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    Middle East
     May 19, 2007
Opium at the British Library
By Abdul Rahman Azzam

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LONDON - One wonders what Karl Marx would have made of it all. Buried in Highgate Cemetery in London, Marx had lived in the city for many years, and it was in the august reading rooms of the British Library that he had once declared that religion was the

opium of the people.

The ambitions of the organizers of the Sacred Exhibition, which opened late last month and will run until September 23, is certainly as dramatic as the enormous black promotional banners that adorned the entrance. Subtitled "Discover What We Share", the exhibition was, the press release assured us, a "groundbreaking event" as rare examples of Jewish, Christian and Muslim sacred texts were presented alongside each other.

The focus of Sacred is summed up by the phrase Ahl al-Kitab (People of the Book), which is used in Muslim tradition to acknowledge and embrace both the Jewish and Christian as communities that received scriptures revealed by God before the revelation to the Prophet Mohammed.

The sacred texts were displayed thematically in order to explore the commonalities and differences among the faiths, with the aim of demonstrating how these three faiths have co-existed and influenced one another and how they have shaped much of European civilization and culture.

Certainly, the works were truly magnificent and inspiring. The Lisbon Bible, which was completed in 1482, testified to the rich cultural life that the Jews experienced before their expulsion from Muslim Spain by the conquering Isabella and Ferdinand.

Next to it was displayed a copy of the New Testament written in Constantinople in the mid-10th century, and to complete the Abrahamic trilogy was probably the most magnificent Koran in the British Library, presented to the Sultan Baybars in Cairo around 1305.

It was fascinating and illuminating to trace stories, characters and moral teachings that the three great faiths share - the story of the Prophet Joseph was particularly striking - while recognizing and acknowledging the differences of interpretation and emphasis in detail.

The Islamic version, for example, while faithfully following the well-known plot and narrative of the story, was interwoven by frequent reminders of the presence of God, for not even the beauty of the story - and the Koran tells us that the story of Joseph is the most beautiful of stories - could be allowed to distract the reader from the powerful message of divine transcendence that permeates the Koran.

None of the Abrahamic religions is, of course, monolithic, and there exist shades of opinion relating to interpretation of doctrine and rituals. In that regard, it was a wonderful opportunity to see displayed a sample of the Dead Sea Scrolls, which are of unique historical and religious significance as they are virtually the only known surviving biblical documents written before the 2nd century AD. The particular piece on display was part of the Psalms and dated from AD 50. Similarly noteworthy was a sample of the Commentary of Saint Ephraim, a 4th-century manuscript that contains fascinating hints about a lost early version of the Gospels.

One emerges from the exhibition dazzled, awed and humbled by the beauty of what had been witnessed.

The texts on display are truly inspiring - ranging from Holy Books to amulets, to tiny books of devotions and prayers. The painstaking detail involved in the calligraphy and illumination is a reflection on the one hand of a sincere piety and humility, and on the other of a magnificent glorification of God that is truly timeless. One emerges from the exhibition humbled by the glory of the Sacred, and mildly curious as to what Karl Marx would have made of it.

There is no doubt that the aim of this exhibition is both ambitious and noble. By displaying the sacred texts of the three faiths side by side, the organizers were deliberately innovative and challenging. The question is, did they succeed in their primary aim, which was to build mutual understanding among the faiths?

Undoubtedly the shared stories - that of Joseph or of the Virgin Mary being the most striking - were the sacred bridges over which the three faiths traversed, and the fact that they did so with such ease and tranquility was a testimony to how diligent the organizers of Sacred were.

One would anticipate that the display of such shared sacred stories would generate an increased sense of curiosity among the viewers, and to an extent they do, but as one walks through the exhibition, the curiosity is gradually diluted by a greater and more profound sensation, which is one of comfort and tranquility - a realization that what mattered above all were not the divergences and the differences among the stories but the shared spiritual values that transcended them.

Abdul Rahman Azzam is founder and director of Bookchase, a print-on-demand company based in the United Kingdom. He obtained his DPhil in Islamic history from Oxford University and is the author of Rumi: Kingdom of Joy (2001) and Saladin (2007). This article is distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) and can be accessed at www.commongroundnews.org.

(Copyright 2007 CGNews. Published by permission.)

Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click here if you are interested in contributing.

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