February 4, 2013 By Tony Mathew Beypore

What is Islamic About Islamic Arts?

artsI was slightly disappointed at having not been able to go to Jaipur to attend India’s most reputed literary festival, especially when I read a report in the Hindu about an open forum featuring writers Ahdaf Soueif, Tahar Ben Jelloun and Selma Dabbagh, Jonathan Shainin and William Dalrymple.  In the forum,  Moroccan author Tahar Ben Jelloum made a stark remark about writing fiction: ‘Sometimes, I am frightened at fiction as it seems more dangerous than reality. In the case of The Satanic Verses, Salman Rushdie was not reproached for writing about Islam; he was reproached because being a Muslim, he was not supposed to have had such views about Islam. Similarly, Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose shows the enemy of religion is laughing.’ I was happy to read Ahdaf Soueif expressing self-confidence about the Arabian literature:  ‘It is not at all a notion inflicted from outside because there has been Arab literature since pre-Islamic times.’

(Photo Ahdaf Soueif)

The name Ahdaf Soueif endeared itself to me when I saw a huge, well-crafted book on Islamic arts a few days later.  I was wandering in Calicut, especially in search of arts. ‘Why not Kochi for the biennale?’ my wife suggested,  ‘I wanna see something else about which there are no brochures and high-decibel publicity cries.’ But at mid-day, the scorching city evaporated all enthusiasm in me.  I ended up in the famous Calicut beach,  watching the waves dancing in heat – may be the most artistic thing God has ever created.  After a  plate of spicy Biriyani at Bombay Hotel, which makes it easy for you to come back,  I headed to Other Books, a book store which, among other things less tried by others,  tries to make the Mappila tradition alive,  when it is lost in the craze for concrete farming. I was advised by a friend of mine that there would be a good collection of art books in Calicut.

There I met Ahdaf Soueif again and the charming Reflections on Islamic Art,  she edited.  Sitting in the reader’s corner, I leafed through the book. Again and again I came back to Other Books to read it.  The book is a collection of pieces (poems, reflections, articles and whatever appeared as words) on the Museum of Islamic Arts in Doha. The book is much more than an editor’s idea of bringing together valuable conversations on a topic in some pages; it is a curator’s idea of collecting assets for the Museum itself.  Ahdaf Soueif explains it in more brilliant words:  ‘That is how the book took shape: a collection of potential contributors are invited to visit Doha, taken to the museum and turned gently to lose into it.  Their brief: to fall in love….The invitation was to visit the museum, choose an object and write a piece or poem in response to it.  The museum, I wrote, lends itself particularly well to the idea of this book: that there will be one piece that speaks to you or a group of pieces that sets off a train of thoughts and feelings – and that out of this comes a response in words or images. Does this appeal? It did. The responses were positive, intrigued, and authentic. As Eric Hobsbawm, Shirin Neshat and Pankaj Mishra said ‘yes’, I sensed the rightness of the project.”

She adds: ‘The book is a conversation liberated from East/West dichotomies, and art/science expert/layman distinctions. Conversation taking place in a democracy of era, age, politics, gender and geography.’

What is Islamic about Islamic arts? Ahdouf Souief links Islamic art with everyday Muslim life which, I think, is a fitting foreword to the entire book: ‘Art in the Muslim world was part of daily life…In the days of its expansion, the new ideas and spirit of Islam had the ability, wherever they went, to energize the local culture, to prompt a re-engagement with its own arts and traditions and a refashioning of them into a new, vibrant life.’

Slovenian Philosopher Slavoj Zizek’s essay ‘Choosing our Fate’ starts with a brilliant paragraph on how art and food get entwined in the Muslim everyday life:
‘Item number PO 24.1999 in the Museum of Islamic Art is a simple 10th century earthenware circular dish from Nishapur or Samarqand; its diameter 43 cm, decorated with a (Farsi) proverb attributed to Yahya ibn Ziyad, written in black on white slip ground: “Foolish is the person who misses his chance and afterwards reproaches fate.” Such dishes were meant to solicit an appropriate conversation among the learned eaters during and after the meal; an old forgotten art whose last great practitioner was maybe Immanuel Kant. Such a practice is foreign to our fast-food times when we only know business meals not thinking meals.’
The book which arrays a constellation of beautiful writers in the world (Kamila Shamsie, William Darymple, Pankaj Mishra are my favourites) is stylistically complex: we have Riz Ahmed’s lyrical reflections on the commodification of art (I am a derivate, a speculation, a product of commodity/Hunting Ghosts for Scraps of Glory Gift-Shop Souvenirs) punctuated by Eric Hobsbawm’s citation of Ibn Khaldun’s Prolegomena (Muqqadimah) in his analysis of the extravagance of Mughal art.

The book, published by the Qatar Museum Authority, seems to be a brochure for the Islamic museum in the country. However, Ahdaf Suief deserves praise for making this publicity work a great work of art.

I could not buy this book, because, when the price of rice is as spiralling as that of gas,  an expensive book might derail my family budget.  I recommend this book to all libraries,  coffee shops, and all rich art buffs.

Posted in: Art