Jason Swensen, Deseret News
Included in the exhibit "Beauty and Belief" are the artistic writings found in a manuscript copy of the Quran. Most of the object were crafted by anonymous artists. Courtesy of the BYU-MOA.

Nobody really knows how many Muslims there are, worldwide. Most likely somewhere in the neighborhood of 1.5 billion — in other words, a very substantial number of our brothers and sisters, whose lives and experiences are of value to God and should be of value to us. And, of course, Islam has been an enormous factor in world history for roughly 14 centuries, and (to put things mildly) it continues to be a potent force in contemporary international politics, as well.

Moreover, Islam is growing in the United States. There are several mosques in greater Salt Lake City alone, and Muslims are, more and more commonly, not just "over there" for ordinary Americans, but our neighbors, our co-workers and even our employers.

These are more than adequate reasons for people in Utah and beyond to seek a better understanding of Islam. And people who want to understand Islam better have, for just a little while longer, a world class opportunity to do so: Since February, Brigham Young University's Museum of Art has been hosting a major exhibit, originated and designed under the museum's leadership, entitled "Beauty and Belief: Crossing Bridges with the Arts of Islamic Culture."

"Beauty and Belief," which is the largest traveling exhibition of Islamic art ever assembled in the United States, provides a sampling of the art created in societies fostered by Islam from the seventh century onward, including works by contemporary artists. Drawing from collections across the United States, as well as from many other countries in Europe and the Middle East such as Kuwait, Great Britain, France, Denmark, Morocco and Italy, it provides perhaps the only opportunity most of us will ever have to see this assemblage of works all in one place. Many of the objects have never before been displayed in the United States.

At a time when bridge-building and cross-cultural understanding are needed more than they ever have been before, the show combines historical and geographic background with successive unfolding sections of calligraphy, ?gurative imagery and pattern in a very deliberate effort to build bridges and to bring cultures together. One of the mottos prominently associated with the exhibit is a saying attributed to the Prophet Muhammad, the founder of Islam: "God is beautiful," he said, "and loves beauty." Surely this sentiment offers a broad common ground on which believers from various traditions can meet.

In at least one case, the exhibit even challenges the assumption, held by both many Muslims and many non-Muslims, that the art of Islam bans ?gural representation.

Certain rather puritanical Islamic groups fiercely argue that representational art, art depicting human figures and animals and other naturally occurring things, is contrary to the religion. This idea played a role, for example, in the violent controversy a few years ago over some Danish cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad. But while the rule holds for mosques, it is otherwise largely false. Fortunately, by means of numerous artifacts, "Beauty and Belief" shows that figural representation, including even depictions of the Prophet himself, has been present in Islamic culture and well accepted over the course of many centuries.

The last day of the exhibit is Sept. 29. From Provo, "Beauty and Belief" will travel on (for shorter stays) to Indianapolis, Newark, N.J., and Portland.

If you've not yet seen this exceptional array of objects from the Islamic world, your time is running out. If you've seen it, but would like to take another look (and you should), your time is still running out. If you've resolved to visit "Beauty and Belief" someday soon but just haven't gotten around to it, your opportunities are dwindling fast. Admission is free, so there's really nothing to keep people in the general area from spending some time, or even multiple times, enjoying this rare treat.

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It's been a remarkable privilege to have this exhibit in our midst, with more than 250 artifacts from 42 lending institutions and 10 private collections located, often, in far distant places — modest items of everyday use, sacred texts of the Quran, objects bearing royal pedigrees — that have never been assembled together before and will probably never be brought together again. We should not let this opportunity pass without gaining from it as much as we possibly can.

For further information about the exhibit "Beauty and Belief: Crossing Bridges with the Arts of Islamic Culture," including dates and times, see beautyandbelief.byu.edu.

Email: religion@desnews.com