Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
March 24, 2003
Richard Ettinghausen, Oleg Grabar, and Marilyn Jenkins-Medina Islamic Art and Architecture, 650–1250 New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001. 352 pp.; 150 color ills.; 330 b/w ills. Cloth $75.00 (0300088671)
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As a student in the 1980s, studying for qualifying exams in Islamic art history, I was so desperate to read the first edition of this title in the Pelican History of Art series that I ordered a copy from England months before it was available in the United States. At that time, there were few comprehensive surveys of Islamic art and architecture, and even those reflected a conservative, formalist vision of the subject. The Oleg Grabar and Richard Ettinghausen volume of 1987 conformed to the Pelican guidelines of that era: a firmly chronological narrative with black-and-white illustrations. One could levy many criticisms at that book. At the time, however, it was an extraordinary contribution to the field of Islamic art and architecture, defining the state of the field, and in the sixteen years since its first appearance, scholars have relied on it as an authoritative survey.

When the volume on the later period, The Art and Architecture of Islam, 1250–1800, by Sheila Blair and Jonathan Bloom, was published in 1994 by Yale University Press, Pelican standards had changed markedly, and in comparison Grabar and Ettinghausen’s book seemed to lack vigor and to no longer reflect the state of the field. Additionally, in the decade and a half since the first volume’s publication, many other surveys or general studies on Islamic art and architecture had been produced, such as Robert Hillenbrand’s Islamic Architecture: Form, Function, and Meaning (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994) and Islamic Art and Architecture (London: Thames and Hudson, 1999), Barbara Brend’s Islamic Art (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1991), Robert Irwin’s Islamic Art in Context: Art, Architecture, and the Literary World (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall, in association with Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1997), and Sheila Blair and Jonathan Bloom’s Islamic Arts (London: Phaidon Press, 1997). As a result, the first edition of the Pelican book became prematurely out of date.

The question to ask of the new edition revised by Grabar and Marilyn Jenkins-Madina is whether it reflects the contemporary state of the field. The recently published surveys listed above indicate that the genre is a necessity for historians of Islamic visual culture and that scholars continue to find it an important forum for making broad observations about a field that we still call “Islamic.” In art history, however, overview textbooks are increasingly supplanted by collections of essays that mimic the ubiquitous “readers” compiled each semester by professors. Such collections emphasize multiple points of view rather than overarching interpretations and, by focusing on specific issues and works, avoid the construction of a canon in which, by the process of selection and omission, some art is “privileged” according to the historian’s teleological view, while the rest is relegated to the margins. Such criticisms can fairly be levied at surveys of Islamic art, especially since the term “Islamic” is contentious: Is there a good reason to try to link the arts of the Ghaznavids of Central Asia with Taifa Spain, when the rulers and artists of those distinct and distant areas were only vaguely aware of each other’s existence? Is the principal link joining those societies—the fact that their leaders adhered to the same religion—sufficient grounds for combining them in a survey? Such a designation omits dhimmi (tolerated minority) groups such as the Christians of Spain, who commissioned ceramic vessels and churches in the Islamic, or mudejar, style. The religious definition also cannot adequately address cultural collaboration that ignores religious difference, such as the early mosques of South Asia that use Hindu temple spolia and even adopt ornamental temple features such as amalaka disks to cap mihrab domes. Since many of these hybrid cultural productions were made by an artisanal class of one religion and cultural tradition for the wealthy ruling patrons of another, one can ask to what extent the term “Islamic” is a religious or class designation.

Nonetheless, as a professor teaching undergraduates who often do not even know the location of Damascus or what a mosque is, I believe that students need the connective tissue that the chronological explanations of surveys provide. But we can try to problematize the periods and categories with which we organize history, and the new edition of Islamic Art and Architecture, 650–1250 addresses this issue by moving away from the more rigid chronological organization of the first, with its dynastic subdivisions that were incomprehensible to a novice reader, and by introducing clearer divisions in which period, place, and artistic categories are more thoughtfully balanced. The new edition is divided in two parts: the early period (ca. 650–ca.1000) and the medieval period (ca.1000–1250). These are organized geographically as Eastern, Western, and Central lands. Within these subheadings, the works are then sectioned in the categories of architecture, object, and book. Painting is divided between “Architecture and Architectural Decoration,” and “The Art of the Book.” The concept of “minor art” is thankfully abandoned in favor of the designation “The Art of the Object.”

Beginning with the map of the Islamic world, it is clear that the concept of what comprises the regions and its arts is very different in the new volume. Whereas the first edition’s view of the Islamic world was so narrow that India lost its eastern half, the new map places Islam in the expanded context of Europe, Asia, and Africa. Each of the six geographical sections of the volume is preceded by an area map that indicates cities and major topographical features—an important acknowledgement that visual culture and particularly architecture respond to the specific climatic and geographical characteristics of a place.

In other respects as well, the new edition presents a fresh vision of the Islamic world. There are references to gardens—a major art form in the Iberian peninsula, Syria, Iraq, and Central Asia—as well as a clearly articulated acknowledgement of the role of Islamic art in non-Muslim cultures. Chapter 8, which discusses Christian Bible pages, Coptic and Armenian churches, and textiles, glass, and metalwork made for “export,” is an exciting addition that reflects a contemporary approach to the complexity of medieval culture.

The minimal treatment of India in the first edition was regrettably unrevised for the new book. Only the Qutb mosque complex and minar are discussed, and no mention is made of important early sultanate mosques at Mehrauli and Ajmer or tombs such as Sultan Ghari and Iltutmish. The Pelican series instead assigns the sultanate period of South Asia to the Blair and Bloom volume that covers the period 1250–1800, and this is an area where the Pelican division of Islamic history is awkward.

The new edition is profusely illustrated in color and black-and-white. Some illustrations are reproduced badly (fig. 471 is dark; figs. 434 and 472 are blurred), but overall the quality of reproduction is vastly superior to the first edition. There are some fascinating additions: fig. 282, a stone mold for pressing the leather of a book binding or pouch, shows that the exquisite ornament of the book arts was not limited to parchment and paper. I would have preferred to see some illustrations relegated to black-and white (figs. 137, 138, 456, and 469) in order to allow color reproductions of buildings where glazed tile and mosaic had dramatic visual impact (fig. 16, the Great Mosque of Damascus; fig. 127, the Great Mosque of Cordoba; and fig. 227, the Gunbad-i Qabud of Maragha), but these are minor quibbles.

The only area where the book fails is its bibliography, which is neither up-to-date nor a representative list of major works. Additionally, the organization is inconsistent: for example, whereas exhibition catalogues are generally listed by editor, the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s 1992 catalogue, Al-Andalus: The Art of Islamic Spain, edited by Jerrilynn D. Dodds, is listed by title. A glance at the list of titles on Egypt and Spain reveals that the new edition does not succeed in its aim to include only “seminal” works: the catalogue by Vivian Mann, Thomas Glick, and J. Dodds, Convivencia: Jews, Muslims, and Christians in Medieval Spain (New York: The Jewish Museum, 1992), is omitted, which contradicts the inclusive spirit of Chapter 8; although a book on the minor Iberian city of Denia is included in the bibliography, the city itself is absent from the text in the Pelican volume; and there is unnecessary repetition so that both of Bargebuhr’s Alhambra publications are included, although the earlier article was subsumed into the later book. A rather specialized translation of disparate texts on Madinat al-Zahra’ is listed, and yet my own publications on Madinat al-Zahra’ as well as Marianne Barrucand and Achim Bednorz’s useful Moorish Architecture (New York: Taschen, 1992) are left out. Many other significant new works are absent, such as Paula Sanders’s Ritual, Politics, and the City in Fatimid Cairo (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1994), Irene Bierman’s Writing Signs: The Fatimid Public Text (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), parts I and II of Caroline Williams’s “The Cult of `Alid Saints” in Muqarnas 1 (1983) and 3 (1985), and Nuha Khoury’s “The Mihrab: From Text to Form” (International Journal of Middle East Studies, 1998). Overall, many older works, which cannot be justified as foundational texts, are listed even though they have been superseded in the past two decades.

Despite these lamentable weaknesses in coverage and bibliographic information, the new edition is a more interesting and more beautiful book than the original and ensures the place of the Pelican as the single most authoritative source for the history of Islamic art and architecture through the mid-thirteenth-century.

D. Fairchild Ruggles
University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign

Please send comments about this review to editor.caareviews@collegeart.org.