Sandow Birk: American Qur'an

Exhibition Website

Oct 20 2018 - Feb 7 2019

Sandow Birk embarked on an ambitious project to hand-transcribe the entire Qur'an according to historic Islamic traditions and to illuminate the text with relevant scenes from contemporary American life. Nine years in the making, the project was inspired by a decade of extended travel in Islamic regions of the world. Birk also sought out museum collections to view ancient Qur'ans so as an artist he could uphold the integrity of how these sacred words are presented.

The result is an extraordinary body or work. Birk has created individual gouache paintings of the text rendered in elaborate script inspired by Los Angeles graffiti tags and scenes from contemporary American life.

This exhibition will feature approximately half of the 200 ink and gouache on paper paintings.

Credit: Exhibition overview from museum website.         

Whether or not you go, Sandow's illuminated book, American Qur'an, is a triumph of American art reflecting a decade of travel in the Islamic world, uniting two cultures with its transcendent power.

At a time when the United States was involved in two wars against Islamic nations, American-born artist Sandow Birk wanted to understand the Qur'an as it is, and always has been intended: a universal message to humankind. But to do so, he first needed to comprehend what Islam's holiest book meant to an American living in the twenty-first century. Indeed, how has the Qur'an related to us, as Americans, in this life, in this time?

In an attempt to answer his own question, Birk embarked on the most ambitious work of his career. Following in the grand traditions of ancient Arabic and Islamic artists, he began hand-transcribing the entire Qur'an as was done in centuries past―abiding by the traditional prescriptions as to the colors of ink, the formatting of the pages, the size of margins and illuminations of page headings and medallions marking verses and passages. He then took each sura and set it against a backdrop from everyday American life, one that reflected his renowned "skate-surf" ascetic.

Even before the first images of what became known as the American Qur'an began appearing in public, in 2009, veteran art critics were concerned about its reception. While Birk wasn't illustrating the Qur'an itself, the pairing of Islam’s holiest text with scenes from contemporary American life seemed adventuresome, given the climate of the times. The project, however, was not only welcomed by the Muslim community but also celebrated as an "ambitious and valuable undertaking" (New York Times). At the same time, many saw it as taking part in an ancient tradition, one that, according to Yale University professor Zareena Grewal, "eschewed the irony and satire that have become the knee-jerk impulse of so many Western artists."

Now appearing in full for the first time ever, this lavishly designed volume―containing all 114 suras―melds the past with the present, East with the West like nothing before it. The result, hailed by Reza Aslan as "a great favor, not only to Muslims, but also to Americans," is one of the most original art books to appear in decades.

427 color illustrations

To add this volume to your library, click here: American Qur'an

  • Works on Paper
  • American
  • Contemporary
  • Sacred
  • Sandow Birk

Exhibition Venues & Dates