Half a Century in the Study of Islamic Art

An essay on a presentation made by Oleg Grabar to Diwan al-Mimar on October 9, 2003.

Prepared by Majd Musa and Mohammad al-Asad

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Partial support for the publication of this essay has been provided by the Prince Claus Fund for Culture and Development.



Table of Contents: 

1. Introduction

2. The Enlightment Project

3. Grabar's early involvement in the study of Islamic Art

4. Methodelogical Directions in the study of Islamic Art

4.1 Orientalism

4.2 Archaeology

4.3 Collecting

4.4 History of Art

4.5 History of Architecture

4.6 The Social Sciences

4.7 Contemporary Creativity

5. Questions and Answers

6. Notes 



Describing his presentation, Oleg Grabar (1) stated it is a mixture of an exercise in "vanity" and the result of a number of accidental events he came across over recent months. One of these is that he is preparing four volumes that will include eighty-seven articles he has published over the past fifty years. He added that as he started preparing for the publication of those volumes, he came across the frightening realization that many of the enterprises in which he had been involved were connected to people who are no longer alive. The republishing of these articles is one way of bringing those people back to life.

Grabar also mentioned that he has reached a time in his life where he is going through and cleaning up his notes, letters, and souvenirs of one kind or another. This also is the right time to discuss with his descendants what they want and what they do not want of his belongings, and to think about what he should do with the belongings they do not want.

Grabar moved on to talk about what he did professionally to become more or less who he is now. He stated that beyond the aforementioned personal and rather emotional information lay some practical details that are of use. He began by providing a description of the world of the early 1950s. It was a time when the United Nations had around 50 members instead of the almost 200 members it has today. The only way to cross the Atlantic was by boat. There were small planes connecting Beirut to Amman, but they were unreliable, and so one usually traveled between the two cities by car. There were camels and donkeys all over the place. Most typewriters were manual, and there was not enough electricity for sustained periods of time to support electric typewriters. There were no computers and word processing programs. There was no direct telephone dialing, and Grabar mentioned how he would call Paris from Jerusalem back in 1960 through a process that included calling from Jerusalem to Amman, Amman to London, and finally London to Paris. This was the world he knew when he was about thirty years old.

Grabar added that things have changed so enormously and spectacularly since then that we often forget what the world was like before those changes. These changes, according to Grabar, may be seen as either bad or good, but they remain significant. One cannot do the same things or think the same way as one did before.

 The Enlightenment Project

One way to begin explaining what has been is to consider the so-called "Enlightenment project." In the eighteenth century, there was the creation in Western Europe of a notion that it is possible to know everything; that knowledge of everything is equal, and there are no distinctions between different kinds of knowledge; that everything will explain everything; and that once one knows everything, he or she will achieve high levels of wisdom and morality. Grabar added that this idea initially was a European one, but it spread elsewhere. One of the early "memorials" of this idea is the Description de l'Egypte, published between 1808 and 1828. In the volumes of this extraordinary work, a group of French scholars, who had not set foot in Egypt before they accompanied Napoleon on his 1798 French expedition to that country, documented much of Egypt's geography and cultural heritage. The volumes of this publication still constitute the only resources where a complete text of specific Arabic-language inscriptions is published. The range of use of these volumes, according to Grabar, is only limited by the competencies of their readers.

Grabar believes one can make similar parallels to literature in that almost every major writer between 1780 and 1830 wrote about various aspects of Islamic culture, although these writers knew neither Persian nor Arabic. Therefore, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749 - 1832), recognized as one of the greatest writers of the German tradition, wrote about Persian poetry. Aleksandr Sergeyevich Pushkin (1799 - 1837), one of the greatest Russian poets of the nineteenth century, wrote a great poem on prophecy entitled The Prophet, which is based on the account of the first revelation to the Prophet Muhammad. Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831), two of the leading German-language philosophers of their time, both wrote on Islamic art without having even seen any examples of it, but they heard that it incorporated geometry, and it became important to them in their various theoretical constructions. Victor Hugo (1802-1885), one of the most important French Romantic writers of the nineteenth century, states in his 1829 poem Les Orientales what is to the effect that the nineteenth century started out as Classical but has become Orientalist. Thus, adds Grabar, one can imagine that around 1830 there was an extraordinary "romantic" scheme of knowledge to which all parts of the world fit within a sort of "egalitarian vision."

Grabar mentioned that if one would move to the present, such an egalitarian vision no longer worked. The fields of study with which we are dealing, those belonging to the humanities, are in constant decline, at least if one judges by budgetary allocations to such fields by governmental organizations, the availability of jobs in teaching institutions, and so forth. Grabar believes that most of the world's languages today are taught only if they lead to jobs, especially in intelligence and police work. Therefore, an enormous interest suddenly has emerged in teaching Arabic in the United States recently, yet this is not for the love of Islamic culture, but an outcome of the events of September 11, 2001. This even applies to the English language in one way or another. English has become the dominant language of communication, but it is a very restricted computer-based English with a little bit of Hollywood culture attached to it that is being learned and communicated. It is hardly an English language that would allow one to read William Shakespeare or Charles Dickens. It is useful, but it is not of cultural significance. Furthermore, national, ethnic, or religious prejudices affect the topics that are being investigated today. One no longer can publish a book without somebody questioning the political or cultural motives behind writing the book.


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