On Victoria Day I went to visit the Aga Khan Museum, the Ismaili Centre next door, and the park in the middle. It was a beautiful day. I got off the bus just before midday. The sun was high in the sky and the whole complex shone bright and hot. I was glad to step inside the cool museum, with its controlled, diffused light and air conditioning. I had heard both buildings were beautiful. The museum is anything but ornate inside. The architecture is deceptively simple. The galleries are small. The collections are what people come to see. They are housed and displayed in peaceful spaces that allow for prolonged attention. One visit isn’t enough.
A lot of westerners say “Islamic Art” is an oxymoron. After all, it seems we only hear about the Islamist extremists who are bent on burning beauty away from the earth. “Islamic Science” isn’t a phrase most in the west have ever heard. Long before Christians drove Muslims out of Europe and tried to do the same in Palestine Islamic artists, architects, astronomers, mathematicians, and physicians were at work. Their work was centuries ahead of the Europeans. A few wise and brave western scholars, like Copernicus sought out translations of Arabic texts and quietly worked with them to lay the foundations of what we call science. The permanent collection at the Aga Khan Museum reveals an earlier foundation few of us learned about in school. It also represents later developments in a part of the world people in our part of the world said was in the dark. After all, we in the west had an “Enlightenment” 400 years ago! Weren’t we lucky?
Visiting the Ismaili Centre provides a dramatic contrast to the important history lesson offered by the museum. The centre is all about today, and the way Ismaili Muslims bring faith and tradition, rich with ancient symbols, into the present. The building is a masterpiece itself, a celebration of design and decoration, the craft of artisans, Muslim and non-Muslim. Every detail has meaning, old and new. The contemporary take on the traditional dome over the prayer room is magnificent. The whole building is filled with light.
While there I remembered that I once heard a Muslim scholar respond to a western Christian’s question about history. When did Muslims experience the enlightenment? He replied, “We didn’t need one.” Not the elevation of reason to divine status and the reduction of religion to a harmless intellectual exercise that set the course of western civilization.
I’ve heard Christians and Hindus in India say the same thing.
If we go looking for darkness, we’ll surely find it. Yes, there are elements in every society that cast darkness, not light, and fight to draw others into deep shadows. Too often, though, we only see the darkness when we look toward people who are different from us. Too often, we forget how many people look on us in the same way.
If we’re confident in what we believe, and can honestly say we live what we believe with integrity, we will have no reason to cast people who aren’t like us into darkness. We’ll have no reason to be afraid of others. We’ll find the grace to join with others in the light, and work with them for the good of all. We all need enlightenment, real enlightenment. None of us will ever find it on our own.
I’m a better Christian when I see the light that others live in. Not the shadows my certainties cast over them.
As I left the Ismaili Centre and headed out onto the sidewalk I looked across Wynford Drive at another centre of religion. It was a pretty stark contrast. Shouldn’t it be all lit up, too, as a witness to the light we Presbyterians live in?
I’d love to meet Pope Francis some day. Maybe invite the Aga Khan to join in the conversation. I know a really beautiful place to meet in. The food’s great there, too.