The main reason for trekking out to Sharjah is to visit the superb Sharjah Museum of Islamic Civilization, which occupies the beautifully restored former Souk al Majara building along the waterfront, topped with a distinctive golden dome. The museum offers an absorbing overview of the massive – and often unheralded – contributions to global culture made by Muslim scientists, artists and architects over the past five hundred years or so, although some of the displays are irritatingly self-congratulatory, and occasionally veer into pure ahistorical propaganda (like the attempt to claim the purely Hindu Jantar Mantar observatory in Jaipur, India, as a work of Islamic provenance).
The museum is spread over two levels. Downstairs, the Abu Bakr Gallery of Islamic Faith has extensive displays on the elaborate rituals associated with the traditional Haj pilgrimage to Mecca. These are accompanied by a range of absorbing exhibits, including fascinating photos of Mecca, and a large piece of kiswah, the sheet of black cloth with Koranic texts richly embroidered in gold thread that was formerly used to drape the kaaba in the city’s Masjid al Haram.
On the opposite side of the ground floor, the Ibn al Haitham Gallery of Science and Technology showcases the extensive contributions made by Arab scholars to scientific innovation over the centuries. Absorbing displays cover Islamic contributions to fields such as chemistry, medicine and astronomy, emphasizing the degree to which Arab scientists led the medieval world (standard scientific terms like zenith, azimuth, algorithm and algebra all derive from Arabic, as do hundreds of names of stars, including Rigel, Algol and Betelgeuse). The sections on medieval navigation, map-making and stargazing are particularly interesting, complete with lots of quaint medieval gear including armillary spheres, wall quadrants and astrolabes.
The first floor of the museum is devoted to four galleries offering a chronological overview of Islamic arts and crafts, with superb displays of historic manuscripts, ceramics, glass, armour, woodwork, textiles and jewellery. Exhibits include the first-ever map of the then known world (ie Eurasia), created by Moroccan cartographer Al Shereef al Idrisi in 1099 – a surprisingly accurate document, although slightly baffling at first sight since it’s oriented upside down, with south at the top.