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World: Exhibition Highlights Shared Heritage Of Islam, Judaism, Christianity

A fragment from the Dead Sea scrolls on display at the British Library (Courtesy Photo) LONDON, August 21, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Conflicts among the "Abrahamic faiths" of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam have shaped the history and culture of much of the world for centuries. But a new exhibition at London's British Library is highlighting their similarities in a bid to promote mutual respect and understanding.

"We can remind people just how much they do share in common," says Graham Shaw, the library's head of the Asia, Africa, and Pacific collections and the chief curator of the exhibition. "That the Old Testament of the Christian faith, for instance, largely equates with the Hebrew Bible. And in the case of Islam, in the Koran, we find many of the stories and the characters and the messages from the Old and the New testaments retold. So, they share so much in terms of stories, in terms of message, in terms of ethics, in terms of moral teachings that it's good to remind ourselves of that."

The exhibition, entitled "Sacred -- Discover What We Share," includes unique manuscripts and manuscript fragments originating from across Europe, the Middle East, Asia, and Africa. They mostly come from the collections of the British Library, as well as from collections in Morocco, France, and other countries.

Lead curator Shaw notes that many visitors to the exhibition have been impressed by the common heritage of these faiths, and he points to lessons this heritage can bring to the world today.

Treasures Of World Religious Culture

Shaw explains that the oldest among the 230 exhibits is a fragment from the Dead Sea Scrolls from A.D. 50 featuring the text of two psalms of the Hebrew Bible.

The oldest Christian manuscript shown is a fragment of transcript of a gospel dating back to the first half of the second century. Also on display is the Codex Sinaiticus, a complete text of the New Testament from around A.D. 350.

As for the Islamic manuscripts, the oldest is the Ma'il Koran produced in Arabia at the end of the 7th century -- that is within a century of the Prophet Muhammad's flight from Mecca to Medina.

Colin Baker, who heads the Near and Middle Eastern collections at the British Library, notes however, that the most valuable Koran exhibited comes from 14th-century Egypt.

The Sultan Baybars Koran (courtesy photo)

"The item that does stand out is the Koran commissioned by Sultan Baybars, which is in seven volumes over 2,000 pages written throughout in gold," Baker said. "It is certainly the British Library's greatest Koran treasure, and possibly one of the greatest Korans of the Mameluk period ever produced."

Baker points to other treasures as well, such as the Uljaytu Koran made in the early 14th century for the Mongol ruler of Iran, a descendant of Genghis Khan, as well as precious Moroccan Korans or a Gospel lectionary from northern Iraq.

Among the Jewish treasures there is the Syriac Pentateuch, the earliest known dated Biblical manuscript of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, and two other books produced in fifth-century Turkey, and some lavishly illustrated Passover readings, such as the Golden Haggadah from 14th-century Spain.

The Christian treasures, apart from the precious Lindisfarne Gospels, written between 698 and 721 in northern England, include the four canonical gospels in Armenian and Georgian from the ninth century and the Gospels of Tsar Ivan Alexander of Bulgaria.

Intertwined Faiths

Baker explains that there are manuscripts that illustrate how traditions of one faith directly influenced manuscripts of another.

"We see there, for example, 'The Book Of Gospels,'" Baker says. "From a distance, it looks like a Koran, but when you come closer you see the Islamic-style carpet page. It deceives the visitor, but it makes the point that in the way they present their sacred texts, their manuscript production, they are in harmony with each other."

There are other artifacts in the exhibition, including medallions, amulets, lamps, incense burners, and scroll cases -- all of which illustrate influences and similarities.

Lead curator Shaw notes that many visitors to the exhibition have been impressed by the common heritage of these faiths, and he points to lessons this heritage can bring to the world today.

"If we could see that in the way that manuscripts are being produced," Shaw says, "the way that traditions are borrowed from each other, there's a historical example, a paradigm of coexistence, of mutual understanding and influence going on here, surely that understanding is something that can be carried on in the contemporary world, as well as looking back in history".

Litsa and her husband, both in their 30s, came to London and the exhibition from Budapest, Hungary.

"I think it's a good start for understanding one another," she tells RFE/RL. "So, obviously, there are lot of similarities which people probably do not take into consideration."

Islam In A Pluralistic World

Islam In A Pluralistic World

A Muslim woman (left) watches a Christian procession in Madrid in March (AFP)


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THE COMPLETE PICTURE: Click on the image to view a thematic webpage devoted to issues of religious tolerance in RFE/RL's broadcast region and around the globe.