The Genius of Chinese Art reflected in the Muslim world domiciled at the Aga Khan Museum Toronto Canada

The Genius of Chinese Art reflected in the Muslim world: the Aga Khan Museum Toronto Canada

The Aga Khan Museum in Toronto is a multifaceted building of fabulous architectural detail that transforms the building into being, not just a home to over 1000 precious artifacts 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 Royal Highness, the 49th. Imam of the Nizari Ismail, Aga Khan IV, Prince Shah Karim Al Husseini, wrote,” The Aga Khan Museum, Toronto reflected his family’s ongoing commitment to pluralism and to the promotion of understanding between civilizations, religions and races”.

The Aga Khan museum opened in Toronto, September 18th. 2014. For ten years, three architects worked to create, The Aga Khan Museum, The Ismail Center Toronto 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 Ismali Center designed by Charles Correa. The museum and its complex gives, Toronto Canada, another level of sophistication to add to its jewel box collection of superb architecture.

Reflections define the Museum from the moods of the sky, reflecting off the white granite exterior walls to the distinct Mashrabiya patterning that encloses the inner courtyard. Light play is evident throughout the Museum.  Architectual historian and urban designer Stefano Bianco, describes, “the Mashrabiya as a pattern moulded by a way of life that created a matrix of behavioural archetypes which generated physical patterns”. Museum Director and C.E.O,.Henry Kim, ascribes this intent, in our conversation, “ Maki was asked by His Highness, to design this building based on the principles of light. Maki did that by effectively creating a courtyard lantern sundial. This architectural detail can be enjoyed by all who visit the museum.  

 Further conversations, with Museum Director, Henry Kim illuminates the rarity of this special building. “This building is an outstanding and well thought through building, designed by Fumihiko Maki, it looks like an art museum. A very modern building and yet its use of pattern and texture is from the Islamic world .This is where you find this wonderful blending of cultures together”.

As Kim, mentioned, this is a very thought through building. The Aga Khan was very hands on in the physical designing of the Museum, conducting many on -site inspections to ensure that his vision was accurately ensured. The precise height of the exterior reflecting pools of the landscaped garden through to the veiled lighting of the mashribya are just two examples of his highnesses vision for the Aga khan  Museum. Honourable mention goes to the Fibonacci inspired nautilus stairwell in Lapis blue and the Teak Auditorium.  


The museum offers many cultural, artistic and educational programs. Its visitors run the gamut from Architectural students to the everyday patron, 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. Kim elaborates, “The museum features works that are in remarkable state of preservation, as clear as the day they were painted”. Kim noted the detailed craftsmanship from artists in Iran, Muhgal India and Ottoman Turkey, rivals the famous artists of the west and yet no one knows of them, not even in the east.

The Aga Khan donated to the Museum a permanent collection of more than a thousand pieces including ceramics, illuminated manuscripts, 16th century Persian paintings, textiles and architectural fragments. The influence of China and its artists is a focal point of the Museum’s collection.

Dr.Ruba Kana’an, the Head of the education and scholarly programs, explains of the significance of the early trade influences, of Chinese Art in the Muslim 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. “The Emperor Zhengde ordered this particular Ablution Basin for a member of his court that was Muslim. The mark on the back of the plate is from the emperor”. The overall message is one of harmony, between the Islamic world and China.  The Arabic central symbol, Taharah is a symbol of purity. This beautiful blue and white bowl was used to wash before prayers.

Dr. Kana’an continues with, Persian merchants knew the Chinese language and vice versa and as early as the 14th century Persians were living in Chinese port cities and were part of the Silk Route to china either through the overland routes or by the Maritime routes. “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 civilisation you must know Chinese interactions with the Muslim world through the silk routes.  Trade began in the 8th century and continues on today”.

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. The Aga Khans trust for Culture (AKTC) established and developed the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto as part of the development network. The Chinese, influenced Muslim collection was donated to The Aga Khan Museum from the Aga Khan’s personal collection. Chinese artists dominated the Muslim world through the profound knowledge and expertise of their gifted artisans. The relationship between China and the Muslim world through art and trade is historically rich.

Dr. Kana’an, “To establish that early relationship we have a narrative from the 9th century to the Khalif in Bagdad regarding Ambassadorial gifts from China”.  These gift pieces were of exquisite Kaolin porcelain and set a standard that heralded the rise of Chinese ceramics, the skill and the materials used to create them which were only available in China. Dr. Kana’an, “Techniques, motifs and Ideas are from china and the interconnection the world sees as only of today always existed”.

In conclusion, Dr. Kana’an suggests, “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.  There is always something interesting and new and we have diverse communities asking for specific tours. The Aga Khan museum has lots of stories”.

The Aga Khan Museum and its legacy of Chinese influenced Muslim art, is a must see venue worthy of extensive research and multiple visits.

written by – Cristoph De Caermichael,,


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