Toronto’s Aga Khan Museum- Islam and China

 China’s impact on Islamic art revealed at Toronto’s Aga Khan Museum 

by Cristoph De Caermichael,

TORONTO, Oct. 15 — The newly-inaugurated Aga Khan Museum in Toronto is a multifaceted building of fabulous architectural detail that transforms the building into being, not only a home to over 1,000 precious artifacts from the Iberian Peninsula to China but to a functioning lyrical space that uses light play to fascinate the public.

In many ways it’s a temple to the graciousness of Islamic thought that is a foundation of the Aga Khan’s ethos. His Highness Prince Shah Karim Al Hussaini Aga Khan IV commented that the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto reflects his families’ ongoing commitment to pluralism and to the promotion of understanding between civilizations, religions and races.

The Aga Khan Museum opened in Toronto on Sept. 18, 2014. For ten years, three world-class architects worked to create the museum, the Ismaili Centre and the landscaped park that connects them. Fumihiko Maki, renowned Japanese architect designed the Aga Khan Museum, the landscape park was designed by Serbian-Lebanese landscape architect Vladimir Djurovic and creates an oasis of water and light that connects to the Ismaili Centre designed by noted Indian architect Charles Correa. The museum and its complex is believed to give Toronto another level of sophistication to add to its jewel box collection of superb architecture.

“Maki was asked by His Highness, to design this building based on the principles of light. Maki did that by effectively creating a lantern,” Museum Director and CEO Henry Kim told Xinhua. “This building is an outstanding and well thought through building, a very modern building and yet also use pattern and texture from the Islamic world. This is where you find the wonderful blending of cultures together.”

According to on-site architect C. Po Ma, the Aga Khan himself was very hands-on in the physical designing of the museum, conducting many on-site inspections to ensure that his vision was accurately implemented. The precise height of the exterior reflecting pools of the landscaped garden through to the veiled lighting of the Mashrabiya are just two examples of his vision for the museum. Honorable mention also goes to the Fibonacci inspired nautilus stairwell in lapis blue and the teak auditorium.

Light play is evident throughout the museum. Reflections define the museum from the moods of the sky, reflecting off the white Brazilian granite exterior walls to the distinct Mashrabiya patterning that encloses the inner courtyard. Mashrabiya is a wooden lattice work that was historically used as a window covering to allow the filtering of air and reduction on sun in places like Egypt.

“The Mashrabiya as a pattern moulded by a way of life that created a matrix of behavioural archetypes which generated physical patterns,” described Stefano Bianco, an architectural historian and urban designer who is currently director of the Historic Cities Support Program, created by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture.

The museum offers many cultural, artistic and educational programs. Its visitors run the gamut from architectural students to everyday patrons, seeking a glimpse into the past and present with rare antiquities that are until you visit the museum completely unknown to both the East and the West, said Kim, the museum director. “The museum features works that are in remarkable state of preservation, as clear as the day they were painted,” he said, noting the detailed craftsmanship, from artists in Iran, Mughal India and Ottoman Turkey, rivals the famous artists of the West and yet much less known.

The Aga Khan is an avid eclectic procurer of 16th century Persian paintings, ceramics, textiles, architectural fragments and illuminated manuscripts. His acumen ensures that the museum collection has the finest examples of Chinese influenced Islamic art, a result of thousands of years of Silk Route trade either through the overland routes or by the maritime ones.

In a permanent exhibition, Dr. Ruba Kana’an, Head of the Education and Scholarly Programs, explained of the significance of the early trade influences of Chinese art in the Islamic world. In the 16th century the presence of Muslims in China and the influence on Chinese trade objects were established with different levels of influence through the arts and textiles. These levels were a direct response from consumer habits and culture.

“Here we have pharmacy jars for trade of spices coming from China made in a form of objects that were influenced by China for trade with Europe,” said Kana’an, referring to the blue and white Chinese ceramics that combined Muslim designs with Chinese artistry.

A Ewer jug tells a tale about the awe that rulers of ancient civilizations held for China. “It was made in China in the 15th century and collected by Shah Jahan (reigned 1627-58), the builder of Taj Mahal, when he was the ruler in India. He was known to have been a collector of antiques, and he was fascinated by Chinese ceramics and Chinese jades,” she told Xinhua.

An Ablution Basin was ordered by Chinese Emperor Zhengde (reigned 1505-21) for a member of his court that was Muslim. The mark on the back of the plate is from the emperor. “The overall message conveyed by the Arabic symbol Taharat (Purity) is one of harmony, between the Islamic world and China,” Kana’an concluded


“The history of China and its influences on trade via art and textiles is long established in that region. If you are a student of Islamic art, Muslim culture and civilization you must know China’s interactions with the Muslim world through the silk routes,” she said, adding that the museum has a narrative from the 9th century regarding ambassadorial gifts from China to the Khalif in Bagdad.

The Chinese influenced Islamic collection was donated to the Museum from the Aga Khan’s personal collection. “Many of the Chinese families in Canada may be interested to see this exhibition. Chinese music programs are part of our upcoming calendar of events. There will be artists from China and a number of lectures. There will be a one-day symposium on the relationships between China and the Muslim world in the early periods. The Aga Khan Museum has lots of stories,” Kana’an said.

The Aga Khan Trust for Culture established the museum as part of the development network. The Aga Khan is a philanthropist and contributes considerable amounts of money in support of international social development, education and charity projects. The events of 911 changed the world’s viewpoint of Islam from a peace filled religion to one of terrorism. The Aga Khan’s goal is to stimulate global change that allows the world to see a less intimidating face of Islam to the world, in as much as China struggles with a global perception of dysphoric internal conflicts.

Beijing has a mosque built in the 10th century, establishing a centuries old connection to Islam. The Aga Khan Museum in Toronto celebrates the extraordinary longevity of interconnection, which may seem superficially disparate but upon closer examination displays an enigmatic interlaced knot.

The Aga Khan Museum and its legacy of Chinese influenced Islamic art, continues its legendary display through The Lost Dhow: A Discovery from the Maritime Silk Route, an exhibition that begins Dec. 13, 2014, and runs to March 15, 2015. In 1998, an Arab ship carrying goods from China was discovered at the bottom of the Indian Ocean off Belitung Island, Indonesia. Dating back to the 9th-century (China’s Tang Dynasty), it reveals the interconnections between two great powers, the Tang and Abbasid Empires, whose influence collectively stretched from the East China Sea to North Africa.

Cristoph De Caermichael,,


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