Sacred texts that reveal a common heritage; British Library exhibition celebrates the links between three monotheistic faiths

    By Maev Kennedy For the first time, the oldest and most precious surviving texts of the Jewish, Christian and Islamic faiths have gone on display side by side at the British Library. They include a tattered scrap of a Dead Sea Scroll and a Qur’an commissioned for a 14th-century Mongol ruler of modern Iran who was born a shaman, baptised a Christian, and converted first to Buddhism, then Sunni and finally Shia Islam. The exhibition also has some exotic private loans, including an embroidered 19th-century curtain which once covered the door of the Ka’bah, the shrine which is at the core of the hajj pilgrimage to Mecca, a hand embroidered Jewish bridal canopy – and a gold shalwar kameez worn by Jemima Goldsmith in 1995, when she married the former Pakistan cricket captain Imran Khan. The exhibition, which will be formally opened today by the Duke of Edinburgh and Prince Moulay Rachid of Morocco, was organised over the last three years at a time of acute stress between the three faiths after the Iraq war. The British Library was already considering such a project when it was approached with the proposal by the Moroccan British Society, which became a main sponsor, among others from all three faiths. Graham Shaw, the lead curator, said: “We were determined not to create faith zones, but to show these wonderful manuscripts side by side, and demonstrate how much we share – not least that these are three faiths founded on sacred texts, books of revelation.” Many exhibits are among the oldest of their kind, including a Qur’an made in Arabia within a century of Muhammad’s lifetime. The exhibition also shows how calligraphers and manuscript illuminators shared influences and styles. The microscopically detailed decorated capital letters of the Lindisfarne Gospels are echoed in Islamic and Jewish manuscripts, while Christian and Jewish texts borrowed Islamic-inspired decoration, so that a 14th century Qur’an and a translation of the gospels into Arabic are indistinguishable at a glance, and two 13th-century French texts, one Christian, one Jewish, use virtually identical images of King David. A later psalter owned by Henry VIII outrageously uses his portrait as the great Jewish king – accompanied by Henry’s court jester, William Somer, beside a text which translates as “the fool says in his heart ‘there is no God'”. Dr Shaw’s favourite manuscript in the exhibition is the only surviving evidence of how the four gospels almost became one. Tatian, a second-century Christian, combined the accounts by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John into one narrative, threaded together with his own writing. It became a standard text until, in the fifth century, it was declared heretical, and suppressed so effectively that no copy survives. Tatian’s work would have vanished without trace but for the commentary denouncing it, with quotations, by St Ephraim. It is displayed among Gnostic gospels, which inspired Lord Archer’s latest book the Gospel According to Judas.

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