Arts: The Sacred History

September 11 made Samuel Huntington's "clash of civilizations" thesis a fashionable map for the 21st century. Right-wing pundits and religious zealots alike used it to argue that Islamic and Western societies have always been incompatible. Now "Sacred," on view at London's British Library (through Sept. 23), provides an elegant riposte to clash-mongers. The collection of manuscripts from Christianity, Islam and Judaism underscores that the traditions of the three religions bear striking similarities. Their emphasis on scriptural truth is the same, their cultures are intertwined and their followers lived—usually peacefully—in multicultural societies for centuries.

With the Middle East riven by religious and political tensions, it's bittersweet to see such gorgeous proof of its multifaith history. A 13th-century Christian manuscript from near Mosul, Iraq, depicts the three Marys at Jesus' tomb. While many of the details are Byzantine, the tomb's onion dome and the stylized cedar trees draw on Islamic artistic traditions. A similar culture-melt between Islam and Judaism is apparent in a 17th-century manuscript by the Jewish Persian poet Imrani, called "Fathnama," or, "The Book of Conquest." Written with Hebrew characters in Judeo-Persian, the dialect of Iranian Jews and based on the Old Testament books of Joshua, Ruth and Samuel, the manuscript includes a delicate illustration of Joshua's attack on Canaan, with turbaned, bearded priests blowing rams' horns outside the gates of Jericho.

"Sacred's" manuscripts are a reminder that ancient mono- theisms played a critical role in spurring the global spread of culture. On display is a Torah from 17th-century China, made for the Jews of Kaifeng, whose community and synagogue in northern China lasted from the mid-12th to the mid-19th century. Among the British Library's astonishing array of Christian manuscripts are a number of Ethiopic Psalters, with Christian clergymen in bright Ethiopian robes, and the Angel Gabriel appearing in a traditional house with ostriches strutting on its roof.

But Christian and Islamic art flourished best when it had a settled state—and supportive monarch—funding it. (Fittingly, the show counts both Prince Philip and Morocco's King Mohammed VI as patrons.) Some royal commissions resulted in unwitting comedy. A page from Henry VIII's personal psalmbook shows the rotund British monarch styled as King David. While Christian kings tended to leave manuscripts to monks and illuminators, some Muslim monarchs were noted calligraphers in their own right. The show includes a 10-volume Qur'an written by a 10th-century Moroccan sultan, whose calligraphic sessions "were very public acts," notes Maghrebi art expert Nadia Erzini. Courtiers gathered to watch their king write, and described "collecting the pages as they fell from his hand," she says.

Calligraphy assumed its decorative importance in Islam because of the faith's ban on figurative images. "Sacred" reminds visitors that during the eighth and ninth centuries, the question of imagery was hotly debated among Christians, too. The pro-icon crowd eventually won, on the ground that they wouldn't worship images, and the iconoclasts were summarily excommunicated. An elaborate manuscript from 11th-century Constantinople illustrating Psalm 26, which deals with "evildoers," shows a gaggle of iconoclasts busily whitewashing an icon.

The Islamic influence over Christian illuminations is evident in the geometric patterns that adorn 16th-century Coptic psalmbooks from Egypt. As in Islamic art, there's an abstraction of text into decoration in the Lindisfarne Gospels, the spiraled intricacies of an eighth-century Anglo-Saxon monk, Eadfrith. Like Arabic calligraphy, the Lindisfarne Gospels "transform the text into sacred calligraphy," says Scot McKendrick, the British Library's head of Western Manuscripts. "The pattern is so dense and minute, you can't take it all in at one moment." Rather like "Sacred" itself.