Placing the Qur'an in the Context of Ordinary American Life

Dec 5, 2018

The illustrations of American life are intricate and colorful. And the accompanying texts are handwritten calligraphy. The Museum of Texas Tech University will display selected works from American Qur’an by California artist Sandow Birk's through Feb. 7.  

  Museum executive director Gary Morgan says those who come to see the exhibit – whether they know something or nothing about Islam’s holiest book -- will learn much. He emphasizes that the exhibit is not a religious one.  

“To have an exhibition like this here is really almost definitional of what a university museum is about,” he says. “It’s fine to have the exhibitions which are comforting and conformational. But it’s also important to have shows which challenge us.”

   The complete book by Birk, who doesn’t practice any religious faith and spent 10 years creating it, has 114 chapters, or suras as the different chapters are called, is available to page through. The exhibit has 11 original suras. Birk followed the traditions of the Qur’an in using traditional ink colors and page formats and widths.  

  Every sura is set against a backdrop from everyday American life, including the story of the birth of Jesus depicted by a pregnant woman getting an ultrasound.  

“Birk’s exhibition, his artwork, by placing the Qur’an in the context of day to day, mundane, ordinary American settings, actually serves to remind us of that,” Morgan says. “Each of the scenes he uses relates in some way to that chapter. It can be a very direct reference or it can be a metaphorical reference, but it is a day to day scene in America, in which that chapter of the Qur’an has been set. I think by being able to both read the Qur’an in English and then to think about it in the context of day to day life in ordinary suburbia, or ordinary downtown America, gives us pause to question whether or not we are really dealing with something that is so different from our values and our beliefs.”

  Morgan says the effort to bring Birk’s work to Lubbock began about 16 months ago. He added that having an art and history exhibition on the Bible at the same time was purely coincidental.  

“It means we can have these two exhibits up at the same time and have them up concurrently for nearly three months. I think what that does is it give our visitors an opportunity to engage with these two very different exhibits, but about two of the greatest books in human history.”

   Morgan encourages those who know nothing of the Qur’an to come see the exhibit. Because most in West Texas don’t speak Arabic, Morgan see the exhibition as an opportunity to read the English translation. The artwork presents a symbolic “example” of what the text expresses.  

“The artwork is colorful, it’s engaging. It’s presented in a way which is very nonthreatening in itself. There is no position taken in this exhibition about the content of the Qur’an or the religion of Islam. Rather, it is an art exhibition that places that religion in an American context. I don’t think anybody should find threat in that. Enhancing one’s knowledge should never be seen as a threat. What it can do is allow you to better arrive at informed attitudes and decisions,” Morgan says.  

The Atlantic magazine, in a 2015 review of Birk’s work, says the artist “wanted to undercut cultural prejudices about one of the world’s most important religious texts, which Americans tend to associate with the Middle East and with violent extremists like ISIS.”  

Two upcoming events can enhance one’s view of the Qur’an. On Jan. 12, Tech’s chairman of its chemistry department will discuss science and the Qur'an. On Jan. 27, an interfaith panel will discuss commonalities of Islam, Judaism and Christianity.