Academic journal article Journal of Art Historiography

What Do We Mean When We Say 'Islamic Art'? A Plea for a Critical Rewriting of the History of the Arts of Islam

Academic journal article Journal of Art Historiography

What Do We Mean When We Say 'Islamic Art'? A Plea for a Critical Rewriting of the History of the Arts of Islam

Article excerpt

In a book published in 2008, Arnold Hottinger provocatively asserted that as far as the Western stance toward Islam is concerned, Islam does not exist.1 He argued correctly that it is pure fiction to speak about Islam using one sole, monolithic and global term. Moreover, he added that the desire to see in the wide-ranging and diverse 'worlds of Islam' a homogenous sphere called Islam is simply an abstract cognitive notion, which, as with any general concept, has its sole origin in the mind of the person who creates this concept or theory. It is quite clear, then, that Hottinger, like many other scholars of Islamic studies, developed his ideas in the critical 'Post-Edwardian Era'; that is, the period following the death of Edward Said in 2003, in which renewed discussion has taken place around his renowned book Orientalism, first published in 1978.2

The 'imaginary Orient', as termed by Linda Nochlin in 1983,3 is not restricted to Western literature but impinges on many other fields and is undoubtedly rooted in the history of European thought, especially in the construction of the image of its major 'Other' and the creation of its own historical narrative. And yet, this critical notion can and should also be applied to the field of art history in general, and to the construction of the field of Islamic art history within the larger discipline of Western art history in particular. To be more precise, what this brief analysis intends is to begin a discussion on the history of 'Oriental' art and artistic production within the critical framework of Orientalism, or, more broadly, within the framework of colonial and postcolonial studies; and, at the same time, to contribute to the ongoing vital discourse on the creation and definition of the term 'Islamic art history' as a scientific field within the wider discipline of art history.4

Colonial and postcolonial perspectives

Orientalism, as Said termed it almost half a century ago, is a methodological approach of a critical nature, which in the first place adjusts our skewed understanding of the Orient as filtered through European eyes. Its strong critique, not to say condemnation, of the Eurocentric view should be compulsory reading in any academic discourse relating to the study of Asia - 'the Orient' - and should form part of the introductory chapter of any general book on Islamic art. The benefits of this would be tremendous, as it would stimulate an enhanced, more accurate picture of that immense area formerly known as 'the Orient' and would allow for the reassessment of Eurocentric modes of thought and their re-positioning in a more comparative frame of scholarly assessment. It is true that the academic trend for a more critical model in the teaching of 'Orientalist' subjects is in fact ongoing, but academia is still far from any final emancipation from fundamental, deep-rooted perceptions and prejudices concerning the East, with commentators still propounding blatant anachronisms, and the continued dominance of such tropes as the East-West binary paradigm of writing and interpreting history, and the prevailing Western, linear theory of the evolution of cultures which clearly frames progress as running from the East to the West.

The best example for this last notion is perhaps the still-prevailing theory of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, who says in his Philosophy of Universal History: 'Universal history goes from East to West. Europe is absolutely the end of universal history. Asia is the beginning.'5 Moreover, as Dussel has argued, alongside this Western proclamation of an exclusively East-West direction of cultural development, which manifestly excludes Africa and Latin America from the history of civilization, Asia - (i.e. 'the Orient') - is defined as if in a primordial state of childhood and infantile underdevelopment, whereas Europe is placed on the summit of evolution and maturity, ultimately aiming at the sole hegemony of the 'New World'.6 It is beyond the scope of this article to speculate and reassess this Hegelian theory and its influence on the birth of the myth of modernity in Europe, to say nothing of the justifications it provides for capitalist theories and other aggressive actions involving the submission and 'cultivation' of any non-European entity and especially Islam. …

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