The word is not enough

    Only the British Library would put on a show of manuscripts to illustrate what Judaism, Islam and Christianity have in common. Is such wilful optimism any use?

    ”Discover what we share,” it says on the various bits of propaganda that accompany Sacred, the British Library’s hopeful attempt to flag up the scriptural overlaps between Islam, Judaism and Christianity. It struck me as a terribly British and gorgeously old-fashioned way of putting it: the sort of thing Miss Marple might have said had she bounded into a classroom and found the Peckham Boys knifing the Brockley Crew. Boys, boys, boys – discover what we share! But the marvellous thing is, she would have said it. And the dear old British Library, to its eternal credit, armed only with its unshakeable faith in the power of books to make us all better, has dared to mount a show that most cultural institutions in Britain would have avoided at all costs.

    Sacred sets out to prove that, at heart, Christianity, Judaism and Islam are remarkably similar and share numerous habits, heroes and histories. The three religions emerged in the same region in similar social circumstances. All three worship a single god, called Allah in one faith, Jehovah in another, but transparently the same deity. And all three have at their centre a book – the Bible, the Koran, the Torah – whose function is to provide its followers with a fixed and incorruptible supply of the word.

    Ah, yes, the word. In the end, that’s what this show is really about: the power of the word. If there’s one thing these religions really do share, it is their reliance on the efficacy of books. Of course, as an art man, I know that the word wasn’t actually what was there in the beginning. A sensible person examining the archeological evidence will inevitably conclude that human creativity found its first concrete expression in cave paintings – that the image came before the word. But the terrain I am tiptoeing across here, the world of Middle Eastern belief systems and the scriptures central to them, is certainly not somewhere where sensible attitudes hold sway. So let us temporarily accept the word’s primacy and duly regret with all our hearts the bother, anxiety, fear and wretchedness that the world has had to endure as a result of it.

    That said, Sacred isn’t in the mood for gloom. The show is transparently well-meaning, and goes happily in search of as many trans-denominational hugs as it can inspire. It’s true, the sharing of origins between the three Middle Eastern religions did lead to some interesting historical and creative overlaps. Which is how it came to pass that, in 1337, an Arab scribe working in Palestine finally finished his version of one of the three great books, and that, 700 years later, it fetched up in this show and surprised the hell out of me. On most of his pages, the anonymous Arab scribe dutifully repeated his tome’s famous verses in a busy script that glides and bustles from right to left. But every now and then, for no obvious reason, a page would be given over to a set of fantastically intricate patterns of the sort you find on the inner domes of mosques: packed rectangles of interlocking circles and squares, traced magnificently in gold. That is what they call, for obvious reasons, a carpet page. I had a good, long stare at this lovely decorated manuscript and naturally assumed it was a Koran. Until a peep at the label revealed it was in fact an Arabic version of the Gospel according to St Luke, made in Jerusalem.

    The unexpected Arab gospel appears in a sneaky section of Sacred given over to wrongfooting us. It’s there we find Arab versions of Judaic holy writ displayed next to Christian manuscripts that look Jewish, and Jewish manuscripts that seem Christian. For those who imagine imagery is forbidden in Jewish and Islamic scriptures, there are Jewish depictions of the naked Adam and Eve frolicking in paradise, alongside 16th-century Islamic views of Muhammad ascending to heaven on his trusty steed. Thus, it turns out most things we assume of each of our three warring religions are also true of the others; and while the three are certainly not interchangeable, they are, in the main, excellently congruent.

    It’s a valuable message. And the BL has brought together a remarkable assortment of precious religious writings to make this fabulous point. A fragment of the Dead Sea Scrolls shares a cabinet with the earliest surviving copy of the complete New Testament, the Codex Sinaiticus. Next to that, I was amazed to see the Chester Beatty manuscript, the earliest surviving copy of the gospels, written on broken flakes of papyrus and dated to about AD250. It’s a document that looks so fragile, you’re nervous of breathing in its presence. Those are astonishing loans, and their presence indicates the perceived importance of this show.

    So, on the surface, Sacred seems to be about unity and sharing. It’s an optimistic piece of religious propaganda preached by a polite and fluffy show. To underscore the message, Prince Philip has been persuaded to write one of the soothing prefaces to the catalogue; the King of Morocco has produced the other. And, to ensure that the show’s conclusions penetrate beyond the bookish types usually found shuffling around this venue, who probably know all this already, the BL has had a rather unfortunate go at making the exhibition look jazzy by filling it with buzzing digital effects and jarring light displays. They culminate in the thoroughly confusing sight of a full-sized Christmas tree picked out in blue lights, in the section devoted to the festivals shared by the three faiths.

    It is all mildly irritating, and seems to me to undermine the show’s essential seriousness. In its heart of hearts, its holy of holies, this well-meaning event is about something very dangerous; something that is tearing our world apart right now, and filling it with fear: the power of the word. Among the most interesting proofs of that, I would count a gorgeous miniature Koran produced in Persia in the 17th century, which comes in a case of white jade and a gold filigree cover. This lovely Koran is so small, it’s impossible to read. But, of course, the word doesn’t actually need to be read. It just needs to be there.