An essay on the refurbished “Islamic art” galleries of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art (published in the National)
During the past decade of fulminating and fretting, those of us who live in Europe and North America have become quite familiar with the term “the Islamic world”. Rarely do a few words try to say so much. The phrase scrapes by as a kind of shorthand, an easy way of fusing geography and sociology.
It allows us to speak in the singular about a great profusion of peoples and places. The “Islamic world” is not simply a space where 1.5 billion Muslims happen to live, but a space that can be understood in generalisations. We hear of the Islamic world almost always in reference to its political and social problems: the plight of democracy in the Islamic world, the crisis of women’s rights in the Islamic world, the rise of extremism in the Islamic world, and so forth.
The Brookings Institution, a leading Washington think-tank, maintains a division to study the thorny subject of “US relations with the Islamic world”. This broad remit still seems logical to many politicians and commentators – never mind the diversity of Muslim communities and countries across the globe, or the vastly different levels of religiosity and freedom from Indonesia to Somalia to Morocco.
Strangely, the “Islamic world” has no real counterpart in the 21st century. It is untenable now to speak of a “Christian world”, or a “Buddhist world”, or even a “Hindu world”. In each case, the adjective proves entirely insufficient, even misleading in understanding the noun – can millions of people be distilled to their faith? And yet the “Islamic world” has proved a more resilient concept, routinely invoked by Muslims and non-Muslims alike.
Some institutions are wary of the vagueness of this language. Eight years ago, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art closed the galleries then known as the “Islamic Wing” for renovation. They were reopened this November under a new name. Visitors now pour into the redesigned permanent collection of “Art from the Arab Lands, Turkey, Iran, Central Asia and Later South Asia”.
What the galleries’ new name has lost in brevity it gains in precision. There is safety in inelegant fact. A monolithic Islam does not loom over the exhibition. The collection’s numerous books, rugs, and pots – the holy trinity of much Middle Eastern and South Asian art – appear as representatives of particular periods and places, from early medieval Spain to Mughal South Asia. As you move through the various galleries, you travel from region to region, dynasty to dynasty. The emphasis here lies in the diversity and complexity within the cultural heritage of Islam. Navina Haidar, the curator of the collection, insists that the Islamic world is “not one world, but many; not another world, but our own”.
Anybody should want to claim the exquisite world of this exhibition as their own. To roam the galleries is to drift from wonder to wonder. A 12th-century incense burner from Seljuk Iran is shaped like a lion, engraved in fine filigree. When used, it would breathe smoke through its bronze teeth. Turn the corner and you come to a cavernous room filled only with carpets, each several centuries old. They tumble from ceiling to floor like waterfalls in imperious red and gold cascades. Elsewhere, an astrolabe from medieval Yemen demonstrates both aesthetic and scientific accomplishment, with inscriptions dancing over the careful gradations of the cosmos. The viewer can easily get lost in all the shimmering ornamentation. There need be no reason to immerse yourself in the collection apart from surrendering to its undeniable beauty.
Of course, it would be silly to pretend that there is no unifying logic at work, that somehow Islam can be erased from the framework of the exhibition. The objects on display were all produced in the cultural centres of Muslim-dominated societies over a period of 1,300 years, beginning with the first caliphate. Magnificent editions of the Quran gleam in nearly every room, testament to the spread of the religion across Eurasia. One text, pinioned open in the first room of the exhibition, is the size of an adult torso. Another, embossed with gold leaf, could fit comfortably in your palm.
The written word, so central to all the Abrahamic faiths, threads through the entirety of the collection. You can follow the journey of the Arabic script over time and space, from the sturdy Kufic of 9th-century Mesopotamia, to the floating Nastaliq of medieval Persian courts, to the grace and command of the signature of the emperor Suleiman the Magnificent, who presided over the apogee of Ottoman Turk grandeur. Suleiman traced his descent to the steppes of Central Asia, ruled from the old Byzantine cosmopolis of Constantinople, and lorded over a polyglot and multi-confessional empire of Turks, Slavs, Greeks, Jews and others. And yet the imprimatur of his power lives on most vividly in the curves of the Arabic script and his dutiful invocation of the Prophet Mohammed and of God.
At the same time, many, if not most of the objects on display have little to do with Islam, piety, religious affiliation or fervour. A playful, almost secular spirit infuses much of the exhibition, its emphasis on the art’s dynamic character and openness to external influences. This is in part the deliberate choice of the curators. The renovated galleries contain only a tenth of the 12,000 objects in the possession of the museum’s department of Islamic art. Curators agonised over which pieces to include and exclude. A few different decisions could have drastically altered its vision of Islamic cultural history.
But the exhibition’s make-up also reflects how so much of the cultural production of the “Islamic world” was not self-consciously religious. One of the tricky consequences of accepting the genre of “Islamic art” is that the very category often forces us to interpret cultural objects as expressions of faith, affirmations of Islamic identity. This was evidently not always the case. Take, for instance, the collection’s preponderance of images, particularly manuscript illuminations. Thanks to recent episodes like the 2005 Danish cartoon riots and the firebombing of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo this November, Muslims are painted in the West as radically intolerant of images. More broadly, varied humanism is said to be the preserve of western art, rigid subservience that of Islamic art. The rich iconographic traditions of many Muslim societies across Eurasia belie such a simplistic notion. A stream of illuminations runs through the exhibition. For this visitor at least, they comprised the most arresting sights on display.
A range of subjects leap from the old pages. At the siege of Baghdad, Mongol archers shoot arrows at refugees trying to swim in vain across the Euphrates. From an Arab medical textbook, a long-haired doctor stirs a bubbling cauldron. A sneaky voyeur, peeking from a tower window, watches women bathe in a red Persian palace; the women tug at each other’s hair, their clothes strewn and tangled by the side of the pool. Images from various editions of the Shahnama – the Book of Kings, the Iranian national epic and a ubiquitous presence in the exhibition – chronicle the deeds of pre-Islamic warriors and wizards. Elsewhere, two Indian water buffaloes fight, heads bowed, muscles rippling. Frantic bystanders whirl around them, men in awe of the very natural world they are struggling to contain. Over the centuries, the painting lost much of its inlaid gold leaf, leaving its figures all the more beautifully rendered, their lines of movement and expression deepened in the ochre dust.
The illuminated manuscripts reveal not only carnal, historical and mythical imaginings, but a deeper world of cultural mingling and change.
During the rule of the Mongol Ilkhanids in 13th-century Iran, Chinese styles crept into Persian miniature: elongated eyes and round faces become the standard of beauty, while natural scenes take on the tremulous quality of Chinese landscapes. Another illumination shows a European-style ship, its rigging, masts and sails meticulously traced, with the biblical story of the “seven sleepers” inscribed on its hull. Moving further east, illuminated miniature reached its most sophisticated heights in the ateliers of the Mughal rulers of South Asia. Unlike the heavy profundity of Safavid Persian art, Mughal paintings tend to be lighter and airier, their figures more freely in motion, shaded with delicate textures and bolder colours. In many cases, Mughal artists were not Muslims but locals of other religious backgrounds, schooled in both Persian and indigenous traditions of painting. Their subject matter was often decidedly non-Muslim. One miniature in the collection depicts the Buddha in a moment of epiphany seated beneath a tree.
In one of the final galleries, you find an image from a Persian biography of Krishna – a central figure in Hinduism – composed and illuminated in the workshops of the 16th-century Mughal emperor Akbar. The blue-skinned Krishna holds up the mountain of Govardhan with one hand to protect human beings from the vengeful rain of the sky god Indra. It is a marvellous, uncanny scene. Deer and leopards quizzically leap up and down the ravines of the mountain. Beneath it, men, women and children of all colours, facial types, beard lengths and turban styles huddle together.
The scene is a fitting conclusion to a tour of the exhibition. Though imagining an episode from Hindu mythology, it offers an apt metaphor for the Islam the curators seek to represent; what may seem from the outside an implacable monolith actually contains a world of restless, teeming difference.
Kanishk Tharoor is a “Writer in Public Schools” fellow at New York University.