Since its establishment in 1998, IAMM has become the largest museum of Islamic arts in South-East Asia with a collection of over 12,100 artefacts from as early as the 7th century
by ALIFAH ZAINUDDIN/ pic by MUHD AMIN NAHARUL
IN A corner of the Chinese Gallery at the Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia (IAMM) lies a Quran from the Qing dynasty.
It is majestically decorated with an ornamental frame which is embellished with lotus blossoms and cloud bands — distinctive Chinese motifs from the era — that are painted in gold.
The dark leather binding and extended border decorations suggest that the holy book was probably owned by a nobleman or a wealthy individual in the 17th century.
At the centre of the manuscript, a verse written in Sini script with black ink reads: “And I do not acquit myself. Indeed, the soul is a persistent enjoiner of evil, except those upon which my Lord has mercy. Indeed, my Lord is Forgiving and Merciful.” This Quran is one of the museum’s earliest collections.
Since its establishment in 1998, IAMM has become the largest museum of Islamic arts in South-East Asia with a collection of over 12,100 artefacts from as early as the seventh century.
But with the restriction of space, the museum can only display about one-fifth of its artwork at a time.
Beautifully preserved and displayed pieces like the Qing dynasty’s Quran and the Shahnama, a Persian literary masterpiece, have attracted travellers from all over the world who have made IAMM a must-visit destination when they are in Kuala Lumpur (KL). Of its 100,000 annual visitors, 80% are international tourists.
With an extensive collection of treasures from the Islamic world and its state-of-the-art preservation facilities, it is no wonder IAMM has received much recognition globally and locally as the best museum in the country.
Its partnership with museums in Europe, the Middle East and Australia over the past two decades equally speaks volume of the high standards it has set.
In KL We Trust
The term “Islamic arts” typically invokes the grandiose image of the Taj Mahal in India, or the intricate geometric tilework of the Jameh Mosque of Isfahan in Iran.
In fact, most Islamic art galleries around the world often display visual arts gathered from the southern coast of Spain to western China — often omitting South-East Asia. While Malaysia is globally recognised as a Muslimmajority nation, it is hardly synonymous with Islamic arts.
The humid weather of the country also makes it a tricky location to house valuable artefacts from an entire civilisation. However, that does not stop the visionaries of IAMM.
Curator Zulkifli Ishak believes that the rationale of having the museum at the country’s capital city is driven by the pursuit to recognise South-East Asia as an important part of the Muslim civilisation.
“One of the motivations of having the museum in KL is perhaps due to the lack of representation. Islamic arts as a field has been dominated by Europeans who have a certain point of view of Islam. If you look at their travel accounts in the past and even paintings, often, they do not include South-East Asia.
“So, we must step up. We know that is not the reality. The Malay Archipelago made up an important part of the Muslim civilisation and was part of the global network of the Islamic civilisation.
In time, those in the West have acknowledged that they missed this part of the world,” Zulkifli said.
A Glorious Collection
The art objects on display at IAMM range from jewellery to ornaments, paintings, ceramics, weaponries and scale models of Islamic architecture.
Islamic art can sometimes be difficult to categorise as it covers a broad period of over 1,400 years and includes a vast area of land. However, it has an intrinsic unifying characteristic that reflects the way Islam serves as a cohesive force among ethnically and culturally diverse global population.
Basic components of Islamic ornament include calligraphy, vegetal patterns and geometric patterns.
One of the oldest collections in the museum is a seventh-century manuscript of the Quran from the Arabian Peninsula written in the Hijazi script on vellum.
Calligraphy — which is held in great esteem due to the decree of reading and writing in the Quran — is not only created with ink, but also carved on buildings and items such as the keris (a curved dagger popular among the Malays).
One keris owned by Sultan Abdul Jalil of the Johor-Riau Sultanate, which is on display, has the inscription: “Indeed, God is with the patient.”
Another example is China-made porcelain from the 17th century commissioned by Sultan Iskander Muda from Acheh, which also incorporates a verse from the Quran and names of the righteous caliphs.
These ceramics are also designed with vegetal motifs, comprised of repetitive patterns and interlacing shapes, which represent divine unity.
Apart from the intricate designs, Islamic art can also be characterised by its function. An example of this is the Damascus Room from the Ottoman period which is one of its kind in South-East Asia. The room, which is dated to 19th-century Syria, is made of painted wood panels and is used during the period to entertain guests.
The room is furnished with built-in cupboards, shelves and closets which are traditionally used to store carpets and pillows whenever they are not in use.
The elaborate design of the room, with its raised ceiling and beautiful calligraphic poetry decorating the upper walls, is commonly found in a Syrian home at the time — reflecting the importance of hospitality as a value and ethic in Islam.
Scholar’s Library: The Brain of the Museum
The museum’s unique collection extends to its library located on the second floor, which houses over 20,000 volumes of books and journals.
An original copy of Frank Swettenham’s Malay Sketches (1913) can be found at the Scholar’s Library, along with Alfred Russell Wallace’s The Malay Archipelago (1869) — both offering accounts from an Orientalist perspective of life in the Malay world in the 19th century.
Given their prominence as reference materials for historical studies on the region, these works are often referred to in their digital copies available online.
However, library manager Salmiah Jusoh said the original copies appeal to those who seek more information on the era from the books themselves.
“Some researchers would like to see the books themselves. They don’t come to look at the content, but at the bookbinding, the paper material and illuminations like those found in the Quran — some even study the logos on the book,” Salmiah said, pointing to a symbol on the cover of Wallace’s manuscript.
Other than journals, guests of the library can also view a rare collection of an Indian wedding invitation in 1882, which was coincidentally found in one of the museum’s dictionaries from Iran. The text, written in Urdu, was enclosed in a golden pouch that was originally sealed.
“The item was immediately sent to our conservation centre after it was found. They discovered that the pouch also contained grains of rice which served a dual purpose.
“It was a symbol of prosperity at the time and it also had a functional purpose to preserve the pouch itself,” Salmiah explained.
Apart from collecting and preserving resources related to the literary heritage of the Islamic world, the library assists IAMM’s curators with their works — often giving them ideas and in-depth information on an exhibition.
“The library is the brain of the museum. The curators need to do their research, and they need relevant materials to cross-check what they know and add on to what they have.
“This rigorous process will allow them to acquire and convey the right information to the museum’s visitors,” Salmiah said.
Most of the reference materials at the Scholar’s Library were bought from premier auction houses like Sotheby’s Inc and Christie’s Inc, Salmiah said.
“Others were acquired from collectors, through donations or exchanges with museums and libraries. We are doing one with an institution in France. They want something from our collection, and we want something from theirs, so we trade,” she said.
Its collection has grown from 22,000 in December last year to an impressive 26,000 to date. The library is currently developing its Malay literature collection and is expected to receive volumes of dictionaries, encyclopaedias and other Malay literary treasures.
Back to a Common Root
IAMM has proven that its collection is relevant to a wide range of audience. An exploration into the world of Islamic art shows universality in not only form, but in its message of peace, love and justice.
For Zulkifli, he hopes that the museum will attract more locals as its world-class collection offers a universal perspective which is befitting for a multi-cultural country like Malaysia.
“It may seem irrelevant to have an Islamic art museum in Malaysia, but when you look closer, you will realise that the faith and the region are inseparable. It forms an important part of our identity as a nation,” he said.