At the Met, a New Vision for Islam in Hostile Times

Robert Worth in The New York Times:

IslamOver the past decade, many Americans have based their thoughts and feelings about Islam in large part on a single place: the blasted patch of ground where the World Trade Center once stood. But a rival space has slowly and silently taken shape over those same years, about six miles to the north. It is a vast, palacelike suite of rooms on the second floor of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where some of the world’s most precious Islamic artifacts sit sequestered behind locked doors. On a recent afternoon, Navina Haidar stood in these rooms as a wash of voices echoed up from the halls of the Greek and Roman galleries, far below. Only three weeks remained until the long-hidden Islamic galleries were to be unveiled to the public, and Haidar — an elegant 45-year-old who was raised in New Delhi by a Muslim father and a Hindu mother — still had decisions to make. She has spent more than eight years devising a vision of Islamic tradition that is far more diverse, and less foreign, than the caricature mullahs and zealots who have come to define Islam for much of the non-Muslim world.

“We’re thinking of putting the Koran pages right here, by the entrance,” Haidar said, gazing at two eight-feet-tall manuscript pages in sloping Arabic script that date to the 15th century, parked casually on dollies. “That would make a bold statement right up front about Islam.” Around her, ladders and scaffoldings stood casually alongside life-size Afghan figures in stone and curved Ottoman daggers in gold. There is far more at stake here than the overhaul of a permanent collection at the Met, itself a once-in-a-generation event. The museum’s directors are acutely aware that their collection will be unveiled at a time when Islam is a more inflammable subject than ever. That is no small part of what makes Haidar so nervous as she prepares for opening day. It is also one reason the galleries — closed since 2003 — spent so long in the dark.

More here. (Note: Congratulations to dear Navina on this magnificent accomplishment and to her parents and my dear friends Kusum and Salman Haidar on their daughter's spectacular success. The new galleries are an absolute must-see at the Met)

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