Islamic art seems to be going through an international moment in the spotlight as major museums reinvigorate their collection holdings and exhibition programming of art from the Middle East. The historically conservative Louvre museum opened an entire new wing devoted to Islamic art in September of this year, though its non-traditional, non-chronological installation has been critiqued as a “visual blur and intellectual confusion” by the New York Times and a “failure to acknowlege the modern Muslim condition” by the New Statesman. The Metropolitan Museum likewise renovated its Islamic galleries in 2011 with a presentation that has been better received.
Perhaps the biggest gesture of support for the western museum-ification of Islamic art is the Aga Khan Museum opening in Toronto in 2013. Led by His Highness the Aga Khan, the spiritual leader of the Shia Imami Ismaili Muslims since 1957, the museum will “will be dedicated to the acquisition, preservation and display of artefacts relating to the intellectual, cultural, artistic and religious heritage of Islamic communities,” according to its website, as well as house the collections of the Aga Khan and his family. The 100,000-square-foot museum has been design by Japanese architect Fumihiko Maki and will include a multimedia center, reference library, and auditorium.
Tagged as: Dallas Museum of Art, Islamic art, Louvre, Metropolitan Museum of Art
An exhibit featuring over 100 exquisite works of Islamic art is now on display at the Middlebury College Museum of Art, making it the first Islamic art exhibition in a Vermont museum in at least 30 years.
Located on the first floor of Mahaney Center for the Arts, this rich collection embodies the long history and intercontinental reach of Islamic art.
“Wondrous Worlds” features artwork in nearly all media, including ceramics, clothing, glassware, jewelry, metalworks, musical instruments, paintings, photographs, prayer rugs and textiles.
The British Museum’s latest journey into the Islamic world started 30 years ago
The Albukhary Foundation Gallery of the Islamic World brings a rich culture to life through everyday objects
We conducted a lot of focus groups to find out what our audience wanted and, as I learned, it’s a science. The overriding message was that the old gallery concentrated too much on art. The focus groups were saying: “Tell us more about the people.”
We wanted to create a gallery that brought to life the culture of the Islamic world, not just through art but everyday objects as well. There is a perception that the Islamic world is the Middle East but it is important to realise it is not just one region. It is a series of interconnected nations and continents, starting from the furthest point west in Nigeria, Africa, and stretching right across to south-east Asia. The thing that ties these regions together is the fact that Islam is the predominant religion but we also wanted to show there were people of other faiths inhabiting these regions: Christians, Jews, Hindus and Zoroastrians, among others. The arts also reflect massive upheavals across the Islamic world, such as the invasions of the Mongols from China or the Crusaders from Europe. We tried to give a nuanced story.
Bur rather than a mishmash, there is a strong structure. We present history complemented by a series of themes, such as writing and global trade. I like to think of it as a giant jigsaw puzzle. It is an attempt to tell lots of different stories, but we always start with the object. Rather than forcing a story on an object, we allow the object to tell the story.
Emperor Akbar introduced a temporary order centred on the worship of light
Posted by Nimira Dewji
The Mughals ruled the Indian subcontinent from 1526 to 1857. Muhammad Zahir al-Din Babur (r. 1526-1530) laid the foundation of a dynastic rule which inaugurated the most glorious period in the history of South Asian Islam. Babur’s grandson Jalal al-Din Muhammad Akbar (r.1556-1605), who succeed Humayun, is considered the builder of the empire. His territorial expansion, an effective fiscal policy, and most importantly his pluralistic administrative system contributed to the strong foundation of the empire.
Emperor Akber’s major project was the construction of his father’s tomb in Delhi, designed according to Timurid concepts, establishing the architectural identity of the dynasty. Restoration work on the garden tomb was completed by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture, and inaugurated by Mawlana Hazar Imam and Prime Minister of India in 2013.
Humayun chahar bagh delhi aga khan
Humayun’s Tomb Complex. Photo: Archnet
Akbar also commissioned the building of several forts and mausoleums during his reign including the Agra Fort, Ajmer Fort, Lahore Fort, and Allahabad Fort.
An avid patron of the arts, Emperor Akbar established centres of artistic production for the court, illustrated manuscript studios, a translation academy, and workshops for textiles, carpets, jewellery, and metalwork. He commissioned royal manuscripts that incorporated Persian, Indian, and European elements, creating a distinct Mughal style which was further developed and refined by his successors.
Although Akbar was illiterate and possibly suffered from dyslexia, his chronicles describe him as having a “good memory for the books”1 that were read to him daily. By the year 1605, Akbar had collected 24,000 volumes, which were catalogued according to content, author, calligrapher, and language – Hindi, Persian Greek, Arabic, and Kashmiri.
In order to overcome conflicts between various religious communities, Akbar introduced a temporary order centred on the worship of light. Akbar is also credited with establishing the tradition of being weighed in gold. Twice a year, on the first day of the lunar and solar years, the emperors were weighed in gold, silver, and other precious metals as well as silk and grains; the proceeds from these went to the poor.
Concerned about the lack of an heir, Akbar sought the intervention of a Sufi saint, Sheikh Salim Chisti (d.1572). In 1569, his son and future emperor was born. In gratitude, Akbar named his son Salim, and established a walled city and an imperial palace outside Agra focused around the shrine of Sheikh Salim located in the courtyard of the Friday mosque.
Salim fatehpur sikri agra
Shrine of Sheikh Salim at Fatehpur Sikri, India. Photo: Philippa Vaughan
In 1584, Akbar moved his capital from Agra to Lahore, where he died in 1605. He was succeeded by Prince Salim who took the titles of Jahangir (“World Seizer”) and Nur al-Din (“Light of Faith”), continuing the light imagery used so frequently in his father’s metaphors of sovereignty. Akbar’s mausoleum lies in Bihishtabad (“Abode of Paradise”) outside Agra.
Akbar mughal india
Emperor Akbar’s Mausoleum. Photo: Philippa Vaughan
1Philippa Vaughan “Decorative Arts” Islam: Art and Architecture Edited by Markus Hattstein and Peter Delius, Konnenman, p 484
Sajida S. Alvi, “Islam in South Asia.” The Muslim Almanac Edited by Azim A. Nanji, Detroit, Gale Research Inc. 1996
“Dream and Trauma: Reopening of the Carpet Rooms in the Museum of Islamic Art” at Pergamonmuseum, Berlin
Pergamonmuseum reopens its Carpet Rooms in the Museum of Islamic Art with an exhibition titled “Dream and Trauma.” With this permanent exhibition, the museum invites visitors to experience the origin and history of its carpet collection, and explore the museum’s current work with the carpets.
Carpets of Islamic cultures are an integral part of European cultural history. These carpets, as a testimony to the continuing cultural exchange between Europe and the Middle East, remains the focal point of the Museum of Islamic Art’s permanent exhibition.
“Dream and Trauma” has on view some of the oldest collection pieces of the museum.
“For the first time now carpets are shown, which suffered fire damage in the bombing on Berlin in 1945. The destruction of significant Persian carpets this year was a serious loss of collection. One of the fragments is the 16th century Persian animal rug, the first work of art under the number ‘I. 1’ was inventoried. Very characteristic is also the 16th century Caucasian dragon carpet, which has burn marks over its entire length of six meters. A fragrance station with a specially created smell reminiscent of charred wool, incendiary bombs and chemicals, suggests the losses of that time. And knotting technology models allow visitors to come into contact with the knots,” the museum says.
“They come from the former possession of the museum founder, Wilhelm von Bode. His interest in Islamic art as an independent and European equivalent art form was the origin of a collection that is still rare today, including carpets from today’s Turkey, Iran and the Caucasus,” the museum adds. “The measures for the preservation of the carpet collection in the post-war period are juxtaposed with today’s work in accordance with current ethical conservation and scientific standards.”
Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah: “Poetry is the voice of God speaking through the lips of man”
Posted by Nimira Dewji
“Poetry is the voice of God speaking through the lips of man. If great painting puts you in touch with nature, great poetry puts you in direct touch with God.”
Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah’s interview with the Daily Sketch, November 2, 1931
Source: Ismaili Gnosis
In pre-Islamic times, the recitation of poetry was the mark of artistic achievement. The human voice was considered a reflection of the soul’s mysteries and feelings; instruments, then, were believed to have been created to enrich vocal music.
The oldest and simplest type of melodic rhythm, the huda, broke the silence of the desert, enchanting the lonely traveller. Other simple genres emerged, such as songs performed during the watering of animals, and other daily chores. Among the more musically developed forms were the variety of communal songs and dances at family celebrations, pilgrimages to shrines, and social evenings. Poets were said to be possessed with supernatural power, hence they were feared and revered at the same time.
Prophet Muhammad “conveyed God’s message to people in a recited form from the time the first verses were revealed to him in ca. 610 until his death in 632” (Islam An Illustrated Journey, p 75). The culture of oral tradition “suited the introduction of the Qur’an as the people of Arabia were already familiar with the spoken word” (Ibid.)
The earliest examples of religious poetry in Islam are to be found in the verses of a small group of poets who were companions of the Prophet. The most famous poet was Hassan ibn Thabit (d. 669), who wrote poems in praise of the Prophet as well as to spread the messages from the Prophet. In the years following the Prophet’s death, a number of the poets composed eulogies in his memory. The common form of poetry was the qasida – a long monorhyme (aa, ba, ca) in praise of someone although it was also used for preaching morals as well as to praise God and honour the Prophet and his family.
For the first three centuries after the emergence of Islam, the city of Medina was the musical centre with the most talented male and female singers throughout the Arabian empire, who established a school of singing that lasted for more than a century. Yunis al-Katib (d.765), a Persian singer, wrote several books on the music of the city although none of his books have survived, but they have been quoted by others.
Many women had respectable careers as musicians and singers. Koskoff reports that in “Fatimid times, there seems to have been self-employed female singers, who lived in respectable districts, sang at private parties” (Touma, The Music of the Arabs, p 72).
drummer music poetry
Carved ivory plaque with drummer Fatimid Egypt, 11th-12th century. Source: Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Florence, Italy
As Islam spread, the music of the community became entwined with the musical traditions of the conquered lands. The elite, who were enriched by the influx of wealth, sought amusement that was best expressed in music and song. The migrants brought their art and music with them, thereby influencing local cultures. As long as it did not contradict with Islamic teaching, the people assimilated the new artistic forms creating unique styles.
The bulk of the information on music and musicians of this period comes from the monumental work Kitab al-aghani (Book of Songs) by the historian and poet Abu’l-Faradj al-Isfahani (d.967). The Book of Songs, one of the most celebrated works in Arabic literature, contains a collection of poems from the pre-Islamic period to the ninth century, all of which had been set to music along with biographical details about authors, composers, singers, and writers of music.
miniature Ikhwan rasail
Illustrated manuscript of a fragment from a tenth-century compilation of poetry set to music. Source: Met Museum
Attitudes towards music were influenced by the growth of mystics, or Sufis, who regarded poetry and music as an essential part of their devotional practices. Rabia al-Basri (ca. 717–801), considered to be the earliest Sufi saint, is widely credited with pioneering the concept of adoring the divine rather than fearing the wrath of God. Although she did not leave any written works, she was referenced by the notable Persian poet Farid al-Din Attar (d. 1225) who is believed to have possessed a lost monogram about her life. In the next century, the wrath of God was replaced by love for Him and a quest for divine union in this world.
The Safavid period (1501-1732), particularly under Shah Abbas (r.1588-1629), saw significant royal patronage of music.
The Ismaili community has had a long history in Persia, for some eight centuries from the establishment of the Nizari state of Alamut in 1090 until the migration of Imam Hasan Ali Shah Aga Khan I, in 1841.
Among the Persian-speaking Nizari Ismailis, the qasida (Persian qasideh) is an integral part of devotional literature. Nasir-i Khusraw (d. 1088-1089), considered the founder of the Ismaili communities of Central Asia, composed several qasidehs in Persian, although it is not known “how they were used in communal gatherings during his lifetime or immediately thereafter. The practice is likely to have been adopted when the Ismailis adopted Sufi traditions as taqiyya [precautionary measures] to avoid persecution […] The melodies used in [qasidehs] are based on Iranian classical music” (Music & Melodies of the Persian Ismaili Qasideh, IIS).
Aga Khan Museum Trust al-Tusi poetry music
Illustration from the Akhlaq-i Nasiri of Tusi: Musical entertainment at a scholar’s house, dated 1595, Lahore. Musicians play under the watchful eye of a master. The painting’s text is from the first discourse, ‘On Ethics’ where the author proclaims that ‘no relationship is nobler than that of equivalence as has been established in the science of music.’ Source: Spirit & Life Catalogue, Aga Khan Trust for Culture
Nizari Ismailis of the Indian subcontinent also practised concealment. Imams residing in Alamut sent da’is, or pirs, to the subcontinent to teach the Ismaili interpretation of Islam to non-Arabic speaking people beginning in the eleventh century. At the time, the field of devotional poetry was flourishing in the subcontinent, hence, the pirs used poetic compositions to spread the message. The ginans were a counterpart to the traditions of the geet, bhajan, and kirtan along with mystical poetry developing among the Sufis in the subcontinent.
ginans pir shams
Vaek Moto attributed to Pir Shams copied in 1841 by Dahio Surijiani. Pir Shams extols the virtues of knowledge, ‘ilm, and urges the faithful to plumb the depths of esoteric wisdom conveyed by the Imams. Source: The Institute of Ismaili Studies
From the Sanskrit jnana meaning ‘contemplative knowledge,’ ginans are a vast corpus of poetic compositions in the languages of the respective local regions enabling the composers to use local music styles to sing their poetry. Compositions were also influenced by the various communities’ needs to assimilate the practices of the dominant local community in order to avoid persecution. Hence ginans were composed in Sindhi, Gujarati, Kuchhi, Multani, Hindi, and Panjabi. About thirty da’is composed ginans over a period of six centuries.
Like most Indian devotional poetry, ginans are meant to be sung. Music, therefore, is a vital characteristic of ginans to invoke specific emotional states such as on special occasions, morning prayers, evening prayers, ghatpat ceremony, or at funerals.
Through the poetic medium of ginans, the pirs provided guidance on a variety of doctrinal, ethical, and mystical themes for the community, facilitating the journey to spiritual ecstasy.
Ginan bolore nit nure bharea; evo haide tamare harakh na maeji.
Recite continually the Ginans which are filled with light;
boundless will be the joy in your heart. (tr. by Ali Asani). Listen
Ali S. Asani, Ecstasy and Enlightenment, The Ismaili Devotional Literature of South Asia, I.B. Tauris & Co. Ltd., London, 2002
Amnon Shiloah, Music in the World of Islam, Wayne State University Press, Detroit, 1995
Habib Hassan Touma, The Music of the Arabs, Amadeus Press, Portland Oregon, 1996
Farhad Daftary, Zulfikar Hirji, Islam An Illustrated Journey, Azimuth Editions in association with The Institute of Ismaili Studies, 2018
Ginans: A Tradition of Religious Poetry, The Institute of Ismaili Studies
Music & Melodies of the Persian Ismaili Qasideh, The Institute of Ismaili Studies
Stephennie Mulder aims to expand the usual ‘European story’ and outlook on art history
Last week Stephennie Mulder, who teaches the history of Islamic Art and Architecture at the University of Texas at Austin, was in Ireland to deliver the annual Chester Beatty lecture.
The subject was her multiple-award-winning book, The Shrines of the ‘Alids in Medieval Syria. Originally published in 2014, the volume has just been published in a paperback edition – the hardback sold out and is currently being reprinted.
At first glance it may seem like a niche subject, yet it has attracted a great deal of attention beyond academic circles. As Mulder is keen to emphasise, it has much greater resonance than you might expect, in the context of the recent history of the Middle East, and the general misapprehension of Islamic culture in the West.
Originally from Salt Lake City, Mulder began her studies, which eventually encompassed art history, archaeology, anthropology and Arabic, in Utah, and went on to Princeton and Pennsylvania (she’s been teaching in Austin since 2008). What prompted her interest in Islamic art and culture?
“It’s really simple. I took a class in Islamic civilization and I realied immediately that it was something that had been missing from my education. I mean, I knew China and India had long, rich histories, for example, but the Islamic world, in contrast, had been largely written out of the history we were taught. My history of art textbook had 17 pages on Islamic art in its totality, and about 60 on ancient Roman art alone.”
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