British Library’s The Sacred Exhibition, 27 Apr–23 Sep 2007

I had reach London as a Charles Wallace Fellow India at School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) on 1st of March and since day one was looking forward to see the Exhibition, The Sacred, which was scheduled to start at British Library in late April 2007.

It was but natural that as I was already working at both the libraries, the library of SOAS and the British Library on the Euston Road, I would rush there immediately as it commenced. I must say that from 28th April (a day after the inaugural) I would off and on visit the gallery. Sometimes soon after depositing my bags and overcoat in the cloakroom, I would first visit the exhibition and look at the manuscripts and other artefacts displayed as if I was seeing them for the first time! What gave me satisfaction was that being a registered member of the BL, the exhibition was free for me to visit any number of times!

The British Library’s acclaimed “Sacred” exhibition brought together, for the first time, exquisite and very rare Jewish, Christian and Islamic texts, presenting them alongside one another to show the extraordinary shared heritage of the Abrahamic faiths.

Nikahnama of Bahadur Shah II

This lavish certificate (See last photograph above) records the marriage of the last Mughal ruler, Bahadur Shah II (r. 1837-57) to Zeenat Mahal Begum in India on 18 November 1840.

This document also known as kābīnnāma (marriage contract) opens with the religious wording in Arabic traditionally associated with marriage. It records that the marriage was legally performed, openly, with the consent of the bride and bridegroom.

It also states that the bridegroom agreed to pay a kabin (jointure or settlement) of 1,500,000 current rupees, of which one-third is to be paid immediately and two-thirds at any time during their married life, and that the marriage took place in the presence of two free, adult and righteous witnesses.

Personally for me the star attractions in this exhibition were the nikāhnāma of Bahādurshāh Zafar, and an ‘alam a palm hand symbol, from Iran signifying the panjatan, the Pious Five of Islam, a symbol used throughout the Shi’i world to commemorate Imam Husain.

Another exhibit which interested me a lot was a model of a typical European mosque. The model tried to show the various influences which went into giving a typical form to a mosque amidst the Christian world.

This exhibition proved to be the most successful exhibition in the history of the British Library, both in terms of visitors, and of the overwhelmingly positive reaction from press and public alike.

It attracted, according to the BL website, over 200,000 visitors, an average of 1,325 each day, more than any other exhibition in the history of the Library.

On Monday 7th May 2007 was held The Sacred Ways, a day long programme of music and dance related to Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

Despite it being a Holiday and a chilly day of downpour, 3,000 people came along to enjoy Sacred Ways, in the British Library piazza. Most of those who attended took the chance to visit the Sacred Exhibition itself, which saw its biggest queues since the exhibition started on 27 April.

The Piazza of the British Library was transformed, with a programme of outdoor performances, workshops, food, crafts, installations and displays. The best hot steaming samosas which I ever had in my life was there as the rain fell!

The performances this day reflected on sacred places, journeys and traditions associated with the Jewish, Christian and Islamic faiths.

Families were very much in evidence, and all ages enjoyed the wide range of music and dance on display. Artists included the London Jewish Male Choir, the IDMC Gospel Choir and the Ameer Khan Qawwali Group.

The appended clip is of the Qawwali presentation during the Exhibition on 07/05/2007. As is to be expected, I was behind the camera!

Qawwali of Ameer Khan & party, BL, London 2007

For many, the highlight was the spectacular performance from Zia Azazi, an exponent of modern Sufi dance. This was fitting climax to an enchanting day. I can be seen peeping from behind the black frock of the dancer.

Whirling Dance Zia Azizi Turkish Dancing Sufi