DUBAI: As Ramadan approaches, curiosity among non-Muslims about Islam tends to grow. In United Arab Emirates, visitors to the Sharjah Museum of Islamic Civilisation can enter a gallery dedicated to teaching about Islam, which has more than two billion followers across the globe.
The Abu Bakr Gallery of Islamic Faith, which opened in 2008, gives a sense of the history of the world’s fastest-growing religion through records, manuscripts, and models of landmarks.
Visitors are met by the five pillars of Islam explained and displayed on the wall.
The first pillar is the Shahada, a testimony of faith that there is no God but Allah and the Holy Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) is His Messenger.
The second is salah, five daily prayers performed as an act of worship to God.
Zakat is the third, requiring a certain amount of charity as a religious obligation on an annual basis. The fourth is sawm, fasting for the duration of the month of Ramadan (the ninth month in the Islamic lunar calendar).
The final pillar is Hajj, a pilgrimage to Makkah for Muslims who are able to do so once in their lifetime.
There is a section of the gallery that tells of the steps and rituals of Hajj including the preparation and Tawaf (walking around Al Kaaba anticlockwise) which is the focal point for Muslim pilgrimage.
It also explains the kissing of the black stone, a model of which is exhibited.
Pieces of Kiswah – the black silk cloth that covers Al Kaaba – are also on display with videos and documents explaining its production and history.
The pieces are called qandils, which means lamps in Arabic, due to their lamp-like shape.
“All of the gallery’s collections are about the Islamic faith and history to help visitors get a closer look at what Islam truly is in one place,” said Intisar Al Obaidli, curator of the Sharjah Museum of Islamic Civilisation.
“The number of non-Muslim visitors to the gallery is very large with more than 90 per cent of them from outside the country.”
She said the museum and gallery aim to provide answers about Islam while also highlighting its influence on other civilisations.
“Several exhibitions we organise serve the same purpose such as ‘Drop by Drop Life Falls from the Sky: Water, Islam and Art’, and the recently opened ‘Wonder and Inspiration Venice and the Arts of Islam exhibition’,” she said.
A large collection of images by British colonial officer Harry St John Philby show Al Kaaba, the holy mosque in Makkah and other areas of Saudi Arabia between 1920 and 1960.
Philby, who studied Oriental languages at the University of Cambridge and was chief adviser for King Abd Al Aziz ibn Saud, lived in Saudi Arabia from the late 1920s and converted to Islam.
There is a collection of images that shows the rock upon which Muslims believe Prophet Abraham stood while building Al Kaaba with his son Ismail.
Visiting the museum, Tatyana Rudenskykh, 28, from Ukraine, said she had discovered a number of similarities between Christianity and Islam, “such as how they consider Abraham and Moses to have been true prophets of God”, she said.
“Also, both faiths originated in the Middle East and have common concepts of pilgrimage and fasting.”
Another section of the gallery speaks of the evolution of bookbinding art in Islamic history and displays dozens of Holy Quran manuscripts some of which date back to the seventh century.
These include a copy of a Holy Quran manuscript attributed to the Caliph Uthman Ibn Affan (644-656 AD). The original is preserved in the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul.
The gallery also reflects on mosques as social and educational centres through a section that shows their history, their role, and their distinctive styles that were inspired by the exchange of culture between the Muslim civilisation and others such as Roman, Byzantium, and Persian.
“It is important at this time of history to learn about religions and cultures of others in order to understand that we are truly alike,” said Tatyana. “This will leave little space for hatred.”