Showcasing the Best of What Islam Offers the World

A 15th-century tiled fountain, part of the permanent collection of Islamic art in Toronto’s Aga Khan Museum

The pleasant sound of trickling water from this 15th-century tiled fountain once welcomed visitors to an Egyptian home. The water also cooled the air. The fountain is among more than 1,000 items of Islamic art at the Aga Khan Museum.
JOHN MASTERS/Meridian Writers’ Group

THE DARK SIDE of Islam gets plenty of press these days. A new museum aims to present more than a millennium’s worth of positive achievements of the Islamic world.

The Aga Khan Museum opened in September 2014. It’s funded by the Aga Khan, the 49th hereditary spiritual leader of the Ismailis, a Shia Moslem community with 15 million adherents worldwide.

London was the first choice for the museum, on a site across the Thames from the British parliament. When problems arose, the Aga Khan decided to relocate the project to Canada, citing its reputation as a nation of tolerance and pluralism. The Toronto location—13 kilometres northeast of the city’s core, overlooking the busy Don Valley Parkway—isn’t as central as the London one would have been, but it’s given the project more room: the 6.8-hectare site includes reflecting pools, tree-lined paths and a formal garden as well as the Ismaili Centre, used for prayer and community activities.

The 1,000-plus items in the collection range in origin from Spain to China and from the 8th to the 21st centuries. Parchments display beautiful calligraphy, plates and bowls show off Islam’s exquisite ceramics. The museum’s largest piece is a 15th-century tiled fountain from Egypt. It once stood in the reception hall of a home, filling the house with the pleasant sound of trickling water and cooling the air.

One cabinet shows some of the books that helped preserve Western scientific knowledge through the Dark Ages when much of it would have otherwise have been lost. The 7th to 15th centuries were an intellectual golden age in the Islamic world; Baghdad, Damascus, Cairo, Alexandria and Cordoba were centres of learning and knowledge, improving our grasp of astronomy, anatomy, mathematics, medicine, physics and geography.

Some of the most valuable pieces in the collection are illustrations from the Shah-Nameh (Book of Kings), an epic Persian poem. The Court of Keyomars, one of the book’s 258 illustrations, took almost three years to paint (c. 1522) and has such fine detail a magnifying glass is needed to make it out.

A black plate made in the 10th century and decorated with stylized calligraphy reads: “Beware of the imbecile: do not socialize with him; and of the weak-headed admirer: do not have him for your neighbour. Blessing.” The plate was made for a wealthy merchant in the Silk Road city of Neyshabur. The city was destroyed in the 13th century by Ghengis Khan.

In addition to the permanent collection on the main floor, the museum hosts temporary exhibitions on its second level. There’s also a 350-seat hall where live performances regularly take place—everything from Ukrainian “ethnic chaos” music to Inuit throat singing. A restaurant lets you sample Middle East and Indian sub-continent cuisines.

Despite its remoteness from downtown, the museum is easily reached by public transit. The #100 bus stops right at its door. The multimedia guide is well worth the $5 rental cost. With it, you could easily spend half a day expanding your understanding of Islam’s contributions to the world.



For more information about the Aga Khan Museum visit its website at

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