Islamic Art Exhibit Crosses Bridges of Understanding

Contributed By By Heather Whittle Wrigley, Church News and Events

  • 23 February - 29 September 2012
23 February - 29 September 2012

See artwork from Beauty and Belief and watch an interview with project director, Sabiha Al Khemir, above.

Article Highlights

  • Beauty and Belief: Crossing Bridges with the Arts of Islamic Culture
  • Provo, Utah, USA: February 24–September 29, 2012
  • Indianapolis, Indiana, USA: November 2, 2012–January 13, 2013
  • Newark, New Jersey, USA: February 13, 2013–May 19, 2013
  • Portland, Oregon, USA: June 15, 2013–September 8, 2013

“The truth we share is always greater and more important than our differences.” —Stephen Jones, dean of the College of Fine Arts and Communications at Brigham Young University

In a corner of the Brigham Young University Museum of Art in Provo, Utah, USA, a page from a ninth-century, north African Qur’an manuscript gleams with gold-leaf lettering that reads, in part, “Whatever good you put forward for yourselves—you will find it with Allah. Indeed, Allah of what you do, is Seeing” (2:110).

The flowing calligraphy of the gilt Arabic script creates a beautiful pattern across the indigo page. But according to Dr. Sabiha Al Khemir, who is project director of the new exhibit—Beauty and Belief: Crossing Bridges with the Arts of Islamic Culture—this page is much more than just beautiful; it’s a means of creating understanding.

In the words of Stephen Jones, dean of the College of Fine Arts and Communications at BYU, the art communicates the idea that “the truth we share is always greater and more important than our differences.”

Beauty and Belief, which will run from February 24 to September 29, 2012, offers an introduction to the figurative imagery of Islamic culture in order to build bridges and bring cultures together.

“Crossing bridges seems to be something we really need to do at this moment,” Dr. Al Khemir said. “Humanity needs to learn about each other, and crossing bridges with art is a very easy way to cross.”

Bridges Across Space

Born in Tunisia and educated in Tunis and London, Dr. Al Khemir began a worldwide search in 2008 for Islamic art that could create intercultural dialogue. Contrary to popular belief, although Islam does not allow art in religious spaces, figurative representation is not forbidden in secular spaces.

Many of the more than 250 works of art meld both functionality and beauty. The exhibition draws from collections across the United States and from nine countries in Europe and the Middle East; 10 institutions and 40 lenders contributed to the final selection. Creations span time from the seventh century to the present day.

Metalwork, paper, earthenware, stone, ceramics, textiles—whatever the material, whether created for royalty or meant as a simple tool—each piece draws a connection between beauty and belief.

“The shaping of beauty, the making of beauty, is directly connected to the divine, is directly connected to faith,” Dr. Al Khemir said. “And that’s why the concept of beauty and belief, because belief played a very important role in the shaping of beauty.”

For the BYU Museum of Art, the exhibit opened the door to building relationships with museums around the world.

“Many times we formulate an exhibit based on the strengths of our collection,” museum director Dr. Mark Magleby said. “This is the first time we’ve ever done something that we have nothing of. . . . [It] was an opportunity to build bridges of faith between peoples who maybe were less familiar with each other.”

Dr. Al Khemir said many vendors asked, “Why Utah?” as the starting location for the exhibit, which will traverse the United States during the next 18 months.

“Here is a religious community who actually sincerely embraces the project, who are willing to cross bridges,” she said.

The exhibit is organized by themes, such as one of the Islamic prophet Muhammad’s sayings—“God is beautiful, and He loves beauty.” Another theme is the idea that the very name of God is holy.

“Every theme is a point of encounter,” Dr. Al Khemir said during a press conference. “Islamic art is multilayered. It is full of detail. The closer you look, the more you see. So the exhibition invites you to look closely to try to unravel the beauty of this material and to unravel the cultural messages that are within this material in the hope that sight leads to insight.”

Bridges to Understanding

Dr. Al Khemir said that the main insight she hopes to prompt is a greater understanding between cultures.

“As a visitor looks at these objects, they are not just going to see pretty patterns and … nice decorations,” she said. “They are also going to sense that strong devotion to beautifying, to putting something in the world that is connected to the greater source of creation, because the artist did not see himself as the creator—the creator is something much bigger.”

She pointed out that many of the objects are bridges themselves. People who lived together—Muslim, Christian, Jew—often contributed to the creation of a single object in different ways.

“We all aspire to similar ideals, so there is a lot that we share, and what is different is something that we need to learn to respect,” she said.

Dr. Magleby said in the past months of working with Dr. Al Khemir, he has discovered natural bridges that exist between Christians and Muslims, and between art and faith.

“She understands that God is in the big things and the small things, and I think the LDS concept of tender mercies of God being extended to individuals in the world . . . are recorded in the narrative of the Qur’an [and] the illustrations of the Qur’an that we have exhibited here—that God loves his children,” he said.

Ultimately, Dr. Al Khemir hopes that message will change the hearts of those who see the art.

“As one looks at these works of art, one senses and learns about a way of seeing the world, a way of thinking, a way of being in the world,” she said.

“The notion of ‘bridges’ is in the title of the exhibition,” Dr. Magleby said, “—bridges between people who share a culture of fasting, who share a culture of faith, who share a culture of sincere and frequent prayer, of dependence upon God, of honoring the name of God, even the notion of pilgrimage and giving alms.” He continued, “We certainly want to reinforce the notion that peace is a major message of people of good faith everywhere.”

Admission to the exhibition at BYU is free. For more information visit the website,, or call (801) 422-8287.

After its time at BYU, Beauty and Belief will travel throughout the United States. The exhibition will be housed at the Indianapolis Museum of Art from November 2, 2012 to January 13, 2013; the Newark Museum from February 13, 2013 to May 19, 2013; and the Portland Art Museum from June 15, 2013 to September 8, 2013.