Islamic Art and Islamic Law
I recently saw an excellent article by Souren Melikian in the International Herald Tribune, which you can still buy in Baghdad, that was a devastating criticism of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Islamic Art section, and indeed a criticism of Islamic Art as a concept in most museums. I am hardly qualified to endorse much of the substance of the criticism, but I had some sympathy with the approach. The thrust of the complaint is that one is talking, when the discussion is “Islamic Art”, of a series of quite disparate civilizations spanning vast continents and over the course of millennia. Very few of the territories in question had much by way of civilizational continuity over the course of time (Iran is offered as an exception), leading to even greater disparity. To refer to something as being found in modern day Afghanistan when it comes from the 10th century is therefore anachronistic and wrong, as wrong as describing Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises as a French novel (imperfect analogy I realize).
In sum, what you have is a series of very different civilizations divided by culture, by vast swaths of space and time, with one single thing uniting them, Islam, with the suggestion being that this sole similarity makes up for the difference. Somehow I think if I opened up a museum in one of those oil emirates in the Persian Gulf and put a few paintings from the Hudson School next to a Picasso next to a Monet next to Raphael next to Rembrandt, and called the thing “Christian art”, I’d be laughed out of the room. Seemingly less so when one speaks of Islamic art. Islam is the overwhelming monolith, the standard against which all other standards are mentioned. If a seventh century community in Medina made art, that’s Islamic art, and justifies its being categorized as such, just as a 16th century vase from Xingjian, China, or a 21st century painting by an Indonesian. Because, see, they’re all Muslim, even if they couldn’t do so much as talk to each other, let alone consider their work to be from the same general tradition.
The article concludes with a description of an area dedicated to Mughal art, and another dedicated to Persian art, and shows how in the case of the Persian art, much of it calls upon a pre-Islamic past while the case of the Mughal art, some of it is explicitly Hindu and contains representations of Krishna. To place these various things into the same “Islamic” category not only renders the “Islamic” term so capacious as to be almost meaningless (a point the article makes at its end), but it also in my view distorts what is being done in these traditions. If Islam is the be-all and end-all, the worldview that changes everything and adherence to which necessitates great similarity in approach across time and space, then one misses, or at least underplays, or perhaps mischaracterizes, the influence of Hinduism on Mughal art, or pre-Islamic Iran on Persian art. Might make more sense to have a “Mughal art” section and a “Persian art” section and no Islamic art section, with Islam obviously playing its influence in each case, but in the context of those vast and rich civilizations. Seems less distorting, more coherent as a conception.
But of course that would be insane. It would be like talking about Egyptian law as a freestanding phenomenon, with the role of Islam, and shari’a, within that contained system a matter of importance, but understood in relation to the primary conception of Egyptian law and the Egyptian state. Then we wouldn’t have to talk for the damn 4 millionth time about how it is that the Egyptian state could be justified by Islam, as if somehow its laws, its courts, its officials, its bureaucrats are completely and totally nonexistent until so beatified.
Nah, too crazy. Who would do that? Other than Egyptian lawyers, Egyptian judges, Egyptian politicians, Egyptian law professors, ordinary Egyptians in need of legal assistance, and just about anyone else who might want to think of the practical effects of Egyptian law, I mean. HAH