As usual, we Oxonians should feel blessed that we're fortunate that the first major exhibition to draw out supernatural themes in Islamic art is based at the splendid Ashmolean museum. Don't be misled by the title, this isn't a traditional art exhibition. Although aesthetically pleasing, the objects on display were not simply decorative pieces – they served a higher purpose as scientific instruments which allowed Muslims at all levels of society to seek the guidance and/or protection of God. The exhibition presents the items somewhat thematically rather than following the traditional chronological display, allowing the visitor to see the similarities and diversity of mystical trinkets from the 12th century until the 20th century and from Morocco to China.
Astrology could reveal the upcoming meteorological phenomena (eclipses, etc), offer insights into events such as results from battles or determine auspicious times. Personal horoscopes would take into account the place of birth and the astrological positions of the planets and so would be used to predict a person's character. Those with authority would seek out astronomers before making a significant decision, heightening the popularity of the practice. The impressive Nativity Book of Iskandar ibn 'Umanr Shaykh showed how astrological calendars could be tweaked to legitimise one's power or boost the significance of a hereditary claim, especially when surrounded by rivals. As with contemporary horoscopes, these calendars could be a little vague – although things are forecast to go a bit sour when Iskandar is in his 30s, it fails to warn of his capture and execution at the age of 31… Other techniques on display included oneiromancy (the interpretation of dreams), calligrams and geomancy (prophecy through scattering sand or earth) as demonstrated by a magnificent brass geomantic tablet from thirteenth century Syria which shows the 'secrets of the unseen which were determined from time immemorial' through a series of dials and dots.
My favourite part of the collection were the extracts from different 'Books of Omens' which gained in popularity as the potentially apocalyptic year 1000 approached in the Muslim calendar (1591/2 AD). The guidance-seeking owner of the 'Omens' would open a page at random and peruse the image on the right-hand side of the book. They would then read its meaning, handily on the left-hand side, thus receiving a prophecy of their future fortune. The message varied in tone: some images showed victory in battle ('Ali at the Gates of Khaybar'), suggesting success in future endeavours while another was ominously titled 'Judgement Day' and rather gruesomely depicted the horrors awaiting sinners in hell.
The next room focused on Qur'anic and pious phrases as a source of healing and protection. Understandably, many of the objects shown were intended for use on the battlefield; banners embellished with specific extracts from the Qur'an glorifying God's immense power or calling for divine intervention and calligraphic finials (banner toppers) in the shape of a falcon and a dragon were particularly striking. Alongside the grand intricately talismanic battle undershirts was a smaller, more poignant garb: a child-sized shirt, pulling the focus back to a more everyday use of Qur'anic verse – healing from illness.
The final section of the exhibition tackled the protective power of amulets and talismans against disease, death and the forces of evil. The examples chosen reflected the summoning of the supernatural in everyday life, a tradition which continues today as represented by the car charms from India. The khamsa (as it is broadly known in Islamic cultures) or 'The Hand of Fatima' in Shi'i tradition stands out for its beauty (check out the pomegranate seed-shaped rubies!) and for its universal resonance as a symbol of protection. These personal items reveal the desire for control over the course of one's life and the ability to influence the future, widening the focus from Islam to humanity as a whole.
Before visiting the exhibition an understanding of Islam as a whole and the different denominations would be helpful but not necessary. I would be curious to find out how balanced the collection was between Sunni, Shi'i and Sufi objects and whether there were any practices performed by one branch that were considered heretical by others. Also, although representation of all strata of society was attempted, the objects were still more weighted towards the wealthy, which is understandable given some of the collection had been kindly loaned out from institutions and influential patrons.
P.S. Make sure to pop into the shop for beautiful trinkets and ornate dressing gowns.