These 'Savages' Created Some of History's Finest Art

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THE LONG VIEW

On sale outside the Louvre's spanking new exhibition of Islamic art this weekend was a magazine headline to engage any reader. "Les fanatiques," it read. The fanatics in question were not Texas pastors or Californian video-makers who burn Korans or insult the Prophet Mohamed. "Les fous de dieu" - the "madmen of God" as the French press usually calls them - are not the Midwest Christian Apocalypse-believers who support Israel and claim, if you believe the latest posters on the New York subway, that they are fighting "savages".

Oh no, indeed, the fanatics, crazies and savages in question are the chaps who created the Islamic treasury of golden chalices and crimson rugs and silver vases and marble friezes and bronze lions and stone-paste roosters and vast, brass candlesticks beneath the golden "desert" roof of the Louvre's latest exhibition hall. Even the sumptuous new catalogue that the museum has published to mark the occasion, while padded with the worst of academe's latest clichs - "dialogue" used as a verb, and far too much "inclusivity" and "interaction" and "spaces" - admits the importance of these glories "in these times preyed on by obscurantist aspirations and extremist tendencies of every kind".

These words were written by a Muslim - and he certainly wasn't talking about Mr Breivik or the torturers of Guantanamo and Bagram. For what lies behind the fervour with which we are expected to view these masterpieces of Islamic art in Paris is a simple idea: that Muslims are not all raving, bearded, hand-chopping ambassador- killing head-bangers, but inheritors of one of the world's greatest cultures, entwined within a tolerant religion, enhanced by learned men (alas, few women) who admitted Jews and Christians into their Islamic society and who produced some of the finest art in history.

"The history of art," as Sophie Makariou, director of the Louvre's department of Islamic art, said in an interview last week, "has been written in the West by Westerners."

Ask where are the Rembrandts and Poussins and Goyas of Islamic art, and Ms Makariou will roll off their names: 16th-century manuscript painters Behzad and Mohammedi, the Christian Georgian Siyavush, his pupil Sadiki, Reza-e Abbasi of Isfahan, and Muhammad Ibn al-Zain who created the baptistry of Saint Louis....

And it's true, I suspect, that "cultural" Islam, which includes a lot of Christian artists - not least in Andalusia - is greater than the Islamic religion.

For much of its history, Muslims were a minority in the Islamic world. …