The art of understanding

With west and east on a collision course, can galleries succeed where governments have failed? <stro

Saïd Rafisi, the muezzin at the Sultan Hassan Mosque in Cairo, closes his eyes and raises a hand to his mouth: "All-ahu ak-bar." The nasal tones of the call to prayer echo from the building's steep arches and domes, as they have done five times a day for seven centuries. "Communicating with God, you become a different type of person," he tells me afterwards. "You stop thinking about material things."

Across town, at the "Sangria" bar on the banks of the Nile, the manager, Mo Ibrahim, is preparing for another busy night catering for Cairo's celebrity set. "Welcome, welcome," he says, flashing a Del Boy smile and adjusting his ex pensive-looking watch. As night draws in, a fleet of shiny 4x4s delivers Ibrahim's pumped-up, Lycra-clad clientele; the riverside tables fill up with whisky drinkers and canoodling couples.

The diversity of modern Egypt exists in contrast to commonplace western stereotypes of the Muslim world. Five thousand years of history jostle for prominence on the Cairo skyline: shiny skyscrapers are interspersed with medieval minarets, and the pyramids loom mysteriously through the smog. But how can people in the west, confronted with powerful and damaging images of hate preachers, of fearful women in the hijab and angry young fundamentalists, begin to comprehend such a complex, ancient culture?

Where politicians and journalists have failed to promote understanding, cultural institutions have stepped into the breach. This year there has been an explosion of exhibitions, festivals and concerts aiming to promote awareness of Islamic culture, celebrating everything from Sufi dance to Arabic calligraphy. Unlike these temp orary initiatives, however, the Victoria and Albert Museum's Jameel Gallery of Islamic Art, which opens this month, will be a permanent addition to Britain's cultural landscape. A £5.4m donation from the Jameel family, Saudi Arabian owners of the Hartwell property and car sales company, has funded a new home for the V&A's collection of more than 10,000 Middle Eastern artefacts.

The aim of the revamp is not simply to prettify the collection; it is to encourage a more nuanced understanding of Islamic culture and society. "We want people to understand that Islamic art is more than simply religious," says Tim Stanley, senior curator at the V&A. "It is a product of the Islamic empire, which encompasses Christian, Jewish, Muslim and secular influences." With this in mind, he accompanied a small group of journalists to the Egyptian capital to explore the provenance of some of the Jameel Gallery's treasures.

First stop was Cairo's 9th-century, Coptic Hanging Church, which provides striking evidence of the cultural cross-fertilisation of religious traditions in the Islamic empire. Christianity predates the arrival of Islam in Egypt, and even today Christians make up 10 per cent of the population. Inside the church, which rests on thick palm trunks balanced on the Roman city walls, icons of the familiar saints line the walls. But the 15th-century altar screen is decorated with a variation on the geometric "sunburst" motif commonly associated with Islamic art. It is said to have been produced by Muslim and Christian artisans in co-operation, and varies from mosque artwork of the same period only in that small crosses have been incorporated into the design. A very similar pattern adorns the Sultan Qa'itbay Mosque pulpit, or minbar, which will be on display at the V&A.

Western and eastern cultures were also historically bound together by secular ties, with artistic styles travelling along trade routes between the Islamic empire, China and Europe. One example is the style of blue-and-white ceramics now regarded as typically Islamic. Blue-and-white pottery was first produced in the Middle East in imitation of Chinese porcelain, which was imported into the region in the 13th-14th century. During the 15th century, potters in western Turkey developed the "Iznik" style, and the trend later seeped into Europe.

The use of ceramics in domestic settings is shown to stunning effect in the immaculately restored al-Suhaymi house in Cairo. This building, which belonged to an eminent professor at al-Azhar Islamic University in the 17th century, is divided into separate salamlik (male) and haramlik (female) quarters. The walls of the sumptuous celebration room, where the 70-strong family would have gathered on special occasions, are covered with delicately painted blue, white and red Iznik tiles.

For all the mutual influences, however, art plays very different roles in Muslim and Christian worship. Muslims put their faith in the "one-ness" of God, and reject the idea that an object may be sacred. The only decoration necessary in a mosque is an empty niche, or mihrab, which indicates the direction of Mecca. The minbar is a set of steps, usually made of carved wood, from which the imam delivers his Friday sermon. Aside from these features, mosque decor was usually left to the whim of whichever ruler, or patron, provided funds for construction.

The influence wielded by sultans and caliphs has produced art and architecture that varies wildly in style and quality. Ibn Tulun, Cairo's oldest functioning mosque, has an inscrutable, minimalist appearance. It was built by Ahmad ibn Tulun, an emissary sent to govern Egypt in the 9th century by the Baghdad-based Abbasid dynasty. The building reflects the heritage of its namesake: the bare, sun-bleached brick structure, with its Gothic-like arches punctuated by simple hanging lamps, is based upon the design of the Great Mosque of Samarra in Iraq.

The 19th-century Muhammad Ali Mosque, which dominates the Cairo skyline, represents quite a different personality. The bombastic father of modern Egypt is commemorated with a proliferation of mismatched, classically styled columns, topped off with an ornate, brightly coloured clock. The overall effect can only be described as chintzy.

The influence of powerful patrons did not stop at religious art. The Fatimid caliphs, who conquered Egypt in the late 10th century, were renowned for their production of luxury goods, with which they adorned their palaces. One example from the V&A collection is a rock crystal ewer, engraved on either side with a bird of prey attacking an antelope.

In secular settings, figurative art is very much a part of the Islamic tradition; traditionally, however, it has been banned from religious contexts. In the V&A's collection two painted glass lamps illustrate the division: one, decorated with the simple image of a trio of falconers, would have stood on the floor of a 13th-century home in Syria. The other, which is ornately inscribed with the name of the Egyptian sultan Isma'il Pasha, would have hung in a mosque. Perhaps more surprisingly, there is an art-historical precedent for the swinging nightlife still in evidence at Sangria. A 12th-century ceramic bowl from Iran depicts a party scene, with guests indulging in decidedly un-Islamic behaviour such as playing music and drinking wine.

Such a scene would be unacceptable in Iran today. In Egypt, too, the balance is shifting. The Islamist Muslim Brotherhood did well in last year's general election; and in April, the Grand Mufti of Cairo issued a fatwa against all representational sculpture. At a time when western and eastern cultures seem to be on a collision course, the V&A is making a brave attempt to bring them together. We can only hope that politicians on both sides watch and learn.

The Jameel Gallery of Islamic Art opens on 20 July at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London SW7 (020 7942 2000). www.vam.ac.uk