What is Islamic Art?

MUSLIMS tend to give a lot of thought to what is “Islamic”, unless the topic happens to be art. Others have been giving rather more attention to the subject Among the most vigorous debaters is the art market, some elements of which have reassessed the terminology. Up until almost a decade ago, Sotheby’s held regular sales of what it called “Islamic art”. Nowadays it is “Arts of the Islamic world”.

The new approach makes life much easier for the auction house. There are no more awkward questions about what makes an object Islamic. Instead, they can include anything that comes from a part of the world that might pass for being Islamic. Sotheby’s has, in effect, opted out of the debate on what constitutes Islamic art. Whether this is for convenience or out of some form of political correctness is not clear. Others do not appear to be following this example. In New York, the capital of political correctness, The Metropolitan Museum persists with its Department of Islamic Art, as does the British Museum. The Louvre in Paris will be doing the same when it opens its dedicated new gallery in four years’ time. At London’s Victoria & Albert Museum, 2006 is the date for the re-opening of the space that will be known as the Jameel Islamic Art Gallery, in honour of a major benefactor. A number of newer institutions are also happy to use the old terminology. These include the Museum of Islamic Art, designed by I. M. Pei, which will open in Qatar next year, and the Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia, which has been the Asian leader in its field for the past six years.

It seems that the term Islamic art is going to remain in circulation, despite disapproval from a writer as respected as Souren Melikian-Chirvani of the International Herald Tribune. To give an indication of the media status accorded to Islamic art, Souren is just about the only authority on the subject whose views appear in mainstream journalism. Fortunately for his career, Souren’s expertise ranges more widely more than his original field of study and he can write commandingly on anything from classical Greek ceramics to contemporary dust-ball sculptures. He does not like the term Islamic art, but with so few IHT readers taking an interest in the subject, it is hard to push the argument too hard.

The question that Souren and other, less-public figures have asked is why should an object from an Islamic land be labelled Islamic, when so few items from “Christendom” are called “Christian art”. Europe is still nominally Christian, but there is little from there that anyone would term Christian. The closest that most modern European artists get to a religious theme is the work of Chris Ofili, whose image of the Madonna made from elephant dung is generally considered blasphemous. It has to be said that even the most opportunistic auction houses would hesitate to put the artistic output of contemporary Muslim nations into a sale of Islamic art It is, however, common to put the work of modern artists into sales of “Islamic and Indian Art”.

One thing is certain: religious art of any persuasion is usually old. Fields such as Judaica or Buddhist artefacts do let in the occasional new boy, but on the whole it seems to be accepted that only works from before the 20th century have that essential spiritual dimension. With Christian, Hindu, Jain, Buddhist and Jewish art, the objects that collectors seek out have a direct religious connection. These might be a manifestation of Vishnu or a medieval European reliquary housing the body parts of an unfortunate saint For admirers of Islamic art, the entry terms are more flexible. Just about anything counts, whatever purpose it was made for, and whomever it was made by. The only serious requirement is that an item should come from a place with an Islamic tradition. As a result, the Islamic-art market offers 19th century Persian paintings of topless women alongside vessels designed to enhance the enjoyment of alcohol. The most expensive lot to be sold at an Islamic art auction last year was a wine flask made for a Mughal emperor in the 17th century.

In addition to flouting one of the most widely known Islamic prohibitions, the flask had other features that would appal the pious. It has substantial quan- tities of gold – discouraged for earthly use but acceptable when a believer reaches Paradise – and is ornamented with a profusion of precious stones that would also be considered inappro- priate. In the end, the export of this Indian was halted by the British government on the basis that it was an essential part of UK culture. This is, in itself, an interesting reflection on the state of cultural patrimony issues. India did not clamour to have it returned, and the government of Pakistan certainly took no interest in the wine flask. Its English credentials came from it having originally been owned by the disgraced 18th-century adventurer Clive of India, who had acquired it because of his love of gaudy souvenirs rather than a specific interest in “Islamic” art.

The concept of art being Islamic is as new in Western terms as it is among Muslims. Until the late 19th century, an object was collected on the basis of its quality or aesthetic appeal. Countless weapons from the Islamic world were acquired by European collectors centuries ago. These would now go straight to the Islamic section of most museums. The older collections of weapons were established before everything from Islam was counted as being Islamic. More recent collections take a different view, partly due to the dynamics of supply and demand. When collectors of arms and armour were a more powerful force than Islamic-art collectors, they were the ones who metaphorically called the shots. Nowadays, life is harder for those who want to move weapons around the world, or keep them in their homes, unless they live in certain US states. Islamic art has become a bigger field, and less troublesome too. Most of what is for sale comes with none of the hassles that accompany fields where cultural-property laws are rigorously enforced. Buyers of unprovenanced works of Italian origin are asking for problems. Those who take on the Greek government will usually regret it, unless the object in question is of Islamic interest Greece puts considerably more effort into reclaiming the Parthenon marbles than it ever has with its Islamic past.

The Islamic-art market has only been significant money maker for a few decades. It went from being a small circle of Western connoisseurs with Orientalist tastes to being much more international. Oil wealth has been the usual driving force, although Turkey’s economic success raised prices enormously in some areas. The new collectors need collectables. The cream of these items often come from countries like Afghanistan, a powerhouse of creativity in the past. The ease with which newly excavated or looted works leave Afghanistan makes its heritage more available than, say, Iraq’s, until recent events.

A market deprived of supplies is unlikely to provide the best definition of Islamic art. At the same time, demand keeps growing. There are not only new museums to stock; older institutions have tried to respond to growing worldwide interest in Islam. Some, like the Victoria & Albert Museum, already have superb collections which they would like to augment, although the V& A declared that it was dropping out of the race while prices remain as high as they have become in recent years.

The most sought-after artefacts tend to be the oldest Those looking for the purest examples of Islamic art might be expected to look to the formative years of the religion. Its development was indeed remarkable. Back in the 1920s, when frank discussion of non-European cultures was more common than it is now, the authoritative A.H. Christie wrote: “When Islam began that dramatic career which, in its Western course, was destined to plant a new form of art in cities overlooking the Atlantic, it set out from regions where art was in a primitive and backward state.”

This was indeed a time of great change. Within a century, Islam had created an artistic model that remained the envy of Europe until the Renaissance. Some of its earliest manifestations are distressing, and not because they are struggling to free themselves from a “primitive and backward state”. They are simply not “Islamic” in any way that would be expected of a new world order. The desert hunting lodges of certain rulers of the Umayyad dynasty (661-750) suggest a lifestyle closer to the emperor Caligula than the Rightly Guided Caliphs. Semi-clothed dancing girls cavort on frescoes amid references to hard drinking. Al-Walid II was one of the least inspiring role models for those hoping to find the Message in these remote and rather haunting palaces. He was unrepentant in his addiction to pleasure. “Let the paradise seekers plod on to perdition” is one quote attributed to this dissolute ruler.

Regardless of the disappointments presented by these Umayyad structures, the key to Islamic art lies in architecture. Instead of secular buildings, it was the mosque that became one of Islam’s most lasting gifts to mankind. Its greatness cannot be denied. This is creative endeavour put to the service of the Umma, and to the glorification of God. No one could deny that it is both Islamic and art. It can also be shared by almost anyone. This is in contrast to the sort of art that collectors pursue.

Islamic art as it exists now is considerably less public than it was before it was considered to be “art”. Whilst no collectors have yet transported entire mosques to the privacy of their gated communities, in the way that London Bridge was moved to the Arizona desert, little bits of the original buildings have become important collectables. Ceramics tiles are the most likely fixtures to end up in the auction room. Older mosques now need as much vigilance as older churches. The field of Islamic-art dealing is filled with as many dubious practices as the art of the classical world. Fortunately, museums these days are more rigorous in their vetting procedures than they used to be.

For more portable objects, museums and other collectors have provided a sanctuary against turbulent times. The Taliban are known to have deliberately destroyed considerably more than the giant Buddhas of Bamiyan. Their actions also dealt a blow to much that would be considered genuinely Islamic. Negligence and incompetence were to blame for a lot of the losses in Afghanistan. Similarly, American activity in Baghdad probably saw the end of manuscripts of incalculable value while the world watched events taking place at another building in hor- ror. It was mainly Iraq’s pre-lslamic culture that was pillaged in the early days of the US invasion, leading to claims that 170,000 objects had gone missing. This total came down to about one thousandth of the original estimate. While the international community raged against the loss of these mainly pre-lslamic artefacts, less attention was paid to the more considerable devastation of mostly Islamic manuscripts at the National Library.

It is the written word that comes closest to the mosque as a manifestation of Islamic art. There can be no denying that a copy of the Qur’an is Islamic, although it could be argued that it is not “art”. Being the literal word of God places it at a higher level than that From the collector’s point of view, this is the purest form of the art. It is incontrovertibly sacred and at the same time universally considered beautiful. Beauty is not a topic tackled in detail by the Qur’an itself. The closest association is the commonly quoted hadith, “God is beautiful, and He loves beauty.” If it is assumed that beauty is integral to art – as was assumed by most societies until the 20th century – then Qur’anic calligraphy is acceptable to all but the most prejudiced.

Although considered a “minor” or “decorative” art by most early historians of Islamic art, manuscripts are now ranked among Islam’s most sublime achievements. The original evaluation is not surprising, since the pioneers of Islamic art analysis were non-Muslims. Among Muslims, it had not seemed important to examine fields such as calligraphy in terms of art While China and Europe have had their own art critics for centuries, the same was not true of Islam. Even without this self-conscious form of assessment the scribe was accorded the highest status of any artisan in the Islamic world. Nor was it beneath Muslim rulers to demonstrate their calligraphic prowess, which was by no means a tradition for Christian monarchs.

Copies of the Qur’an can go further than being works of calligraphy. Later versions are often so elaborate, it is hard to see the words at all. This goes against the spirit of the early Qur’ans, which are stunning examples of minimalist power. The oldest extant examples are from the 8th century, although some conspiracy theorists insist that earlier copies exist – or did until the US military forces in Iraq supposedly eliminated them. These formative works feature plain Kufic script on vellum. Simple though they may seem, the way that ink and space are combined transforms them into masterpieces. The austerity and sense of mission that existed in early Islam are summed up perfectly in these works.

The absence of a “fine art” tradition in Islam puts early Qur’ans at the same level of importance as the sculptures of antiquity or Renaissance paintings. In all other respects they are different Not least is the anonymity of these transcriptions of God’s word when compared with the near-celebrity status of Christian and pre-Christian artists.

As Western art historians have long been determined that any culture of interest should have its own forms of “art”, they have had to include many categories of Islamic creativity that in Western terms would seem folksy. Islam has seldom placed much value on “art” to hang on the wall, and sculpture was an even lower priority. The “minor” arts that were referred to in the 19th and early 20th centuries have now become major. It is not just the auction houses that would have chess pieces and scientific instruments elevated to the global hall of art fame. The more the glories of Islamic culture are examined, the more natural it seems to put sometimes prosaic-sounding items on a pedestal. One of the most significant objects in Islamic art has the unpromising name of the “Bobrinsky bucket”. This bronze, cauldron-like vessel from 12th century Herat is indeed a bucket but with its exquisite decoration, it is also evidence of a society that was able to transform the mundane into the magnificent.

Most of the artefacts that are classified as Islamic art had an original purpose that would now seem humble. Bronze vessels and other utilitarian items clearly had a greater meaning to their owners than a pewter dish or tankard had in Europe. Similarly, the ceramics of the Islamic world were far from being the Tupperware of their time. Whatever the medium, they were likely to have inscriptions, and in most cases these would have religious significance. The simple beauty of the Arabic alphabet is as apparent on a 12th-century earthenware bowl as it is in a Qur’an commissioned by a ruler.

In Islam, art was all-embracing. It may not have been called art by those who made or used it but there was an understanding that any object could an expression of God’s presence in a believer’s life, whether or not it expressed a central tenet such as the oneness of God. Taking pride in creativity went hand in hand with the application of ideas of technology. The great eras of Islamic artistic expression coincided with times of technological progress. Muslims are forever being exhorted to remember that theirs was once the culture of progress, the transmitter of ancient knowledge to the modern world. Ideas were an inspiration to more than just philosophers and mathematicians. By looking at Islamic art it becomes apparent that the whole of society was part of something important The prices paid for these objects now shows that their quality is appreciated.

It is only the past that generates this excitement Just as the most soughtafter Islamic art is from times when Islam was a powerful force in the world, there is little from contemporary Muslim artists that sets paddles waving in the saleroom. There are also some types of older artefacts that create the same apathy. These include objects that both the market and art historians leave out for no apparent reason other than their geographical origins. A prominent example is the Islamic art of Southeast Asia, which is excluded from almost every academic survey of Islamic art The reasons are far from obvious, as works from the Malay world include magnificent textiles, manuscripts and metalwork that were produced by Muslims for Muslims, serving an Islamic purpose. They feature Qur’anic invocations and other elements that should have museums around the world clamouring for them. They remain ignored, although this might be rectified by a pioneering exhibition at the Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia later this year.

It seems that a double standard exists. The world accepts that Islamic art does exist a”d there is a surprising amount of common ground between scholars and the marketplace on what this consists of. At the same time, an almost identical object is somehow seen as being less valid when it comes from a place that is not the original Islamic heartland. Muslims in general take as little interest as everyone else in the magnificent work of the Umma on the southeast frontier of Islam. Does this suggest that an interest in Islamic art has little to do with admiration for the universal religion and more to do with collecting national treasures, especially when they come from Turkey, Iran and the Arab world?

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    A piece previously published in the print issue of Islamica Magazine between 2003-2009. The following has been an effort to digitize and archive as a free service. Author citations can be found at islamicamagazine.com as we continue to work on improving the digital archives here.

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