Sideline: Brooklyn Museum's Exhibit Portrays Sufi Concepts of Light and Enlightenment

A tiny exquisite art show with a mystical element is currently underway at the reinstalled Islamic Gallery at the Brooklyn Museum located at Prospect Park in New York. The exhibition continues until September 6, 2009 and contains a variety of paintings, ceramics, mosque lamps, books and a magnificent page from the Qur’an. 

The Sufis consider wine liquid sunlight. Through its intoxicating properties, wine provides the mystic with an alternative reality in which he or she might catch a reflection of the divine and experience a form of ecstasy. The Persian poet Hafiz (1315–1390) also compared red wine to tears of blood resulting from the suffering of the soul estranged from the beloved. The form of this wine bowl appears to be a standard type among Iranian metal wares of the Safavid period (1501–1732). The inscriptions on such bowls, engraved in nastalīq script, tend to be in Arabic, Persian, or a combination of the two, and are often laced with mystical references.

The Sufis consider wine liquid sunlight. Through its intoxicating properties, wine provides the mystic with an alternative reality in which he or she might catch a reflection of the divine and experience a form of ecstasy. The Persian poet Hafiz (1315–1390) also compared red wine to tears of blood resulting from the suffering of the soul estranged from the beloved. The form of this wine bowl appears to be a standard type among Iranian metal wares of the Safavid period (1501–1732). The inscriptions on such bowls, engraved in nastalīq script, tend to be in Arabic, Persian, or a combination of the two, and are often laced with mystical references.

Associate Islamic Art curator Ladan Akbarnia provides a fascinating glimpse into this special exhbition called “Light of the Sufis: The Mystical Arts of Islam” and also talks about the revived Islamic Gallery in a five minute video presentation which can be seen by clicking  Light of the Sufis. The video contains footage of some figurative representations, including the violent episode of the Battle of Kerbala. Ms. Akbarnia rejects the claim popularly accepted in the Muslim World that Islam is opposed to figurative representations.

Beginning in the twelfth century, ceramics were produced in Iran with a frit body that provided a clean, light surface for painting. The most luxurious of these wares contained luster, added to the surface in a second firing and creating a metallic sheen that complemented mystical texts and images. While the image on this dish does not appear to be narrative, the presence of a bird, a familiar theme in Persian mystical literature, and certain human features associated with light (such as the figures’ moon-shaped faces) set the tone for the mystical verses appearing in two bands around the rim and interior. The text includes poetry by Rumi’s spiritual master, Shams al- Din Tabrizi (d. 1248), as well as verses believed to have been composed by the lesser-known Baba Afzal al-Din Kashani (d. 1213–14).

Beginning in the twelfth century, ceramics were produced in Iran with a frit body that provided a clean, light surface for painting. The most luxurious of these wares contained luster, added to the surface in a second firing and creating a metallic sheen that complemented mystical texts and images. While the image on this dish does not appear to be narrative, the presence of a bird, a familiar theme in Persian mystical literature, and certain human features associated with light (such as the figures’ moon-shaped faces) set the tone for the mystical verses appearing in two bands around the rim and interior. The text includes poetry by Rumi’s spiritual master, Shams al- Din Tabrizi (d. 1248), as well as verses believed to have been composed by the lesser-known Baba Afzal al-Din Kashani (d. 1213–14).

Among some of the items displayed are luxury versions of glass lamps found in homes which were created for mosques. A 14th-century Egyptian example, enameled, gilded and inscribed with quotations from the “Light Verse,” is in the show, on loan from the Metropolitan Museum. So is a 16th-century brass candlestick inscribed with lines in Persian about the attraction of moths to a flame, a metaphor for a soul’s ego-extinguishing passion for God.

A Family of Dervishes. Possibly Antoin Sevruguin (Armenian-Georgian, 1830s–1933). Iran, late 19th–early 20th century. Silver albumen photograph. Brooklyn Museum, Purchase gift of Leona Soudavar in memory of Ahmad Soudavar, 1997.3.139. A Sufi’s attributes and clothing indicate the mystical order to which he or she belongs and may also suggest rank and status within that order. Here, the patriarch’s black robe emphasizes his authority. The varied styles of the hats further delineated positions within the group. The central seated figure holds a tabar, a small ceremonial axe, while each of the remaining men holds a walking staff, another iconic Sufi attribute. The extremely long beards of the male members identify this group as part of the Ahl-i Haqq order of Sufis, whose practices are guarded with extreme secrecy. The photograph may have been taken by Antoin Sevruguin, who served at the court of the Qajar ruler Nasir al-Din Shah in the latter nineteenth century and who is known for his portraits of Iranian landscapes and subjects.

A Family of Dervishes. Possibly Antoin Sevruguin (Armenian-Georgian, 1830s–1933). Iran, late 19th–early 20th century. Silver albumen photograph. Brooklyn Museum, Purchase gift of Leona Soudavar in memory of Ahmad Soudavar, 1997.3.139. A Sufi’s attributes and clothing indicate the mystical order to which he or she belongs and may also suggest rank and status within that order. Here, the patriarch’s black robe emphasizes his authority. The varied styles of the hats further delineated positions within the group. The central seated figure holds a tabar, a small ceremonial axe, while each of the remaining men holds a walking staff, another iconic Sufi attribute. The extremely long beards of the male members identify this group as part of the Ahl-i Haqq order of Sufis, whose practices are guarded with extreme secrecy. The photograph may have been taken by Antoin Sevruguin, who served at the court of the Qajar ruler Nasir al-Din Shah in the latter nineteenth century and who is known for his portraits of Iranian landscapes and subjects.

A Koran page handwritten in light — that is, in gold and silver inks on a sheet of parchment dyed deep blue — is the exhibition’s oldest work, dating from the 10th or 11th century.

“Seen by candlelight, the words, which describe the rewards of Paradise, would have glinted against the dark ground like constellations in a night sky,” says a New York Times review of the Koranic page.

The Museum Details are:

Location: 200 Eastern Parkway, Brooklyn, New York 11238-6052
Telephone: (718) 638-5000; TTY: (718) 399-8440
Admission: Suggested Contribution: $10; Students with Valid ID: $6; Adults 62 and over: $6; Members: Free; Children under 12: Free
Hours: Wednesday–Friday: 10 a.m.–5 p.m.; Saturday–Sunday: 11 a.m.–6 p.m. 
Subway: Eastern Parkway/Brooklyn Museum

 

Kashkūl, or Beggar’s Bowl, with Portrait of Dervishes and a Mounted Falconer. Iran, A.H. 1280/1880 C.E. Coco-de-mer shell and chain. Brooklyn Museum, Henry L. Batterman Fund, 47.203.5. Kashkūls carried the donations on which dervishes relied for sustenance and also functioned as drinking vessels or food containers for wandering ascetics. They simultaneously symbolized the emptying of the Sufi’s soul or ego through the renunciation of worldly goods and aspirations, and the nourishment of that soul with divine knowledge. Many kashkūls bear inscriptions invoking God, the house of the prophet Muhammad, or the twelve Shiʿa imams. The bowls were produced in a variety of media and were held or hung from the shoulder by metal chains. The earliest examples date to the thirteenth or fourteenth century, but their form may have been derived from crescent- and boat-shaped wine bowls made in pre-Islamic Iran. This example was made from the nutshell of the coco-de-mer palm native to islands of the Indian Ocean. The shells’ lengthy sea voyage to the shores of Iran carries special significance as a metaphor for the Sufi’s mystical journey. It includes a portrait of dervishes with tamed cats and two small kashkūls. Verses of Persian mystical poetry have been engraved into the rim (see below)

Kashkūl, or Beggar’s Bowl, with Portrait of Dervishes and a Mounted Falconer. Iran, A.H. 1280/1880 C.E. Coco-de-mer shell and chain. Brooklyn Museum, Henry L. Batterman Fund, 47.203.5. Kashkūls carried the donations on which dervishes relied for sustenance and also functioned as drinking vessels or food containers for wandering ascetics. They simultaneously symbolized the emptying of the Sufi’s soul or ego through the renunciation of worldly goods and aspirations, and the nourishment of that soul with divine knowledge. Many kashkūls bear inscriptions invoking God, the house of the prophet Muhammad, or the twelve Shia imams. The bowls were produced in a variety of media and were held or hung from the shoulder by metal chains. The earliest examples date to the thirteenth or fourteenth century, but their form may have been derived from crescent- and boat-shaped wine bowls made in pre-Islamic Iran. This example was made from the nutshell of the coco-de-mer palm native to islands of the Indian Ocean. The shells’ lengthy sea voyage to the shores of Iran carries special significance as a metaphor for the Sufi’s mystical journey. It includes a portrait of dervishes with tamed cats and two small kashkūls. Verses of Persian mystical poetry, see below, have been engraved into the rim

Verses engraved into the rim of the beggar’s bowl shown above: 

 Whoever has a pure soul as I do is welcome to the solitude of the dervishes;

An example of virtue even tames animals; this is owing to the deeds of the dervishes;

Whoever speaks of the radiance of the dervishes deserves the goblet of wine;

I will be among the dervishes, for all eternity, away from eternal evil.

______________

Images are Copyright, Brooklyn Museum.

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