A Wealth of Scholarship: Recent Publications in Islamic Art, Culture and History


This is a general review of some 23 recent publications (books, films, and articles) on various aspects of Islamic culture, history and civilisation. The survey concentrates on titles related to three categories: art and architecture, Islamic history and culture and Islam-Europe exchanges in medieval times.

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A tremendous amount of books, films, articles were published in the last years on various aspects of Islamic culture, history and civilisation. The following survey presents a selected set of titles, with the necessary references and brief characterisation of their contents. The survey concentrates on titles related to three categories: art and architecture, Islamic history and culture and Islam-Europe exchanges in medieval times. The entries are presented briefly in the three sections in the chronological order of their publication. We do not include here publications on Islamic science reviewed constantly in our recent articles on www.muslimheritage.com.

An important feature of this scholarly work is that a growing number of scholars tend to challenge the well-known model of the Renaissance as an exclusive and singular moment of genius and invention centered in Italy. According to this familiar standard, the Renaissance signalled both the definitive emergence of European civilization and the irreparable rupture between East and West. Scholars such as Jerry Brotton, Charles Burnett, Anna Contadini, Deborah Howard, Lisa Jardine, Gülru Necipoglu, and Julian Raby, to name a few, have countered this paradigm by viewing the period's achievements in a broader, global context. They pointed to the crucial role of trade in shaping Renaissance identity and by arguing for a more integrated and expansive definition of the Renaissance to include the crucial debt to the multi-faceted knowledge transmitted during several centuries, through the 17th century at least, from Muslim lands. Furthermore, its role in fostering the seeds of the global change that Western Europe knew in modern times, leading to profound revolutions in science, technology, agriculture, industry, etc.

1) Art and architecture

- George Michell, editor, Architecture of the Islamic World: Its History and Social Meaning. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1995 (first printed 1978). Paperback: 288 pages. ISBN-10: 500278474 - ISBN-13: 978-0500278475.

For the first time in paperback edition, this book is an easy-to-follow, well-illustrated introduction to the diversity of Muslim architecture and the social contexts that give it form and function. From mosques to markets, from citadels to cemeteries, it surveys the entire field of Islamic architecture. Although Islamic buildings may make an immediate visual impact, it can be useful to know something of the society which they serve. The articles endeavour to relate the architecture to the social areas of religion, power structure, commerce and communal life, placing emphasis on function and meaning rather than on style and chronology. The book is illustrated by photographs, drawings and plans that highlight the variety of building type and design. Building materials, techniques, and principles of decoration are also described and explained, and a comprehensive inventory of the key buildings of the Islamic world concludes this study.

The book concludes with a comprehensive inventory of the key buildings of the Islamic world - 250 examples divided geographically, each with a brief description, photograph and plan.

- Caroline Williams and Gray Henry, Cairo: 1001 Years of Islamic Art and Architecture. Video tape, Fons Vitae, 1999, 100 minutes VHS. Text by Caroline Williams, produced and narrated by Gray Henry. Also available in PAL format, 110 mins. ISBN: 1-887752-23-4.

Figure 1: Front cover of the book Cairo: 1001 Years of Islamic Art and Architecture.

Contents: Part 1: The Grandeur of Cairo (16 mins). Since its foundation in 969 CE, al-Qahira (Cairo) has never been destroyed by war or by urban displacement. Its growth has been organic and continuous. In the 14th century it was one of the wonders of the medieval world; in the 19th century it was discovered by European Orientalist painters, and today much of the atmosphere and ambiance that made Cairo unique is still apparent.

Part 2: The Word, the Vine, and the Star: Spiritual Dimensions of Islamic Art in Cairo (20 mins); spiritual dimensions of Islamic art in a mosque, although there is no representational art visible, surfaces are covered with vibrant decoration based on the Qur'anic word, plant forms and celestial shapes.

Part 3: Survivors in Stone: 1001 Years of Islamic Architecture in Cairo (51 mins); the unique storehouse of Islamic architecture dating to between the 9th century Mosque of Ahmad ibn Tulun and the 19th century Mosque of Muhammad Ali is found in this segment.

Part 4: Some Saints of Cairo (13 mins); looking at the counsels of Ibn Ata'Allah l-Iskandari, (d. 1309).

Too often, the Islamic architecture of Cairo which embodies an unbroken tradition from the early days of Islam, is viewed merely in slide form. This video series takes the viewer into the environs and actual space and sound of this great heritage. The overview is accompanied by three sections of extensive historic and artistic detail, suitable for art history, related coursework, and academic research of individual mosques and buildings.

Written by Caroline Williams and produced by Gray Henry, this four-part presentation offers an introduction to the art and architecture of a great medieval city. The video works well on both a specific and a general level: On the one hand, it is an excellent survey of the Islamic dimension of Cairo's artistic heritage; on the other, it is —in the 20-minute second part— a superbly lucid introduction to the general principles that underlie all of the arts in Islam. The photography of the monuments is captivating, and the soundtrack gives the video the feel of a walking tour led by expert guides. In the film, certain monuments make several appearances and are viewed from different aspects. This arrangement is intended to give the viewer a better understanding of the structures' forms and functions.

- Doris Behrens-Abouseif, Beauty in Arabic Culture. Princeton, NJ: Markus Wiener Publishers, 1999. Hardcover: 220 pages. ISBN-10: 1558761985 - ISBN-13: 978-1558761988. Paperback, 268 pp. ISBN-10: 1-55876-199-3 - ISBN 13: 978-1-55876-199-5.

Contents: Introduction. The Religious Approach: The Image of the World - The Koran and the Universe - Ghazâlî, the Sufi Way, and the Symbolism of Light. Secular Beauty and Love: Proportion, Harmony, and the Psychological Factor - Nature and Artifice - Fauna - Human Beauty - Love. Music and Belles Letters: Music - Belles-Letters. The Visual Arts : The Status of the Arts - The Significance of Artistic Beauty - The Decorative Themes - Architecture and Decoration - Unity, Diversity, and Transmission of Knowledge - Regalia and Luxury - Building or Architecture? Conclusion, Notes, Bibliography, Biographical Notes.

In this book, Doris Behrens-Abouseif, a specialist of Islamic art and architecture, drawing from Arabic texts authored between the eighth and the 15th centuries, she explores the qualities of esthetic experience in times, places, media and contexts (e.g., religion, academia, daily life) in the classical and post-classical Arab world. Of particular help to the non-specialist reader is that she is no less conversant with Western aesthetics, and accordingly offers occasional useful comparisons. This is a lucid, relatively compact scholarly book, an excellent aid to understanding how the Islamic arts came to take the forms they did, and how their patrons, creators and audiences perceived them.

Although the arts were appreciated and promoted throughout the Arabic-Muslim world for centuries, there were no theoretical writings on the arts similar to those in classical Europe. However, as is the case in pre-modern and traditional cultures, the absence of aesthetic theory in Arab culture did not preclude the awareness of the link between beauty and art, beauty for pleasure, and moral beauty. In this analysis of the Arabic discourse on beauty in architecture, decorative arts, music, and literature, Behrens-Abouseif provides a variety of examples of the concepts of beauty in classical Arabic-Muslim culture through the 15th century. She draws on primary Arabic texts to show that artistic work was not always associated only with the metaphysical and the divine.

- Jonathan M. Bloom, Early Islamic Art and Architecture. (Series: The Formation of the Classical Islamic World, 23). Aldershot, Hampshire: Ashgate Variorum, 2002; xxxii + 420 pp. + 131 b & w illustrations. ISBN: 0860787052.

Contents: Introduction; Notes on Arabic archaeology, Max van Berchem; The genesis of Islamic art and the problem of Mshatta, Ernst Herzfeld; 'Abbasid Lustrewares, Ernst Kühnel; The lawfulness of painting in early Islam, K. A. C. Creswell; The Mosque and the Palace, Jean Sauvaget; Mihrab and 'Anazah: a study in Islamic iconography, George C. Miles; The Greek sources of Islamic scientific illustrations, Kurt Weitzmann; Deacon or drink: some paintings from Samarra re-examined, David Storm Rice; The Umayyad dome of the rock in Jerusalem, Oleg Grabar; Zandaniji identified?, D.G. Shepherd and W. Henning; The throne and banquet hall of Khirbat al-Mafjar, Richard Ettinghausen; La DolceVita in early Islamic Syria: the evidence of later Umayyad palaces, Robert Hillenbrand; The origins of the Mih'rab Mujawwaf: a reinterpretation, Estelle Whelan; Al-Ma'mun's Blue Koran, Jonathan M. Bloom; Index.

This volume deals with the formative period of Islamic art (to ca. 950 CE), and the different approaches to studying it. Individual essays deal with architecture, ceramics, coins, textiles, and manuscripts, as well as with such broad questions as the supposed prohibition of images, and the relationships between sacred and secular art. An introductory essay sets each work in context; it is complemented by a bibliography for further reading.

- Venetia Porter, Islamic Tiles. New York: Interlink, revised edition, 2004. ISBN-10: 1566565723 - ISBN-13: 978-1566565721. Other Editions include British Museum Press, London, 1st edition 1995, 2nd 1999; Interlink Books, New York, 1995.

Figure 2: Front cover of the book Venetia Porter, Islamic Tiles.

Islamic Tiles is part of these slim, rich, introductory survey books published in Interlink's Eastern Art Series. Each is authored by a curator of the Islamic and Oriental collections at the British Museum. Ceramic tiles have been produced for over a thousand years in the heartlands of the Islamic world, from Iraq in the 9th century to Turkey in the 19th. The wealth of designs and colours used to decorate mosques, shrines and palaces later provided inspiration for European artists and designers. This book first explains the various techniques of the craftsmen and then traces the development of tilework, beginning with pre-Islamic tradition, through the major periods and across a wide geographic area. The book contains superb colour photographs. The informative text that accompanies them make this book a treasure for anyone interested in art and design.

- Oleg Grabar, Early Islamic Art, 650-1100. Vol. 1: Constructing the Study of Islamic Art. Aldershot, Hampshire: Ashgate Variorum, 2005. Hardcover: 326 pages, 98 b/w ills. ISBN-10: 0860789217 - ISBN-13: 978-860789215.

Figure 3: Front cover of the book Early Islamic Art, 650-1100.

This is the first of four volumes bringing together the stellar achievements of a leading Islamic art historian, Oleg Grabar, a professor in Princeton. His long and eventful career has included a lot of fieldwork in the Arab world —in Syria, Iraq and other lands. The experience of these spaces, both man-made and natural, helps define the people who transformed the area and created within it a new culture. Grabar works diligently to fill in the gaps in Islamic archaeology, a field in which circumstances have left a lot of research unpublished. He calls attention to little-known but reliable written sources, such as al-Azraqi's 9th-century historical account of the construction of sacred buildings in Makkah. He explores the mysteries of the remote Umayyad palaces of Syria, and finds they were built in part to take advantage of an older agricultural base that no longer exists in those desert regions. He studies the interactions of Byzantine and early Islamic art, and finds that each benefited in significant ways from the presence of the other. He puzzles over the survival of the magnificent Islamic art of Muslim Spain. Discussing Spanish mudejar art (Muslim-inspired art in a non-Muslim setting), Grabar theorizes about why "this preservation of allegedly Muslim forms took place while Islam itself and those who professed it were persecuted."

The book's twenty essays are divided into four sections. Five essays deal with the origins and context of Islamic art; seven with the architecture of Umayyad period; five with Fatimid Egypt and its relationship with the Muslim West; and, finally, three discuss the Muslim East.

2 ) History, Culture and Material Life

- Islam: Empire of Faith, a film produced by Robert Gardner (a Gardner Films production in association with PBS and Devillier Donegan Enterprises). Narrated by Ben Kingsley, produced and directed by Robert Gardner. The book, Islam: A Thousand Years of Faith and Power (New Haven: Yale UP, 2001) by Sheila Blair and Jonathan Bloom, was written as a companion to the film series. To learn more about the film, visit: http://www.pbs.org/empires/islam/.

The production of Islam: Empire of Faith was a big challenge from the beginning, simply because it covered more than a thousand years of history and culture, and a very large part of the world. But this step beyond the conventional form of historical documentaries is welcome. In particular, its use of the visual techniques usually reserved for fiction motion pictures to tell a story of great scope that took place in pre-photographic history.

The film tries to find a way to present images of cultural history — both re-enacted scenes and contemporary scenes of Islamic architecture and city life — in a way that evokes the past, but maintains a sense of authenticity.

The team of the film traveled and turned camera sequences in seven different countries, including Syria, Egypt, Palestine, Tunisia, Spain, Turkey and Iran. It was in Iran that the film team used a motion picture company — with a crew of 50 — to produce the costumed re-enactments. Iran's foremost Art Director Majid Mirfakhraei, had to create locations, costumes and props for more than a thousand years of history — from the deserts of 7th century Arabia, to the palaces of the Ottoman empire. The same team of stunt riders had to be made-up and redressed to play Arabian mounted soldiers, Crusader knights, Mongol raiders, Ghazi horsemen and Ottoman cavalry. A full sized, four-story replica of the holiest shrine in the Muslim world (the Kaaba in Saudi Arabia), had to be built in the deserts of Southern Iran and the vanished world of 8th century Baghdad had to be created in the ruins of a 19th century Persian palace. More than 300 costumes were required, as well as a dozen camels and riders, dozens of sheep and goats, an entire Bedouin encampment and the streets of Jerusalem in the 11th century — complete with market stalls and citizens.

This extraordinary production design, set in epic landscapes, gives the film a startling sense of scope and provides a remarkable window through which to examine the past.

- Jonathan Bloom, Paper Before Print: The History and Impact of Paper in the Islamic World. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001. 320 pp., 53 b/w + 48 colour illus. ISBN: 9780300089554 - ISBN-10: 0300089554.

Figure 4: Front cover of the book Paper Before Print: The History and Impact of Paper in the Islamic World.

Like the printing press, typewriter, and computer, paper has been a crucial agent for the dissemination of information. This engaging book presents an important new chapter in paper's history: how its use in Islamic lands during the Middle Ages influenced almost every aspect of medieval life. Focusing on the spread of paper from the early 8th century, when Muslims in West Asia acquired Chinese knowledge of paper and papermaking, to five centuries later, when they transmitted this knowledge to Europeans in Spain and Sicily, the book reveals how paper utterly transformed the passing of knowledge and served as a bridge between cultures.

Jonathan Bloom traces the earliest history of paper—how it was invented in China over 2,000 years ago, how it entered the Islamic lands of West Asia and North Africa, and how it spread to northern Europe. He explores the impact of paper on the development of writing, books, mathematics, music, art, architecture, and even cooking. And he discusses why Europe was so quick to adopt paper from the Islamic lands and why the Islamic lands were so slow to accept printing in return. Together the beautifully written text and delightful illustrations (of papermaking techniques and the many uses to which paper was put) give new luster and importance to a now-humble material.

Jonathan M. Bloom, Norma Jean Calderwood University Professor of Islamic and Asian Art at Boston College, is a renowned specialist of Islamic art and architecture. His book received several prizes and awards.

- Walter M. Weiss and Kurt-Michael Westermann, The Bazaar: Markets and Merchants of the Islamic World. London: Thames & Hudson, 1999. Hardcover: 256 pp. ISBN-10: 0500018391 - ISBN-13: 978-0500018392.

Figure 5: Front cover of the book The Bazaar: Markets and Merchants of the Islamic World.

From the Middle Ages to the present day, from Marrakech to Isfahan, few institutions in the Islamic world have so captured the fancy of Western travellers as the colourful, fragrant, joyfully cacophonous bazaar—a word that has come into English from Persian. We find in this book a lush and imaginatively photographed exploration of what is left (and there is much) of the top dozen or so trading emporia of the classical Islamic world. The text illuminates the nuts and bolts of the bazaar-based mercantile system.

Walter M. Weiss, a travel writer, and Kurt-Michael Westermann, photographer, combine their talents to produce a stunning tour of the bazaars of the old Islamic cities. Their collaboration gave birth to a unique and beautiful book that will be of use for most collections. The uniquely Islamic bazaar, explains Weiss, is "a city within a city, with its own economy and way of life and a spiritual background from which western society has a great deal to learn." The philosophy of the bazaar affects and is affected by religion, social customs, architecture, and the availability of water. To understand the concept of the bazaar, Weiss begins with a brief history of trade, its existence from earliest times, the effects of the Islamic teachings, the four major trade routes, and a history of the camel and its place in Arab society. A section on shopkeepers and their goods covers history, their techniques, and the effects of modern life on their livelihood. Finally, the section on living bazaars, entitled "the heart of the city" presents the portraits of the finest bazaars. These portraits are accounts of brief visits to 15 of the great bazaars in Cairo, Damascus, Aleppo, Istanbul, Sanaa, Dubai, Kairouan, Tuni,s Marrakesh, Fez, Shiraz, Isfahan, Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva, the last three being the still alive jewels of Islamic cities in Uzbekistan.

- Michael G. Morony, Manufacturing and Labour. (Series: The Formation of the Classical Islamic World, 12). Aldershot, Hampshire: Ashgate Variorum 2003. Hardback 380 pages. ISBN: 0 86078 707 9.

Contents: Introduction; The evolution of technology in the medieval Muslim world, G. Wiet, V. Elesséeff and Ph. Wolff; The main industries of the Mediterranean area as reflected in the records of the Cairo Geniza, S. D. Goitein; Introduction to the study of Islamic ceramics, J. Sauvaget; A new interpretation of the economic history of medieval Egypt: the role of the textile industry 254-567/808-1171, G. Frantz-Murphy; The artisan trades among the Arabs, I. Goldziher; Humble professions in Islam, R. Brunschvig; Economic conditions and the Mawali in early Islam, Jamal Judah; Artisans and artisan trade groups in the first centuries of Islam, B. Finster; The working people of the Mediterranean area during the high Middle Ages, S. D. Goitein; Landlord and peasant in early Islam: a critical study, 'Abd al-'Aziz Duri; Agricultural and irrigation labourers in the social and economic life of ‘Iraq during the Ummayad and Abbasid caliphates, Muhammad 'Abdul Jabbar; The 'serfs' of Islamic society under the Abbasid regime, Muhammad 'Abdul Jabbar Beg; Law and economy in Ifriqiya (Tunisia) in the 3rd Islamic century: agriculture and the role of slaves in the country's economy, Mohamed Talbi; Labour partnerships in early Islamic law, Abraham L. Udovitch; Index.

This volume, together with its companion volume Production and the Exploitation of Resources, examines the economic basis of the early Islamic world, looking at the organization of extractive and agricultural operations, manufacturing processes, and labour relations. The volume opens with studies of artisanal production that address the issues of specialization, the division of labour, and the proliferation of manufacturing occupations in early Islamic times, looking i