Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
June 8, 2006
Oleg Grabar Early Islamic Art, 650–1100: Constructing the Study of Islamic Art, Vol. 1 Burlington, Vt.: Ashgate, 2005. 326 pp.; 98 b/w ills. Cloth $134.95 (0860789217)

The first of four volumes that will contain the collected essays of the doyen of Islamic scholars, Oleg Grabar’s Early Islamic Art has twenty selections. The fascinating introduction, which is too brief, explains how, starting as a medievalist, Grabar entered the field of Islamic studies. Arriving just at the end of the era when European imperialism dominated scholarship, he had the privilege, denied, alas, to scholars nowadays, to travel widely and do archeological excavations. In those days, “with slow mail, few airplanes, no television, expensive and unreliable telephones, radios that still needed electric plugs in walls . . ." (xxv), scholarly life was very different. The book’s twenty essays are divided into four sections. Five essays deal with the origins and context of Islamic art; seven with the architecture of Umayyad period; five with Fatimid Egypt and its relationship with the Muslim West; and, finally, three discuss the Muslim East.

In part 1, Grabar describes the starting point of Islamic art. “From its Arabian past the new Muslim art could draw almost nothing" (20). And so the inheritance provided by Byzantine culture was very important. Muslims, he argues, were not so much iconoclasts as aniconclasts. For them, images were essentially irrelevant. Concerned that Muslims couldn’t create imagery without becoming like Christians, this anxiety of influence meant that they were forced to become visually creative. The essay “Art and Architecture and the Qur’an,” which explains exactly what that book says about visual art, is of especial interest. “There is no opposition to art or to representation, just as there is no call for the creation of works of art or of a material culture that would be distinctly Muslim” (92). Part 2 describes secular culture under the Umayyads, focusing on details of decorative murals, many of them with images of female nudes, in a number of palaces. “Sensuous performances cohabit with highly proper ones, possible narratives coexist with apparent scenes of leisure and domestic life, and trite personifications are found alongside concrete references” (206–7). It is not easy to imagine why Muslims created this art, or how they understood it. Part 3 contains very useful discussions of Cordoba and the Alhambra, monuments conserved after the expulsion of Muslims from Spain. What is puzzling, Grabar notes, “is that this preservation of allegedly Muslim forms often took place while Islam itself and those who professed it were persecuted, often quite brutally” (273). Part 4 discusses a palace in Iran, a bowl from that country, and a text from Bust, a city now in Afghanistan, that links architecture to theology.

Only specialists can evaluate the arguments of these closely reasoned essays. Writing as a fascinated outsider, my goal here is to understand their larger implications. Grabar, as marvelously lucid a writer and as catholic in his sympathies as Meyer Schapiro, presents in this book the research that provided the basis for his two grand syntheses, The Formation of Islamic Art (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1973) and The Mediation of Ornament (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992). These essays provide, in effect, the scaffolding for these splendid structures. Two concerns are central: identifying the essence of Islamic art and understanding its origin. Most Islamic works of art, Grabar has noted, are visually distinctive. (Some Islamic art, one should add, was made by or for Christians or Jews living within Muslim cultures.) They look unlike art made by Buddhists, Christians, Daoists, or Hindus. Since Muslim cultures covered so wide a geographical territory, from Spain to China, and because the Qur’an does not say much about art, it is surprising that this art is distinctive. Islam originated in what had been a cultural backwater, and then very quickly expanded, conquering Christian territories. So it is natural to ask how Muslims modified this inherited tradition to serve the purposes of their very different religion. (My sense of how to approach these problems has been influenced by Marshall G. S. Hodgson, The Venture of Islam: Conscience and History in a World Civilization, Volume One: The Classical Age of Islam [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1974], a volume warmly recommended by Grabar.) Some qualities of Byzantine architecture and other visual artifacts were usable for Muslim culture. “It was not Byzantine art but the themes of Byzantine art which were used by the Muslims. . . . Byzantine art provided the new culture with a vocabulary and with the rudiments of a grammar, but . . . the language developed therefrom was a new one” (40; emphasis in original).

An influential older tradition of Islamic scholarship treats art made by Muslims as a form of cultural expression. Because Muslims are iconoclasts, they avoid making representations, especially of sacred scenes; instead, these artists focus on calligraphy and decoration. Because they live, many of them, in the desert, their gardens and carpets are luxurious; because the Qur’an tells that God is everywhere, they make space-filling decorative designs. Grabar emphatically rejects this lazy Hegelian style of interpretation. He argues that only a close study of the art and texts created by Muslims can identify the essence of their art. Did we not know the Umayyad palace frescoes, who would have imagined them? Grabar, a cautious expert, also is a bold, ruminative writer. He thus deserves comparison with the great historians of an earlier generation—Alois Riegl, Erwin Panofsky, Ernst Gombrich. Like them, but unlike most contemporary art historians—whatever their field of expertise—Grabar is a specialist who has, also, a will to speculate boldly. His great gift is his ability to raise fundamental questions and self-critically question his answers.

Ashgate has provided a handsome, well-illustrated production at what, for this rarified material, is a remarkably reasonable price. Since these essays have been re-edited, I regret that the bibliographical notes were not brought up to date. This creates some minor oddities, as when in the essays written in French there are references to the French translations of Grabar’s English-language books. Since these republications will be the permanent record, it would be useful to have up-to-date references to the many publications described as forthcoming and, also, notes about the more recent literature. When, for example, an essay originally published in 1977 mentions a forthcoming doctoral thesis (248, n. 27), would it not be useful to know if that document has in fact appeared?

One reason this volume is important is that it reprints major scholarly essays. Another is that it responds in a scholarly way to immediately pressing political concerns. Until we understand the history of Islamic culture, how can we Americans respond effectively and morally to our ongoing conflicts with Muslims? Whatever view is taken of our diplomatic and military actions, surely it is obvious that it would be in our interest to understand this culture, which still remains very exotic. Even on the most shortsighted practical level, the study of Islamic culture promises benefits. And of course we scholars could learn a great deal about European art by comparing the very different Muslim traditions. Given the recent concern of David Freedberg and others with European iconoclasm, much could be understood, I think, by a comparative analysis of how Muslims think about images. But even the crisis of 9/11 did not inspire our shortsighted politicians to support the study of Islamic culture. Nor, so far as I can see, have universities in the United States mounted serious ambitious attempts to study Islamic art, which, apart from mere politics, deserves attention because it is very beautiful and poses intellectually challenging problems.

At the front of this volume is a photograph from 1970 showing Grabar, who is described as “directing excavations” in Syria. Can that be correct?—he is reclining on some cushions, holding a fly swatter. He looks to be very happy. From a human point of view, what for me is most impressive in all of his publications, including this book, is the ability to deal with politically controversial themes in sympathetic and objective ways.

David Carrier
Independent Scholar