"Islamicizing" a Euro/American Curriculum

By Howkins, Mary Ball | Human Architecture: Journal of the Sociology of Self-Knowledge, Summer 2011 | Go to article overview

"Islamicizing" a Euro/American Curriculum


Howkins, Mary Ball, Human Architecture: Journal of the Sociology of Self-Knowledge


The curriculum revision task that seems most compelling to me in 2011, ten years after 9/11/2001, and after gender, race and post-colonial studies have helped decolonize the content of my courses, is "Islamicizing" my part in an art and General Education liberal arts curriculum.

I teach the Renaissance to Modern part of an art history survey, to art majors and to students earning General Education credit in the arts, along with more advanced art history courses. The standard art history survey text that I use, by Marilyn Stokstad and Michael Cothren, as well as others in common use, include historical sections on Islamic visual traditions but decline to integrate new information on the ways in which medieval Islamic scholars contributed to the foundation of the 15th and 16th century Renaissances in Europe, or the ways in which global trade and cultural contact influenced the appearance of visual art of that time and region, and later. This oversight has led me to introduce Renaissance Humanism and image production by venturing outside the required text for a more satisfying, more historically accurate version. Like many academics I have indicated to students over the past decades the "orientalist" gaze in European and American visual traditions, for example, in the paintings of Eugene Delacroix or Jean-Leon Gerome, and brought attention to contemporary Islamic artists living in the United States, yet a redefinition of "Renaissance" seemed at hand, based on the growing research in various fields of study.

A most compelling case for a re-definition of "Renaissance" in terms of early Islamic impetus comes from Jonathan Lyons' The House of Wisdom: How the Arabs Transformed Western Civilization (2010) and from the work of Jerry Brotton, published in 2003 and 2006. Each scholar has focused on Mediterranean cultural exchange in the Medieval or Renaissance periods, Lyons calling attention to medieval philosophy, theology and science, Brotton to objects received in Italy in global trade and visible in paintings of the era. No doubt many 20th century Islamic scholars have long asserted a key Arab/Berber role in the transformation of European civilization, mostly to deaf ears. Lyons, as well as Mark Graham who published How Islam Created the Modern World in 2006, brings attention to the predominance of Euro/American hegemony in the writing of standard Renaissance history.

Lyons contends that early Islamic scholars' claim that faith and reason could coexist without undue tension laid the foundation of Renaissance secularization and Humanism. This intellectual compromise between theology and a scientific interest in the natural world was disseminated in Medieval Europe, he points out, by liberal European scholars such Adelard of Bath who wrote, "Of course God rules the universe. But we may and should enquire into the natural world. The Arabs teach us that." (1)

Lyons traces the formation of medieval European anti-Muslim propaganda from 1009 onward, in relation to the sacking of Jerusalem's Church of the Holy Sepulcher by Muslims and European millennial fears. From that point on Muslim civilization was identified in the minds of many Europeans with cruelty, deception and sexual deviancy, (2) much as it has been until recently and continues to be in the minds of some. I ask students in my courses to enumerate Muslim stereotypes they have encountered and generally find them familiar with the following: all Muslims as oil rich, as fanatics and terrorists, overly enamored of female belly dancers, living in one big dessert in the Middle East, living in medieval times, unable to adapt to the current world, and oppressive to women, among others.

In introducing students to the notion that contact with the Near Eastern Islamic world laid the ground work for Renaissance renewals in Italy and Northern Europe, I point out that until the late 20th century Muslims were considered "accidental custodians" of Greek and Roman wisdom and culture, with ancient texts by Aristotle and Plato, among others, and passed them down to Italians in Arabic language. …

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