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About the Galleries

The reimagining of the collection galleries introduces a comprehensive visitor trail, creates expanded interpretive materials to help contextualise the masterworks and provides new mobile and child-friendly resources to make the museum more accessible for families and younger guests.

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The eighteen galleries are organised according to broad historical and cultural themes, periods and geography, and explore the great traditions of Islamic craftsmanship.

The experience begins on the ground floor with an introductory immersive gallery that details the fascinating story of I.M. Pei and his daring design for the now iconic museum.

Gallery 1

Embarking on a Journey through the Islamic World

The Islamic lands hold some of the most splendid artistic traditions worldwide. Islam originated in the Arabian Peninsula and spread rapidly to the East and West. As the new faith expanded across a vast geographical region, it connected people of diverse ethnicities, religious beliefs and cultural practices. This resulted in a cohesive culture that is still vibrant today.

The galleries on this floor invite the visitor to explore the formation and spread of Islam and learn about its religious, intellectual and cultural heritage. Upstairs, the visitor travels across the Islamic world, from the Mediterranean to Southeast Asia, encountering some of Islam’s greatest empires, and exploring the vital role of trade and exchange.

This first gallery is the journey’s starting point. It displays a selection of the museum’s most important masterpieces and introduces some of the fascinating stories Islamic art can tell about the past, present and future.

Gallery 2

The Qur'an – Word and Art

The Qur’an, meaning ‘recitation’, is the divine word of God in Islam. Delivered in Arabic over 23 years by the Archangel Gabriel to the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH, c. 570 CE - 11 AH / 632 CE), it is considered a miracle in its meaning and wording. The Prophet devoted himself to its recitation as well as its written and oral transmission. The language of the Qur’an is powerful and teaches about the founding principles of Islam. It provides the basis for legal regulations by giving instruction on religious duties and practices. Its moral lessons, prayers and prophetic histories are conveyed in 114 suras (chapters), first memorised and recorded by the early community of Muslims gathered around the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). The wide range of motifs and materials used to ornament manuscripts of the Qur’an reflects the artistic diversity of Muslim communities across the globe.

Gallery 3

Religious Life in the Islamic World

The community of Muslims, the umma, shares common beliefs based on the divine message of God revealed to the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). At the core of religious practice are five arkan al-islam (pillars), beginning with the shahada (profession of faith), ‘There is no god but God, Muhammad is the Messenger of God’, followed by salat (prayer), zakat (almsgiving), sawm ramadan (fasting) and hajj (pilgrimage). These collective practices create a strong sense of unity. At the same time, the material culture associated with religious life reveals the variety of spiritual expression in Muslim societies. Differing forms of prayer, funerary practices and the importance of pilgrimage all reflect the diversity of the umma in the past and the present.

Gallery 4

Learning in the Islamic World

Learning and education are core values in Islam. Under Muslim rule, cities such as Baghdad, Cairo, Cordoba and Fez developed as major intellectual centres, advancing knowledge in the multiple disciplines taught in urban madrasas (Islamic schools). Scholars from all over the Islamic world gathered in such cities to participate in this intellectual development. Rulers and wealthy patrons showed their interest in learning by building libraries and madrasas and acquiring highly valued manuscripts. Both libraries and madrasas played an important role in establishing learning practices and disseminating new knowledge.

Gallery 5

Knowledge, Science and Technology

With the spread of Islam, Arabic became the new language of science. Muslim rulers promoted scientific scholarship from the earliest centuries of Islam, often involving scholars from different ethnic and religious backgrounds. They made significant advances in medicine, astronomy, mathematics, geography and engineering, and paved the way for many scientific discoveries of modern times. They developed technologies to respond to needs ranging from religious practices, agriculture and travel, all of which required ways to precisely measure time and location. Scholars in the Islamic world also sought to understand the universe and its mechanisms, describing Earth and the place of humans in it.

Gallery 6

The Establishment of the Caliphate

The rise of Islam was linked to rapid territorial expansion by tribes of the Arabian Peninsula. They formed a new empire that extended from Mecca to Spain in the west to the Indus Valley and China in the east. The futuhat (military conquests) also led to political and cultural changes. This included the creation of the khilafa (caliphate), or state, around the Caliph as spiritual and political leader of the Muslim community; the establishment of Arabic as the official administrative language; and the creation of a new calendar in 1 AH (622 CE) – the date at which the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) departed from Mecca to Medina (hijra) and established the first capital city of the Islamic world. The objects on display in this gallery represent the artistic production of three of the most significant caliphates in Islamic history.

Gallery 7

The Eastern World – Iran and Central Asia

Muslim armies conquered Iran and much of Central Asia in the 1st century AH (7th century CE). Here they encountered ancient civilisations that had long histories and well-established artistic traditions. For centuries, the region was a source of cultural trends and innovations that developed along the Silk Road trade network. With the coming of Islam, these lands became a hotbed of political change, social transformation and artistic experimentation. Pre-Islamic customs and the Persian language survived as Iranian administrators were employed in the new Muslim governments. Ancient cities such as Isfahan, Nishapur, Samarqand and Herat thrived while towns such as Bukhara, Merv and Ghazni emerged as important artistic and intellectual centres.

Gallery 8

The Courtly Arts of Al-Andalus

Al-Andalus is the Arabic name for the region of Spain and Portugal that formed the western border of the Islamic world. With the arrival of Islam in the late 1st century AH (early 8th century CE), the Muslim dynasties established there flourished by forming alliances with the neighbouring powers, including the Byzantine Empire and the various Christian and Muslim states around the Mediterranean Sea and in North Africa. The period of Muslim rule in al-Andalus was one of brilliant political, economic and cultural development. New techniques developed in industries including textiles and ceramics, while agriculture and gardens benefited from the introduction of new irrigation systems. Although Muslim rule in al-Andalus ended in 897 AH (1492 CE), its cultural, intellectual and artistic legacies are still celebrated today.

Gallery 9

The Islamic Legacy in Al-Andalus

After the fall of Nasrid rule in Granada in 897 AH (1492 CE), many inhabitants of al-Andalus fled. A small part of the Muslim population remained, including artisans who worked under the patronage of the new Christian rulers and elites. Their contributions ensured that Islamic artistic influences continued into the following centuries.

Most ceramics, carpets, carved wood, embroidered textiles and manuscript bindings followed the techniques and motifs of earlier periods, but now incorporating Christian blazons. The kings of Aragon, Castile and Léon – who occupied older Muslim palaces – took them as models for their new buildings, decorating them with colourful tiles and wood.

Gallery 10

The Mediterranean – Sea of Exchange

For thousands of years, the Mediterranean’s shorelines were home to numerous mercantile states and diverse communities. These territories were filled with both opportunity and conflict as regional powers fought for domination and control. Following the Prophet Muhammad’s death (PBUH) in 11 AH (632 CE), Arab armies gained control of the North African coastline, creating a new unity within the southern and eastern Mediterranean.

With the spread of Islam, passage around the Mediterranean encouraged two interconnected activities: pilgrimage and trade. Goods, ideas and languages were exchanged as people travelled along these routes. Those who controlled these channels expanded into great powers, both geographically and politically, connecting Spain, Italy, North Africa, the eastern Mediterranean, Turkey, Greece and the Balkans.

Gallery 11

Ayyubid Syria and Mamluk Egypt

Between the 6th and 10th centuries AH (12th and 16th centuries CE), two dynasties dominated the eastern Mediterranean: the Ayyubids and the Mamluks. The Ayyubid dynasty (570-658 AH/1174-1260 CE), and its famed Kurdish General Salah al-Din, brought political consolidation, fortification, prosperity and intellectual advancement to the region, with several Syrian cities developing as important mercantile centres.

The Ayyubids were succeeded by the Mamluks (648-923 AH/1250-1517 CE), a new dynasty formed of elite military slaves. They successfully drove out the last Crusaders and the Mongols, and seized control of international trade routes. With their increasing wealth, the Mamluks brought a new era of royal patronage, transforming their capital, Cairo, into the great epicentre of the eastern Mediterranean.

Gallery 12

Arts of Turkey and the Ottoman Provinces

The Ottoman dynasty (698-1341 AH/1299-1923 CE) ruled over the longest-standing empire in the history of the Islamic world. Founded by a Turkic tribe, the first Ottoman territories were based initially in north-west Anatolia. They established Bursa as their first capital in 726 AH (1326 CE), followed by Adrianople (Edirne) in the Balkans. After their triumphant conquest of Constantinople (Istanbul) in 857 AH (1453 CE), the Ottomans expanded into eastern Europe and across North Africa and the central Arab lands, transforming their sultanate into a transcontinental empire. By the beginning of the 11th century AH (17th century CE), the Ottoman Empire contained thirty-two provinces and numerous subordinate states. It was a multicultural and multilingual empire, and its arts reflected the diversity of its people.

Gallery 13

Arms and Armour

The art of warfare has held a special role in the Islamic world. Essential for battles of territorial and political supremacy, it was also considered a noble art. With the spread of Islam, weapons and tactics evolved with exposure to new technologies. Advancements in steel manufacture and knowledge of gunpowder changed the ways in which Muslim armies engaged in combat. These military advantages led to the rise of the great ‘Gunpowder Empires’ of the early modern period, notably the Ottoman, Safavid and Mughal dynasties. This period also witnessed the transformation of utilitarian weapons into highly sophisticated examples of courtly craftsmanship. Weapons played a vital role in conveying the wealth and power of a court. They also became markers of status, rank and authority.

Gallery 14

Imperial Arts of Iran and Central Asia

Between the 8th and 13th centuries AH (14th to 19th centuries CE), Iran defined its geographic territories and expanded its political influence. Most of Iran’s population adopted Shi‘a Islam, bringing a specific religious character to its artistic life. Successive ruling dynasties created cultural and artistic languages that were widely appreciated beyond Iran’s borders, especially in the courts of Central and South Asia where Persian was often the official language.

Diplomatic and trade relations were also established with European countries as Iran became a key political player. High quality carpets, textiles and manuscripts became prized possessions of the elite as well as important exports. Iran’s dynastic heritage still influences the visual identity of Iranian art today.

Gallery 15

Manuscript Making, Painting and Calligraphy

Manuscripts and calligraphy have always held a significant place in Islamic cultures. With the introduction of paper into the Islamic world in the 2nd century AH (8th century CE), manuscript production increased in volume. Scientific treatises, literary works, epic tales and romances started being illustrated around this period.

The production of these manuscripts required multiple artists - bringing together bookbinders, papermakers, painters and calligraphers. By the 9 th century AH (15 th century CE), the practice of assembling muraqqa‘at (artistic albums) containing works of old masters, calligraphy and studies of single figures became popular in many courtly circles and amongst art connoisseurs. Oil painting on large-scale canvas was introduced a few centuries later through contact with European art.

Gallery 16

Imperial Arts of South Asia

Contact between South Asia and the Islamic world began in the 2nd century AH (8th century CE) when a province of the Umayyad Empire was established in Sindh (in modern Pakistan). The influence of Islam became more widespread during the late 6th century AH (12th century CE) when Afghan armies conquered Delhi, and several regional sultanates emerged across the subcontinent. By the late 10th century AH (16th century CE), the Mughal dynasty had become the dominant Muslim power, with immense territories and wealth. With hereditary roots in Central Asia, the Mughals ruled over South Asia for nearly three centuries, creating a new culture that integrated local traditions into their artistic patronage. By the 12th century AH (18th century CE), the balance of regional power shifted with the rise of European trading companies and princely states, all of whom were important patrons of the arts.

Gallery 17– Opening Soon

Sailing the Indian Ocean – Sea of Sailors and Merchants

The rapid expansion of Islam from the 1st century AH (7th century CE) led to major cultural and economic transformation in the Indian Ocean. Muslim traders linked the Islamic world with India, Southeast Asia and China to the east, and East Africa and Europe to the west.

To reach their destinations, Arab and Persian sailors had to master the monsoon winds, often crossing dangerous and uncharted waters. As experts of navigation, they revolutionised sea exploration. While the overland Silk Road continued to connect the Middle East to Central Asia and China, the complex and international maritime trading networks became essential for the exchange of goods and ideas for centuries.

Gallery 18 – Opening Soon

Arts of Southeast Asia

Today, Islam is the most widely practiced religion of Southeast Asia, with significant Muslim populations in Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, southern Thailand and parts of the Philippines. After its initial arrival with maritime merchants, Islam spread slowly through the region until about the 9th century AH (15th century CE), when influential rulers began to convert, and important Muslim sultanates were established on islands along the Straits of Malacca (present-day Malaysia and Indonesia).

The artistic practices within Muslim communities of Southeast Asia are particularly diverse and have integrated with many local traditions over the centuries. This unique Islamic heritage has been further transformed as travellers and settlers from China, India, the Middle East and Europe introduced additional religious and cultural elements into the region.