Islamic art from museums around the world

Islamic art from museums around the world
The Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia in Kuala Lumpur. (Shutterstock)
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Updated 18 May 2020

Islamic art from museums around the world

Islamic art from museums around the world
  • To mark International Museum Day, Arab News highlights some of the most-significant artifacts from across the globe

DUBAI: ‘Islamic art’ is a broad term, encompassing delicate sacred folios, stately architectural structures, calligraphy, and paintings — and practiced beyond the geographical borders of Islamic lands — reaching the Far East and Europe — sometimes by non-Muslim artisans. Islamic art, both religious and secular, has proven popular through the ages with many, including royal patrons, archaeologists, artists, art collectors, and curious amateurs.

To mark International Museum Day on May 18, Arab News takes a closer look at some unique objects of Islamic art from leading museum collections around the world, from North America to the Middle East and beyond. 

Bifolium from ‘The Nurse’s Quran’

From New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art

“The Nurse’s Quran” (Mushaf Al-Hadina in Arabic) is considered one of the most remarkable demonstrations of illustrated Quranic manuscripts. Written in ink and gold on parchment, this bifolio from the early 11th century was made in Tunisia (probably in Qairawan), and consists of five lines from the sixth chapter of the Quran — “Al An’am” (The Cattle). Along with red, blue and green diacritical marks, the ‘new-style’ Kufic calligraphy seen here is striking in its curvy yet contained execution.

The manuscript was reportedly commissioned by a North African female patron named Fatima, who donated it to the Great Mosque of Qairawan. She served as a nursemaid to an unknown Zirid leader from a line of Berbers ruling areas in central North Africa. Maryam Ekhtiar, the museum’s associate curator of Islamic art, writes that this important manuscript “serves as a testament to the generosity, faith, and influence of women patrons at the Zirid court.” 

Persian court carpet

From the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston

Speaking of female patrons, the eccentric American art collector Isabella Stewart Gardner was ahead of her time when she unveiled her home and museum to the Bostonian public in 1903. She collected exemplary works by European masters including Rembrandt, Botticelli, and Vermeer. 

But she was also keen on art from the Middle East (Gardner was well-traveled and visited Egypt and Palestine). And in her palazzo-like museum is a fine example of one of the staples of Islamic art — a carpet. This one is from a Persian court, and likely created in the 17th century. 

Gardner purchased the rug in London in 1894, and, according to the museum’s curator, Nat Silver, it acts as “a defining feature of her museum's Titian Room.” Silver told Arab News that the carpet depicts “a two-layer arabesque of palmettes, vines, and curved leaves on a dark maroon ground surrounded by a border of palmettes and flowers on dark blue.” 

Bowl with Kufic calligraphy

From the Brooklyn Museum, New York

This simple yet sublime 10th-century ceramic bowl is believed to have been produced in Nishapur, in northeastern Iran, by an unknown ceramicist. An Arabic proverb decorates the edge of the bowl — written in elegant Kufic calligraphy, one of the oldest Arabic scripts known for its short vertical and elongated horizontal strokes. It reads: "Peace is that which is silent and the inner [thoughts] of the man with faults will only be revealed through his speech." 

An Islamic arts specialist at the museum explained to Arab News who might have owned this type of earthenware: “It is thought that such wares were intended for the Arab elites and merchants living in that region and those who were educated and refined (enough) to appreciate the content — as well as the calligraphic nature — of the decoration.”

Carved oliphant

From the Aga Khan Museum, Toronto

This Fumihiko Maki-designed museum is North America’s first major museum dedicated entirely to the arts of Islamic civilizations. Karen Donaldson, the museum’s collections manager, said that one of its most-prized items is one of the world’s 80 surviving ‘oliphants’ — a horn made from the ivory tusk of an elephant. 

Symbolizing the intersection of Islamic and Christian cultures, this elephant’s tusk, with its intricate imagery, dates back to the 11th or 12th century and was probably carved by Muslim artisans in southern Italy. It would have been used for ceremonial purposes.

“The term ‘oliphant’ was first used in the 12th-century epic poem, ‘Song of Roland,’” explained Donaldson. “In this text, when fighting Arabs in Spain during the Battle of Roncevaux Pass, Roland sounds his horn to recall Charlemagne and his army.”

Enameled jewelry ornament

From the Museum of Islamic Civilization, Sharjah

This small yet vibrant enameled jewelry ornament bears two peacocks, whose unison produces an imposing floral motif. Of the majestic bird’s symbolism, the museum’s organizers said: “In the Islamic world, the peacock was sometimes understood to evoke notions of paradise and eternal life.” 

It was created around the late-18th or early-19th century in Jaipur, Rajasthan, during the Mughal era, which witnessed the spread of Islamic art in South Asia. By the 17th century, Rajasthan was considered a powerhouse of sophisticated enamel craftsmanship. The work produced there typically included studded jewelry pieces, protected with an enameled surface on their front and backside, and embellished with pearls and precious stones. 

Universal astrolabe

From the Benaki Museum, Athens

Astronomy was widely practiced by scientists and scholars across the Arab world. The astrolabe (Greek for ‘star taker’) — shaped like a large clock topped with a rosette — was a scientific tool used to calculate locations and tell the time, among other functions. 

This piece in Athens’ Benaki Museum — founded by Islamic art enthusiast Antonis Benakis in 1930 — is the only known version of an Islamic universal astrolabe. 

The five-plated brass object comes from Syria and was produced by Aleppo-based craftsman and mathematician Ahmad ibn Al-Sarraj in 1328-9 for a patron named Muhammad Al-Tanukhi. Intricately inscribed on the rim of the astrolabe are the names of its four subsequent owners. At least one of them was known as a professional timekeeper (muwaqqit). 


From the Musée du Louvre, Paris

The Louvre inaugurated its modern and airy two-floor Islamic art galleries, designed by Mario Bellini and Rudy Ricciotti, in 2012. A particularly intriguing masterpiece on display is a large 14th-century metal basin created in either Syria or Egypt during the artistically prolific Mamluk era. It was brought to France by King Louis IX in the early 13th century and was apparently used for many years to baptize the offspring of French royalty, including Napoleon III’s son, Prince Napoléon-Eugène, at the Notre Dame Cathedral in 1856. It was an apt font for the regal babes — richly decorated with its figurines of huntsmen, courtiers, and rulers. It became known as the Baptistère of Saint Louis.

Bronze box

From the Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia, Kuala Lumpur 

This rare bronze-cast brass box was designed some time in the 17th century in China during the Qing Dynasty, the nation’s final imperial dynasty, which dissolved in 1912. Research shows that the Islamic presence in China goes back to the Tang dynasty (618-907) with the arrival of Muslim emissaries. It was not long before Chinese artisans started incorporating Islamic motifs in their designs for foreign buyers. 

At first glance, the box cover’s squiggly lines look illegible, but on closer inspection one can see that the term ‘Allah’ is inscribed on the top left part. In addition, the cover’s rim is decorated with floral motifs, which were common in Chinese art. Rendered in Sini (‘Chinese’ in Arabic) script, this free-flowing style of writing is characterized by its thick and tapered effect lettering. It was developed specifically for Islamic inscriptions found in ceramics, manuscripts and structures. 

Happy meal: Arab K-Pop fans share excitement over McDonald’s new BTS deal

Happy meal: Arab K-Pop fans share excitement over McDonald’s new BTS deal
The BTS meal is coming to McDonald's in May. File/AFP
Updated 20 April 2021

Happy meal: Arab K-Pop fans share excitement over McDonald’s new BTS deal

Happy meal: Arab K-Pop fans share excitement over McDonald’s new BTS deal

DUBAI: US fast food giant McDonald’s has tapped Korean pop sensation BTS to promote a new meal, and Arab fans of the boy band can hardly contain their excitement.

Many supporters of the seven member group took to their social media to express their anticipation for the Grammy-nominated boy band's meal that will be launching starting next month in nearly 50 countries, including Oman, Bahrain, UAE, Qatar and Morocco in addition to the US, India, Singapore and more.

“From today, I will just eat at McDonalds,” wrote one Twitter user in Arabic.

Another user from Saudi Arabia mentioned McDonalds in their Tweet, urging them to make the meal available in the Kingdom.

“I am not a fan of McDonald’s, but I changed my mind because of this meal. Provide it to us like you did for the Arab countries on the list,” the user wrote.

Another Twitter user wrote in Arabic: “Wait a minute, I discovered something. A few days back, Suga said he is hungry and a few days later, they collaborated with McDonald’s. He was probably giving us a hint, but we were clowns. WE WANT THE BTS MEAL IN EGYPT (sic).”

Dubbed the “BTS meal,” it will include chicken McNuggets, fries and two dips.

The burger chain has seen its revenue outside the United States drop during the COVID-19 pandemic. The company is tapping on promotional campaigns through celebrity endorsements and limited-time menu items to get customers back into restaurants as economies reopen with the roll-out of vaccines.

The BTS meal follows similar US-only deals with singers J Balvin and Travis Scott, which McDonald’s says boosted sales in the later half of last year.

The spike in demand during the Travis Scott promotion caused the company to temporarily run short of ingredients to assemble its signature Quarter Pounder burgers at some restaurants.

Lebanese style icon Karen Wazen fronts Ralph Lauren campaign with her children

Lebanese style icon Karen Wazen fronts Ralph Lauren campaign with her children
Lebanese influencer and designer Karen Wazen stars in new Polo Ralph Lauren campaign with her children. Instagram
Updated 20 April 2021

Lebanese style icon Karen Wazen fronts Ralph Lauren campaign with her children

Lebanese style icon Karen Wazen fronts Ralph Lauren campaign with her children

DUBAI: Lebanese influencer and designer Karen Wazen was recently tapped to front a new campaign for Polo Ralph Lauren, and she is sharing the spotlight with her family. Wazen features in the campaign images with her three children, twin girls Karlie and Kay, and her son George.

“Ah so happy to share with you our Family Campaign for @PoloRalphLauren!!” exclaimed the Dubai-based fashion blogger on Instagram, alongside the campaign images. “There are no words to explain the love and emotions I have for my family... they’re my biggest blessing and pride,” she added, thanking Polo Ralph Lauren for “capturing these beautiful moments together.”

It’s not the first time that the American brand has shone a spotlight on an Arab family for a major campaign.

Back in December, the label released a campaign titled “Family is Who You Love,” featuring a diverse cast of siblings, parents and children, among them Saudi sisters Sakhaa and Thana Abdul as well as British-Moroccan model Nora Attal and her family.

Actress Jameela Jamil defends US singer Demi Lovato in body positivity row

Actress Jameela Jamil defends US singer Demi Lovato in body positivity row
Jameela Jamil is well known for her body positivity organization ‘I Weigh.’ File/ AFP
Updated 20 April 2021

Actress Jameela Jamil defends US singer Demi Lovato in body positivity row

Actress Jameela Jamil defends US singer Demi Lovato in body positivity row

DUBAI: British actress Jameela Jamil took to her social media account to defend US singer and actress Demi Lovato due to a body positivity controversy this week. 

Lovato, who is best known for her role in Disney’s musical “Camp Rock,” recently called out a popular Los Angeles-based frozen yogurt shop The Bigg Chill, stating that the store’s diet options could lead some people to feel uncomfortable.  

"Finding it extremely hard to order froyo from @thebiggchillofficial when you have to walk past tons of sugar free cookies (and) other diet foods before you get to the counter,” said the “Cool for the Summer” singer, who has been vocal about her struggles with eating disorders in her documentary “Dancing With The Devil.” The 28-year-old urged the business to “do better” along with the hashtag #dietculturevulture.  

Jamil was quick to come to Lovato’s support, after the singer’s comments garnered some backlash online. Taking to her Instagram Stories, the “The Good Place” star wrote, “Ok, I want to try to avoid making the story bigger than it already is. But if an eating disorder advocate says she sees products that are positioned as guilt free, and it is potentially triggering, that doesn’t mean she’s too stupid to remember that diabetics exist. It just means that we need to change the marketing of products that are for people’s medical needs.”

She added: “That’s all @ddlovato was asking for. It doesn’t make her a monster. It doesn’t mean she disregards people’s illnesses. She’s just one of few celebrities reminding us to look out for mental illness. Guilt free is diet culture terminology.”

The British-Pakistani-Indian actress is a major advocate for body positivity.

The 34-year-old, who became a household name with her activism and role as Tahani Al-Jamil on NBC’s “The Good Place,” routinely takes to her platform to encourage people to respect their bodies and often gets candid about her struggles with eating disorders and body dysmorphia that she grappled with in her teenage years.

Jamil is also well known for her body positivity organization “I Weigh,” that focuses on self-worth and body positivity beyond weight, encouraging people to weigh themselves by their positive attributes, as opposed to numbers on a scale.

From Riyadh to Dubai, why is good coffee in the region so expensive?

A cup of coffee from Dubai-based Nightjar costs $5. File/
A cup of coffee from Dubai-based Nightjar costs $5. File/[email protected]
Updated 19 April 2021

From Riyadh to Dubai, why is good coffee in the region so expensive?

A cup of coffee from Dubai-based Nightjar costs $5. File/

DUBAI: Buying a cup of coffee in the Gulf can be quite expensive.

Coffee lovers often bemoan the fact that their latte costs double in Dubai or Riyadh what it does in other countries.

What we might not realize, however, is that we are paying for a lot more than milk and beans in that cup of coffee.

Last week, social media was set alight by a complaint over the price of a $7 flat white in Dubai. Coffee lovers from Kuwait, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Qatar chimed in on whether the cost was justified. It begs the question: Why is coffee so expensive in this region?

We spoke to cafe operators to find out.

Leon Surynt, owner of Nightjar Coffee, one of Dubai’s most popular coffee brands and cafes, said that it is “really hard” to keep his coffee affordable.

Nightjar imports its own beans directly from farms around the world, roasts them at its Alserkal Avenue roastery and sells to hotels and cafes across the country. 

“You need to have multiple avenues, which is a bit of online, a bit of wholesale and a bit of cafe, to make money here,” Surynt says. 

“We live in a society that has a low tax rate, but we also have many compliance costs.”

If we were to break down the cost of a latte at Nightjar ($5), Surynt says, the ingredients — milk and coffee — and the cup only account for about $1 or 20 percent. He estimates that staff wages and expenses, on the other hand, make up a whopping 30 percent, while rent is another 15 percent. Other overheads, such as government fees, marketing, admin and logistics mean his profit from that one latte is about AED 4 (or $1). And that’s not accounting for the cost of delivery aggregators, his salary and kitchen operations.

“There are a lot of hidden costs here,” Surynt said. 

The story is the same for many others.

Samer Harkous, business development manager for Cypher Coffee, supplies hundreds of cafes in the UAE and overseas with green and roasted beans. 

Cypher does not operate a cafe but offers samples at its roastery.

When pricing Cypher’s products, Harkous said rent and municipality fees must be built into the price of beans, and a profit needs to be made on top of that. The cafe selling those beans must then add on its own costs.

And roasting beans is a costly — and difficult — process.

Equipment is imported from overseas. Each bean requires a different roasting method, which is meticulously recorded on charts by staff, from monitoring the necessary temperature and gas levels to listening for the “first crack.” 

Beans themselves command a range of prices. Cypher’s most expensive roast is from Yemen (up to $136 per kilogram) and its cheapest, and most popular, is from Brazil (between $16 to $82 per kilogram). 

Brazilian beans are therefore used by cafes wanting to keep costs down. More expensive beans, usually used by specialty coffee houses, will command a higher price.

Ali Al-Fahad, founder of Earth Roastery, which was established in Kuwait in 2014 and has spread across the region since, adjusts his coffee prices depending on the country he operates in. 

He said that Kuwait is the most expensive and logistically difficult location for a cafe business, while Dubai is the easiest and cheapest. That is why it took them until 2019 to open a café. Before that, he was solely selling wholesale coffee beans.

“Business here is very risky. Very few people can be successful,” he said. “When we opened the coffee shop, we understood that.”

Al-Fahad said their highest costs go on salaries and visa costs, followed by rent and logistics.

“Customers travel. They want the same quality and experience as they have in Europe. But to be on that level, you need to invest more.”


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Cyrus Woo, deputy director at Bahrain’s Crust and Crema, said pricing was a “sensitive” subject when they opened.

“We had to be very careful. We only had other coffee shops to compare to, so we did market research and then did our own costing.”

Of the $4 it costs for an Americano or $5 for a latte, Woo agreed that what the customer is mostly paying for is staff salaries.

“If you factor in how much of the coffee and milk you’re going to use for one drink, those are the minimal costs involved,” Woo said.


A post shared by (@crustandcrema)

“You’re paying for the atmosphere, overheads, marketing, utilities, rent, insurance, equipment and labor costs. The market is saturated, and baristas are in high demand, so you have to pay more for them.”

Woo said that while coffee makes more money than food at a cafe, for coffee to be profitable, a cafe has to “sell a lot.”

“We are a for-profit business. We need to be able to survive, but we don’t want to be greedy. 

“I hope that when people come in and have coffee, they appreciate there’s a lot more involved, that they’re paying for the experience.”

So, when you’re handing over $7 for your latte, lamenting the expense, remember: You’re not just buying a coffee. You’re paying for your surroundings and for your barista’s wages. And actually, for $7, that’s pretty reasonable.

Moroccan-Italian model Malika El-Maslouhi stars in new Hugo Eyewear campaign

The model posed for the new Hugo Eyewear Spring 2021 campaign. Instagram
The model posed for the new Hugo Eyewear Spring 2021 campaign. Instagram
Updated 19 April 2021

Moroccan-Italian model Malika El-Maslouhi stars in new Hugo Eyewear campaign

The model posed for the new Hugo Eyewear Spring 2021 campaign. Instagram

DUBAI: There’s no slowing down Malika El-Maslouhi. This week, the Moroccan-Italian model was selected to star in the new Hugo Eyewear Spring 2021 campaign, which was shot by fashion photographer Matteo Montanari.

Featuring alongside model Parker Van Noord, the catwalker appears in a video and campaign photographs wearing key pieces from the German label’s most recent eyewear collection. For the campaign, the 22-year-old posed on a rooftop wearing the brand’s newest range of optical frames and sunglasses, paired with a mustard yellow double-breasted suit and a black, logo emblazoned Hugo Boss top.


A post shared by HUGO (@hugo_official)

The campaigns keep on rolling in for the rising star, who was born in Milan to an Italian mother and a Moroccan father.

In addition to her latest work with Hugo Eyewear, El-Maslouhi also recently appeared in campaigns for Zadig & Voltaire, Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein Swim, Jacquemus and Mango alongside fellow Moroccan model Nora Attal.

Memorably, she was the star of designer Peter Dundas’ most recent collection. The Norwegian designer selected the breakout model to  showcase the brand’s glamorous new offering for Fall 2021, which was digitally presented in a look book format.


A post shared by MALIKA (@malika.elmaslouhi)

And when she’s not modeling different collections for brands, she’s helping design them.

She recently teamed up with London-based retailer Ishkar on a range of necklaces delicately handcrafted by jewelers in Kabul, Afghanistan. 

According to the online store, founded by former UAE residents Edmund Le Brun and Flore de Taisne in 2016, the Malika x Ishkar collection is set to drop soon.


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El-Maslouhi, who is signed to VIVA Model Management, made her modelling debut when she was 18 years old at the Alberta Ferretti Fall 2019 show and went on to walk for the Dior Cruise 2020 show held in Marrakech a month later.

She would go on to quit her university studies to pursue modeling full-time, gracing the runways of storied fashion houses such as Hermes and Chanel.

The model, who splits her time between Italy, France and the Netherlands, also has a few editorials under her belt, including Vogue Russia, British Vogue, Dazed Magazine and Elle France, for which she recently served as the cover star.