pisa Cathedral in Italy. During renovations, it was noted that this griffin which had adorned the church for generations had markings not typically associated with traditional Christian typology; with further study, it was discovered to have been built by Muslim artisans in Al-Andalus. Ahmad shared with me that, for many Muslims raised in Cairo, griffins have a special meaning. For one, the fantastical creature by itself is a witness of Divine creativity–since God is Infinite and the Creator of All, whenever an artist envisions an amazing creature he or she is also bearing witness to the Divine might; how could the artist think of such a thing unless the Creator’s majesty has already encompassed it? So, the more inventive the artist’s creations, the louder the witness to his or her own Creator. The second meaning has to do with Mohammed’s miraculous experience of the Heavenly Realms.
During Mohammed’s Night Journey, he left Earth from the stone in the center of the Dome of the Rock. His escort and means of transport was a miraculous being, a horse-shaped angel named Buraq. This marvelous creature showed Mohammed the seven levels of Paradise, and gave witness to the fate of those who live righteous lives, fully submissive to the Divine Will. Although figurative work is common in Islamic art and permitted in applications outside of the actual worship space, Mohammed himself refused to have his likeness painted–he was afraid that future veneration of his image could become idolatry. For many Muslims around the world, naturalistic rendering of holy figures or beings feels inappropriate for related reasons. This image of the Night Journey is not to be seen as an illustration, then, but as a visual allegory to remind us of those miraculous, marvelous events so long ago. For many Muslims growing up in Cairo, many of whom feel uncomfortable with a naturalistic image of Buraq, the griffin became an allegorical symbol both for this angelic servant of the Divine, and for the promises of Paradise to which her presence alludes.
When Ahmad shared all this with me, we started talking about the irony of the Islamic griffin on top of a Catholic cathedral, then it dawned on us this really wasn’t ironic at all. How fitting a symbol of heaven would be found at the peak of such a holy site? It felt to us, the Christian and Muslim standing together looking at this beautiful work, that this one thing symbolized the promise for the entire exhibit–crossing bridges of understanding and meeting each other as friends.
(Note: Although – contrary to Western misconception – the Qur’an does not prohibit figurative art per se, many Muslims, including my friend Ahmad, feel uncomfortable with figural representation of the Prophet Mohammed and the other prophets of Biblical and Qur’anic record. This is due more to a fear that figural depiction of such remarkable and noteworthy people may become confused with iconography or the sin of idolatry, than a blanket prohibition of all figural work.)