The Islam in Islamic Art History: Secularism and Public Discourse

By Shaw, Wendy M. K. | Journal of Art Historiography, June 2012 | Go to article overview

The Islam in Islamic Art History: Secularism and Public Discourse


Shaw, Wendy M. K., Journal of Art Historiography


In 1951, Richard Ettinghausen, one of the founding fathers of the discipline of Islamic art history in the United States, explained,

Muslim art can also have a special significance for the Muslim world of today. Since this is its one cultural achievement widely accepted and admired by the West, a rededication to it can compensate the East to a certain degree for its scientific and technological retardation, something which neither the oil fields nor strategic location can achieve. Be that as it may, there has been and still is no better ambassador of good will than art. If these considerations are more widely understood, Muslim art and its study will have an important role to play in the future.1

Attitudes towards cultural diversity have become less patronizing over the decades, particularly among those who study cultures that are not their own. Nonetheless, historical objects from the Islamic world continue to be called upon regularly to reduce intercultural tensions in the contemporary world in a manner that often elides differences between past and present, religion and culture, geography and religion. This conjoining of art historical meaning with contemporary social function is not only an inevitable means through which the humanities often justify their funding and position within a broader public sphere, it also reflects the sociopolitical contexts in which all academic work, from the classical philology critiqued in Edward Said's Orientalism (1978) onwards, has been and continues to be conducted, underwritten and disseminated. While the rhetoric of civilizational hierarchies and alterity revealed in the words of Ettinghausen may have become socially unacceptable in the interim, the practice of using art to represent broader culture continues to the present day, as do perceptions of the Islamic 'other' as something that is radically different from the West.

Survey exhibitions produce an apparently holistic vision of 'Islam,' most often glorifying the dynastic, or sometimes problematizing pan-regionalism through an emphasis on specific examples. Such exhibitions often offer a counterpoint to presumed contemporary prejudices through a sensory appeal to the splendour of Islamic civilization.2 In attempting to resolve the present through narratives of the past, such exhibits not only fail to correct presumed contemporary prejudices (associations with terror, patriarchy, authoritarianism and so forth), but in fact enhance them by reflecting the glories of 'Islamic' culture as part of a bygone golden age, or by suggesting that the appropriate environment for religion (and in particular Islam) rests in the past rather than in the present. Through an aesthetic measure based on regional practices that are framed as unadulterated, timeless, or authentic, the emphasis typically placed on form over content in such displays has also enhanced the association of the term 'Islamic' in artistic contexts with the era before colonial interaction with Europe, thus taking the Islamic world up to around 1800 - the implicit assumption being that the increasingly 'hybrid' arts generated through Westernization proclaim the secularization of modernity. Thus movement away from aesthetic forms designated as 'Islamic' has come to signal a presumed modern movement away from Islamic theological and intellectual discourses. This in turn implies a metanarrative of triumphal secularism and constructs a gross division between the Islam of art and the Islam of Muslims. Rather than being represented, Islam as a contemporary faith becomes the subaltern of Islam as a historical culture.

Despite well-meaning and well-informed scholarly and museological intentions, Islamic art history has had limited success as a good ambassador for Islam. Rather than suggesting that it should not be expected to take on this public role and cannot responsibly make such an attempt, or that the problem should be avoided by jettisoning the term 'Islam' from the name 'Islamic art history', this paper proposes the following. …

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