Every member of the Muslim community around the world, or umma, recognizes that uttering the testimony of faith, or shahada, is a foundational element of what it means to be Muslim: “There is no God but God and Muhammad is God’s Prophet.” Most also agree that prayer (salat), tithing (zakat), fasting (sawm) during Ramadan, and pilgrimage to Mecca (hajj) are significant ways Muslims perform devotion to God. These core Islamic devotional traditions have grown out of the interpretation of foundational sources that are common to most Muslims’ experience of Islam, including the Qur’an (God’s revelation to humanity through the angel Gabriel) and the sayings and doings of the Prophet Muhammad (sunnah). However, the Qur’an is a much richer document than a focus on the “pillars” alone might suggest.
As you will see, there is a good degree of resonance between the Qur’an, Hebrew Scriptures, and Christian gospels, both in terms of “characters” (Noah, Abraham, Mary, and Jesus all play an important role in Qur’anic narratives) and themes. According to Islamic devotional traditions the Qur’an contains the very same revelation from God as earlier communities received, but in its purest and most direct form. In practice, although the text of the Qur’an (in its original Arabic) does not differ from edition to edition, the meanings of the Qur’an vary from community to community across time and space. We can say the same of Islam more generally.
It’s important to keep in mind that the text that you see around you is technically not the Qur’an. According to Islamic devotional traditions, the Qur’an is really the Qur’an only in its language of revelation: Arabic. Versions of the Qur’an in other languages are typically called “renderings” rather than translations – they communicate meaning, but cannot be the text itself as communicated by God to humanity via the Prophet Muhammad. In this sense, although the Qur’an surrounds us in some fashion, the gallery itself remains a secular space, the works before you expressions of human creativity rather than divine communication.
In another sense, however, the gallery does represent something of a sacred space. If the questions and claims about justice, charity, responsibility, humility, and community that we find in the meaning of the Qur’an promote thoughtful engagement with the world around us, then perhaps the exhibition does sanctify this space as community space. In mosques the mihrab, or prayer niche, orients devotional prayer in the direction of Mecca, drawing Muslims from around the world into a common experience. The mihrab in this exhibition can similarly focus our attention, encouraging us to ask what creates a common American experience and what justice, charity, responsibility, humility, and community mean in an American context. The individual pieces in this exhibition—each with its own text and image—provide further occasion to think through many of these same questions.
The juxtaposition of text and image in the American Qur’an both draws on and departs from traditions of Qur’anic illumination. Ornamentation of the Qur’an typically consists of geometric patterns, steering clear of human or animal representations for fear of raising the profane to the level of the sacred. Two of the three panels rendering the first sura (chapter) of the Qur’an, The Opening (Al-Fatiha), playfully draw on this tradition. There are, however, plenty of artistic traditions in Muslim communities that don’t conform to this style, reminding us that, as with Islam more generally, we cannot reduce Islamic art to a set of abstract orthodoxies. Rather, we must consider the work in its context. Many of the images in the exhibition’s panels draw on scenes that will be familiar to a good number of you. This makes it possible to connect the text to life in America in incredibly meaningful ways.
American Qur’an illustrates that Islam’s presence in America is not limited to the approximately 6,000,000 Muslims living in the United States. This exhibition’s works, created by a non-Muslim artist, suggest that Islam has more than ever before become part of the broader system of values from which Americans draw to evaluate the world around us. The exhibition also calls attention to debates that have arisen as the American Muslim community has grown and as the United States has become more involved in Muslim-majority societies abroad. Many critics of Islam, for example, focus on verse 34 of Sura 4 (“Women”) to argue that Islam is a fundamentally patriarchal tradition. According to some American Muslim scholars, however, it is equally important to note this sura’s emphasis on the cultivation of a humility that eschews hierarchy in human dealings. Sura 65, “Divorce,” is also a common target of critics; the image accompanying this text suggests that we should not limit our criticism of gender injustice to Muslim communities alone.
Many of the images in this exhibition reference some of the most divisive pressing issues facing the American community today: economic inequality, the justice of war and its aftermaths, gender justice, the environment, and relationships among different religious and ethnic groups. There are innumerable ways of understanding these images in relation to the accompanying text. Yours will reflect your own experience of the events or kinds of moments the images highlight, mirroring in a small way the interpretive process that has accompanied engagement with the Qur’an in Muslim communities for nearly 14 centuries.
—Caleb Elfenbein, Assistant Professor of Religious Studies and History