By JANE JAKEMAN [The Art Newspaper] — To illustrate the material culture supporting the various Islamic beliefs in the supernatural, whether “orthodox” or “superstitious”, the Ashmolean Museum has brought together examples that range not only from scholarly interpretation to popular faith, but also from lavish courtly productions to objects cherished at humbler levels. This in itself represents a new movement in Islamic art studies, traditionally largely focused on connoisseurship. That approach isolated the gobstopper art object in a glass case, whether physical or metaphorical, whereas the banners, talismans and amulets of poorer folk discussed here were part of their daily lives.
It is not surprising that we owe this initiative to Francesca Leoni, who recently risked censure by examining the controversial topic of Islamic erotic art, and it is to their credit that several Muslim foundations and collectors have supported this present venture.
There are three clear divisions to the scrutinies in Power and Protection: first, theories and principles, then practical applications and lastly the artistic and scientific “vocabulary” that transmuted objects into items of metaphysical power. There has been something of an assumption of “progression” among historians that “superstitious” practices became marginalised as the “core” of Islamic beliefs overtook them, but the evidence here challenges that view. The Qur’an especially has continuously played an essential role in a whole range of practices. Complex astrology, divination by various means, such as reading lines traced in the sand, invocations of protection, and the appearance of quotations and Qur’anic scripts did not necessarily contradict, but rather could be claimed to complement, the sacred text, which simultaneously strengthened the power of the object or incantation.