The link between Islam and Austria dates back a thousand years, writes Aneeta Sundararaj.

WHEN someone mentions “Austria”, what’s the first thing that comes to mind? Is it Julie Andrews as the novice Catholic nun, Maria, with arms wide open, singing: “The hills are alive?” in the movie Sound Of Music?

There is also an unknown fact about Austria, says junior curator at the Islamic Arts Museum (IAM) in KL, Siti Marina Mohd Maidin, in which Islam has influenced the Austrian cultural landscape, traditions and architecture. This is the subject of a historical documentary exhibition currently being held at the museum titled OstarrichIslam: Islam In Austria.

It’s based on a German book, Ostarrichislam: Fragments Of 800 Years Of Shared History, published by Al Hamra and edited by Amena Shakir, Gernot Galib Stanfel and Martin M. Weinberger.

Relatively fluent in German, the 32-year-old Siti Marina deciphers the book and explains several popular exhibits.

1. The Emperor’s Clothes

This garment is a coronation mantel and is about 1,000 years old. It was inherited by the emperors of the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation, the Habsburgs and titular royalty of Jerusalem. Made of Byzantine silk, it depicts a date palm and a lion’s triumph over a camel. The symbolism originates from the Arabian-Persian cultural area as an expression of the ruler’s power. A praise for the ruler inscribed in Arabic can be read in the Kufic script, which ends with a date from the Islamic calendar, year 528 of the hijrah (1133 AD).

2. Crescent on St Stephen’s Cathedral

St Stephen’s Cathedral is one of the most distinguished buildings in Vienna. It was built on the ruins of two earlier churches. During the Ottoman wars, there was a moonshine symbol on top of the Church tower. This showed the crescent and a star, which stood for worldly (imperial) and religious (papacy) power. Since the crescent was also a symbol used by the Ottomon army, it was removed after the Battle Of Vienna in 1683 and replaced by a double-headed eagle imperial emblem surmounted by a double-armed apostolic cross.

3. Bosnia in Austria

The Austria-Hungary Administration of 1878 and the annexation of Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1908 created a special situation in Austria. As a result, it became necessary to adopt and adapt to the Islamic religion as the majority of the population were Muslims. When the Bosnian Muslims undertook military service, Austria took their needs into consideration. Fridays were declared days off and the Bosnian Muslims were supplied with halal food. They were allowed to pray and to use the fez as a headgear. Military imams and muftis were appointed for spiritual guidance of the troops. Indeed, Islamic sections were set up in cemeteries in Vienna.

4. Islam Law 1912

By early 20th century, Austria faced the challenge of legally codifying some of the Muslim practices into its laws. The Islamic society (Dschemat) was divided into different administrative units (Dschamija) which presided over a total of eight “muftiaties” and a chief scholar (Reis-ul-Ulema). By 1912, there was a law in place called “The 1912 Austrian Islam Law”. This law guaranteed the equal treatment of Muslims and Islam within and Austrian System.

5. The Building in Dobling Styled Like a Mosque

In the town of Dobling, there’s a magnificent, domed building with two minarets in the style of a mosque. It’s the Zacherl factory which produces the inexpensive and effective insect repellent called Zacherlin. The owner was Johann Evangelist Zacherl. It was said that his father, also Johann Zacherl (1814-1888), travelled to Tbilisi where he discovered that the leaves of the pyrethrum were a highly effective insecticide and brought them to Austria. The design created was referred to as “orientalising” a building to give it an exotic flair.

6. Turkish Trees

Maria Theresa Walburga Amalia Christina (1717 - 1780) was the only female ruler of the Habsburg dominions and the last of the House of Habsburg. She was also the mother of the infamous Queen of France, Marie Antoinette. To celebrate Maria Theresa’s marriage to Francis I, the Ottoman Sultan Mahmud 1 made a gift of a myrtle tree. The tree, planted in Vienna, is a symbol of love beyond death.

7. Finding Islam

The co-founder of the Red Crescent Society, Dr Karl Eduard Hammerschmidt was one of the pioneers of ether anaesthesia. He was forced to flee to the Ottoman Empire during the 1848 revolution, where he embraced Islam. Known as Dr Abdullah Bey by the Ottomans, he worked as a professor at the medical faculty in Istanbul.

8. Embracing the light

Muhammad Asad was a journalist, traveller, writer, linguist, thinker, political theorist, diplomat and Islamic scholar in the 20th century. He was born into a Jewish family and given the name Leopold Weiss. He embraced Islam in 1926 and later became the co-founder of the state of Pakistan. In 2008, the entrance square to the UN Office in Vienna was named Muhammad Asad Platz to commemorate him.