At the height of Islamic civilisations came a magnificent flowering of the arts and architecture: the buildings created by the great Islamic dynasties rank among the finest monuments of world culture. To focus one’s attention on material details of these creations and on their representation in the pictorial arts of the time makes one understand better how they reflect the all-encompassing unity of man and nature, central to Muslim belief. The aesthetics of the environment we build and of the arts we create are the reflections of our spiritual life, and there has always been a very definite ethos guiding the best Islamic architecture and artistic creation.

For much of my life, particularly since 1957, I have been interested in architecture and the built environment, especially in the context of the Islamic world and its artistic heritage. I am therefore sincerely pleased that Treasures of the Aga Khan Museum: Architecture in Islamic Arts has been chosen as the subject for an exhibition that will be shown at the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, at the Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia in Kuala Lumpur, and at the Asian Civilisations Museum in Singapore.

At the height of Islamic civilisations came a magnificent flowering of the arts and architecture: the buildings created by the great Islamic dynasties rank among the finest monuments of world culture. To focus one’s attention on material details of these creations and on their representation in the pictorial arts of the time makes one understand better how they reflect the all-encompassing unity of man and nature, central to Muslim belief. The aesthetics of the environment we build and of the arts we create are the reflections of our spiritual life, and there has always been a very definite ethos guiding the best Islamic architecture and artistic creation.

Buildings can do more than simply house people and programmes. They can also reflect our deepest values; great architecture, like great art, captures esoteric thought in physical form. In Islamic thought, beauty and mystery are not separated from the intellect — in fact, the reverse is true.

Buildings can do more than simply house people and programmes. They can also reflect our deepest values; great architecture, like great art, captures esoteric thought in physical form. In Islamic thought, beauty and mystery are not separated from the intellect — in fact, the reverse is true. As we use our intellect to gain new knowledge about Creation, we come to see even more profoundly the depth and breadth of its mysteries. This exhibition showcases examples of this beauty and mystery.

For too long, there has been little public debate about the art and architecture of Muslim societies. The consequences for the Muslim world have been a one-way flow of scholarship and popular culture from the West, which, in turn, receives all too little that is creative and interpretative, scholarly and artistic, from the Muslim world. The cultures of Islamic civilisations have more than 1400 years of intellectual and artistic history; sadly today, this history and its contributions to our shared global heritage are still little known.

To address this condition, the Aga Khan Museum is being established in Canada’s great multicultural city of Toronto, and it will open its doors in 2013. The Museum has a range of objects and miniature paintings in its collection that will allow it to establish a highly creative intellectual contest for the research and presentation of the arts of Islamic civilisations and therefore make a major contribution to this relatively unexplored subject. As the collection grows and develops, it will focus further on the complementary nature of architecture and other visual arts. The Museum’s building itself, designed by Fumihiko Maki — one of the great architects of our time — will be an architecturally inspiring setting for the collection.

I would like to acknowledge the work of the growing Aga Khan Museum team under the leadership of Dr. Michael Brand, and express my sincere gratitude for all of their support and wisdom to Dr. Mikhail Piotrovsky at the State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Syed Mohamad Albukhary, Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia, and Dr. Alan Chong, Asian Civilisations Museum, Singapore.

His Highness the Aga Khan IV

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