Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
April 29, 2022
Katarzyna Puzon, Sharon Macdonald, and Mirjam Shatanawi, eds. Islam and Heritage in Europe: Pasts, Presents and Future Possibilities London: Routledge, 2021. 238 pp.; 20 b/w ills. Cloth $128.00 (9780367491499)

Islam and Heritage in Europe is based on a workshop held in 2019 at the Centre for Anthropological Research on Museums and Heritage (CARMAH), founded and directed by Sharon Macdonald at the Humboldt University of Berlin. The volume’s twelve contributions reflect a strong connection to the CARMAH group and its anthropological focus, but they also address a larger range of fields where Islamic heritage in Europe is relevant. Interestingly, the disciplines and specializations of the authors are mostly located at the intersections of anthropology, art history, media studies, musicology, political science, and sociology. Islamic studies and (trans-)regional studies are present, but to a lesser degree.

This is in line with the book’s claim to analyze how heritage operates on multiple levels of society, not only on the macro-levels that are usually subsumed under civilizational terms. The central concepts of “heritage,” “Islam,” and “Europe” are, consequently, not taken for granted. On the contrary, the volume explicitly wants to “productively trouble” them (1). In their introduction, the editors explain how the lens of “heritage” can be used as an analytical tool in different or intersecting contexts and can thus become a “powerful mode of inclusion” (7). Such a claim, of course, seems set against the horizon of debates on Islam and Europe in a broader sense. In the wake of migration and globalization, the question of Islam’s relation to and place in European societies has permeated the political realm since at least the last two decades. With this perspective, the volume puts an emphasis on mechanisms of “inclusion” in relation to heritage. While the book also looks at the flipside of this discourse, concerning notions of “exclusion,” this aspect could have been addressed in more depth in the introduction. As recent debates on transcultural and postcolonial heritage histories have shown, European institutions claiming to define, collect, and communicate heritage have traditionally combined an affirmative notion of their own mission with steadfast Eurocentric and universalist thinking. The present volume not only departs from such a narrow notion of heritage, but it also deals very carefully with the concept of Europe.

The introduction lucidly develops how the idea of Europe evolved through the work of postcolonial writers such as Edward Said, Talal Asad, Dipesh Chakrabarty, and Hamid Dabashi, namely, from a concept with a civilizational basis in identity building and othering to a metaphor that runs through modern history and goes beyond a mere geographical or cultural category. From this angle, it becomes clear how a dynamic and critical triangulation of heritage, Islam, and Europe can contribute to both a better understanding of and overcoming colonial legacies. This is where the central value of the volume and its contributions lie, in their aim at understanding histories, examining existing debates, and providing an outlook on best practices and strategies for the present and future. The book is, in one word, conceptualized with a critical as well as an optimistic mind-set. Thus, this volume is relevant for a large field of interdisciplinary research that is not limited to but rather opened up by the anthropological perspective.

How is this achieved in practice? The volume does this through contributions that address the questions of both tangible and intangible heritage. The case studies presented in the chapters thus deal with objects, music, sound, and scent. These manifestations of heritage are considered largely within three frames of reference that make up the three sections of the book: part 1, “Embodied Heritage and Belonging”; part 2, “The Nation-State and Identity Formations”; and part 3, “Categories, Connections and Contemporary challenges.”

The chapters in each of the book’s sections lead the reader through a broad spectrum of contact zones between Europe and Islam by addressing contexts already canonical to the fields of Islamic studies, such as the Ottoman Empire, while also considering realms that have often been perceived as geographically or historiographically more peripheral, such as Muslim communities in Russia. Contributions include Peter McMurray’s “Cemetery Poetics: The Sonic Life of Cemeteries in Muslim Europe,” Jesko Schmoller’s “The Here and Now and the Hereafter: Engaging with Fragrant Realities of Muslim-Minority Russia,” and Banu Karaca’s “The Materialities and Legalities of Forgetting: Dispossession and the Making of Turkey’s (Post-)Ottoman Heritage.” Methodologically, these chapters connect to recently thriving fields of scholarship that explore the senses in Islam or the (after)lives of empires. Altogether, the volume covers a wide geographical range of European-Muslim heritage-scapes—of course, not in a comprehensive sense, but in a way that exemplarily represents constellations of heritage, Islam, and Europe in their multilayered diversity. At the same time, the editors emphasize the trans-local character of the global Muslim community that goes beyond the limitations of territorialization.

Museums play a central role in at least five of the book’s chapters. This includes the last one, “Re-framing Islam? Potentials and Challenges of Participatory Initiatives in Museums and Heritage,” which is co-authored by the editors with CARMAH members Christine Gerbich and Rikke Gram. Though not explicitly labeled as such, this chapter can be considered a conclusion where the constellation points of the book are fully connected. Whereas the introduction emphasizes a critical understanding of the concepts “Europe” and “heritage,” this final, short but dense chapter’s vantage point is “Islam.” Taking its cue from Judith Butler’s argument about “framing,” the authors ask how the notion of Islam is theoretically framed in heritage discourses in order “to draw attention to the contexts or narratives within which Islam is presented, and thus to how Islam is, variously, defined” (202).

The question of how Islam is understood and, indeed, framed in European contexts is a common one that runs throughout the entire volume. With an eye on future practices, the final chapter makes this guiding thread particularly tangible through a focus on three case studies of contemporary, or relatively recent, museum initiatives in Germany that represent the changing and politically entangled approaches of museums to Islam. In this chapter, “framing” is not only understood as a top-down and institutional process, but as one with many layers and agents, including strategies for contesting established institutional notions of heritage. This leads to an important and timely discussion of the traditional narratives and the contemporary functions of Islamic art collections, particularly in Europe. Historically, since their creation in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, these art collections have been a major venue for the framing of Islam and its communities through an affirmative and idealistic, but also often stereotypical, focus on art and aesthetics. Departing from this approach, the authors in this volume ask how such art collections can play a role for Muslims and Islam in the contemporary world. Always taking its cue from various discourses on Islam in relationship to Europe, the volume makes clear how the presence of Islam in the region is not only limited to recent or past migrations, but also includes many other instances of coexistence and encounter, from the historical presence of Islam in Andalusian Spain to its prominence in the western parts of the former Ottoman Empire. Herein lies one of the strongest and most innovative qualities of this entire volume, the way it negotiates Islamic cultures in the contemporary condition, with a historical foundation but without relegating them to an Orientalist view of the past.

This observation is particularly interesting when read from an art historical point of view: In Islamic art history, there is an important body of critical scholarship on Islamic art, art history, and collecting history, which while largely invested in understanding historical constellations of framing Islam and Muslim cultures has certainly also paved the way for emerging contemporary questions. Mirjam Brusius’s chapter, “Connecting the Ancient and the Modern Middle East in Museums and Public Space,” is a good example of the benefits of a diachronic perspective that takes into account the historiography on art and museums. Wendy Shaw’s chapter, “From Postcoloniality to Decoloniality, from Heritage to Perpetuation: The Islamic at the Museum,” also lends a historical perspective to the question of what Islam means for the very recent past and the future, by understanding heritage as a conceptual and material link between past and present. These examples show how a historical and historiographic focus can play an important role in addressing questions related to the present and future.

These chapters by Brusius and Shaw are connected to an established body of critical historiographic scholarship in the field of Islamic art history that is, however, only marginally acknowledged throughout the book. In other words, the book’s leading discipline is clearly anthropology, and not one related to history. This is not to be held against the volume, but it leads to an important observation: the publication—though international in scope and highly relevant for international readers—is also, in many ways, rooted in German discourses on Islam and heritage. The field of Islamic art history was significantly shaped in Germany throughout the twentieth century. Since the early 2000s the field has seen interesting methodological and institutional developments, including critical perspectives on the imperial and entangled aspects of its own legacy. Yet, over the past decade, art historical institutions in Germany have not invested enough to provide the structure and stability necessary for the continued development of Islamic art and cultural history into a self-critical and theoretically founded field that is open to interdisciplinary collaboration. For instance, despite being a city that boasts some of the world’s most prominent collections of Islamic art, Berlin-based university professorships in Islamic art history have been limited to a single, temporary (and nonrenewable) position. Students and scholars specializing in the arts of Islam and their histories have had to shift their research to other, often more broadly defined, fields when their appointments with fixed-term research groups or projects concluded. Against this backdrop, it is more welcome than ever that such an interdisciplinary book, rooted in anthropology and a Berlin-based institution, endeavors to explore the “pasts, presents, and future possibilities” of a more differentiated understanding of Islam, Muslims, and their heritage in Europe.

Eva-Maria Troelenberg
Heinrich-Heine-Universität Düsseldorf