Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
March 19, 1999
Sheila Blair Islamic Inscriptions New York: New York University Press, 1998. 416 pp. Cloth $59.95 (0814713289)

Epigraphy has long been a subject of tremendous fascination and prodigious investigation within Islamic studies, and has inspired a number of ambitious scholarly undertakings, such as the Materiaux pour un Corpus Inscriptionum Arabicarum (11 vols., 1894–1985), the Repertoire chronologique d’epigraphie arabe (21 vols., 1931–91) and the Corpus Inscriptionum Iranicarum (30 vols., 1955–90). As their titles suggest, the genesis of these multivolume, multidecade compendia was largely archaeological and taxonomic. The thrill was in collecting and ordering (whether by region, language, chronology or media) as many inscriptions as possible, with the aim of using the material thus amassed to explicate aspects (historical, religious, economic, social, cultural, etc.) of Islamic civilization. In point of fact, the tremendous effort expended in the compilation and classification of countless inscriptions seems to have left researchers with little time or energy to fulfill any higher objective, and, with the exception of shorter studies (focused, for instance, on individual monuments or objects and generally published in article form), the resulting publications essentially begin and end as reference tools.

Islamic Inscriptions picks up where MCIA, RCEA, CII and all the rest leave off, and finally starts to fulfill the potential of these venerable precursors. Its author, Sheila S. Blair, has already established a reputation as a formidable epigraphist and made important contributions to the taxonomic tradition (as with her The Monumental Inscriptions from Early Islamic Iran and Transoxiana, 1992). With this new publication she puts epigraphic expertise to both analytic and synthetic purpose to produce the first intelligent and concise introduction to Islamic inscriptions and their significance for our understanding of Islamic history and culture.

Blair’s perspective is signaled at the outset with a first chapter titled “Why Read Inscriptions?” Although the emphasis is a bit more on the “how” than the “why,” it is clear that Blair is less concerned with impressing fellow Islamicists (although the range of material covered in Islamic Inscriptions is bound to have that effect) than with introducing Islamic epigraphic practices to others beyond the specialist circle. With this endeavor, Blair pursues yet another mission evident in various of her recent publications (notably The Art and Architecture of Islam, 1250–1800 1994 and Islamic Arts 1997, both co–authored with Jonathan Bloom): to make the seemingly remote and even arcane arts of the Islamic world accessible to and appreciated by a broad, general audience.

Notwithstanding (or perhaps because of ) this admirable goal, Blair treats the vast topic of Islamic inscriptions in measured fashion. Her presentation is evenly divided between inscriptions on buildings (part II, chapters 2–7) and inscriptions on objects (part III, chapters 8–14). The chapters in part II address a series of related topics in the typology and function of architectural epigraphy: the various languages used monumental inscriptions in the Islamic world (Arabic, Persian, Turkish, and other); foundation inscriptions; endowment, funerary, and other inscriptions; the development and use of monumental inscriptions in various regions (from the Magrib to the Indian subcontinent); inscriptions according to building types; and the stylistic development of monumental inscriptions. The chapters in part III are arranged by mediametalwares, woodwork, ceramics, textiles, other portable arts (glass, ivory, rock crystal, jade, and other hardstones) and by types of objects. The chapters in both parts cover many of the same topics, including succinct historiographies; reviews of historical and formal developments; analyses of the content, wording, calligraphic style, and function of inscriptions; and discussions of regional and chronological similarities and differences. Another point Blair regularly makes, with particular reference to portable objects, concerns the importance of inscriptions for the art-historical business of attribution, and even for determining the authenticity of problematic works of art.

This is not to say that Blair’s approach is formulaic or predictable. Indeed the text of Islamic Inscriptions is extremely readable and full of issues, insights, and interests for the informed and the uninitiated alike. Blair regularly examines the content and form of inscriptions, both on buildings and objects, in the context of historical, political, social, and cultural circumstances. For example, the addition of diacritcal marks on the inner arcade inscription of the Dome of the Rock would not only have drawn attention to the polemic message of the monument’s Koranic text, as suggested by other scholars, but would also have increased the aesthetic impact of the inscription. From this Blair deduces further, and quite appropriately, that, even in the early Islamic period, artists (and presumably also their patrons) were “aware of the artistic possibilities of writing” (p. 77). In addition to expanding on previous interpretations that seek to relate particular inscriptions to contemporary developments, Blair often offers critiques that range from mild (as in her remarks on Begley’s speculations on the Koranic inscriptions on the Taj Mahal, p. 65) to emphatic (as in a rebuke of Bierman’s and Tabbaa’s connection between political motivations and changes in calligraphic style during the Fatimid period, p. 57).

Much of Blair’s sense of the correlation between history and politics on one hand, and epigraphic substance and style on the other, derives from her careful attention to the actual wording of inscriptions. Thus, the use of a title known only from the mid-8th century and used in a documentary inscription on a mosque in Sind province (Pakistan) reveals that the building could not possibly date from the early-8th century as suggested by its excavator (p. 67). Artists’ signatures are another of the many types of inscriptions that Blair has studied in detail. Besides providing new information about their contents, she also offers guidance about their meaning and significance. It has long been assumed, for instance, in studies of the inscriptions on medieval Islamic ceramics and metalwork, that the nisba, or epithet denoting origin and affiliation, that artists often give as part of their signatures refers to the actual place of production of specific works of art. After considering both the style and the inscriptions of a number of works signed by artists identifying themselves as al-Mawsili (meaning of Mosul, a town in northern Iraq), but otherwise known to have produced in Damscus and Cairo as well as Mosul, Blair concludes that this nisba does not necessarily “refer to a geographic site, but to a product or technique associated with that city or to a group of artisans who traced their lineage back to metalworkers in Mosul” (p. 113–14).

Islamic Inscriptions ends on a very practical note with a final chapter titled “Reading and Recording Inscriptions” (part IV, Chapter 15). Here Blair directs the aspiring epigraphist how to locate information about specific inscriptions and document new epigraphic texts. Here again, there is considerable discussion of the secondary sources, as well as extensive comment on the identification and interpertation of Koran verses and on the numbering systems found in different Koran editions. She also explains the various ways that dates may be indicated in both monumental and small-scale inscriptions, the principle and regional calendars on which epigraphic dates may be based, and the abjad or alphanumeric system of numeration and its Eastern and Western variants. The final paragraphs concern the so-called Leiden Bracket system of conventions for recording inscriptions.

The text is amply supplied with examples of inscriptions on buildings and objects that Blair has “collected” during her years of historiographic research as well as site visits and expeditions to museums all over the world. Although full transcriptions and translations are not always given (which would have been helpful), virtually every inscription is accompanied by a reference, cited in short form, and listed in full in the extensive bibliography. To pursue the references, however, requires a serious research library, which might deter much of the audience that Blair hopes to attract to her subject. So, too, the reproductions, which, while numerous and with a high proportion in color, often challenge the reader in the finding much less the deciphering of the inscriptions mentioned in the text.

Islamic Inscriptions is essentially a survey-cum-primer on the complex role played by writing throughout the built environment and artistic production of the Islamic world. Those seeking an introduction to the topic should be more than satisfied and possibly will not even realize what a rich treat they have enjoyed. Islamic specialists will undoubtedly be eager for more, and it is to be hoped that Islamic Inscriptions is but the prelude to a more thematic and conclusory consideration that the subject deserves and that Sheila Blair is eminently qualified to undertake.

Marianna Shreve Simpson
independent scholar