The Mirage of Islamic Art: Reflections on the Study of an Unwieldy Field

Article excerpt

When we started studying Islamic art some thirty years ago, there were no good introductory textbooks that undergraduates could read. When we started teaching the subject nearly a decade later, there were still none, and we had to make do with stacks of photocopied articles and chapters assigned from one book or another in an attempt to present students with a coherent narrative. So little survey material existed that even graduate students had difficulty getting a grasp on the whole field and had to resort to obscure and uneven publications. For example, K.A.C. Creswell's massive tomes implied that Islamic architecture ended in 900 C.E. except in Egypt, where it suddenly stopped four hundred years later in the middle of the Bahri Mamluk period, although the Mamluk sequence of sultans persisted until 1517 and there was ample evidence for a glorious tradition of Islamic architecture in many lands besides Egypt.1 The venerable Survey of Persian Art, originally published in five massive volumes in the 1930s, continued to define that field although many of the chapters were woefully out of date when the series was reprinted, faute de mieux, in the 1970s.2 In short, despite the exponential growth of interest in the Islamic lands generated by the oil boom and crisis of the 1970s, Islamic art remained a rather esoteric specialty field taught in a few elite institutions.

Today the situation could not be more different. Courses in Islamic art are regularly offered at dozens of colleges and universities in North America, and many university departments of art history mint doctoral candidates in the specialty. General art history survey books and courses, though still heavily Western and chronological in orientation, often include one or two chapters or lectures on Islamic art, awkwardly inserted somewhere between the periods of late antiquity and early medieval and the geographically defined fields of India, China, and Japan. There are now several introductory texts devoted exclusively to Islamic art, and specialist books and articles proliferate to such a degree that scholars and graduate students cannot possibly keep up with everything published in the field. It is, perhaps, a measure of the popularity of Islamic art that the Pelican History of Art volume on the subject, commissioned in the 1950s and published in 1987, has already been reissued in a new and expanded edition.3 The horrific events of September 11, 2001, have only increased public curiosity for all things connected to Islam, art included.

As the course listings, survey texts, and specialists' articles on Islamic art proliferate, scholars of the subject have put the fundamental definition of their field under close scrutiny. From the vantage point of the early twenty-first century of the Common Era (or the early fifteenth century after Muhammad emigrated with a small company of believers from Mecca to Medina), we may now ask: What exactly is Islamic art? How well does this category serve the understanding of the material? Does a religiously based classification serve us better than geographic or linguistic ones, like those used for much of European art? To begin to answer these questions, we must first review how the subject is defined, how it got to be that way, and how it has been studied.4

The Definition and Historiography of Islamic Art

Islamic art is generally held to be "the art made by artists or artisans whose religion was Islam, for patrons who lived in predominantly Muslim lands, or for purposes that are restricted or peculiar to a Muslim population or a Muslim setting."5 It therefore encompasses much, if not most, of the art produced over fourteen centuries in the "Islamic lands," usually defined as the arid belt covering much of West Asia but stretching from the Atlantic coast of North Africa and Spain on the west to the steppes of Central Asia and the Indian Ocean on the east. These were the lands where Islam spread during the initial conquests in the seventh and eighth centuries C. …