Talking about Islamic art is rather like talking about the art of the Khanates. The Imperial Kingdom of Genghis Khan was the largest contiguous empire on earth. But just because different lands and cultures were conquered by Genghis Khan doesn’t mean that there is a significance to grouping their art. The sphere of power of the Muslim Empire stretched from the borders of China and the Indian subcontinent across Central Asia, the Middle East, North Africa, Sicily, and the Iberian Peninsula, and on to the Pyrenees. There needs to be a further rationale for calling art collections from lands conquered or subdued by the forces of Islam “Islamic Art.”
Then why all the impetus, which started in earnest some almost a decade ago, for all the “Islamic Art” openings at prestigious museums, from the Metropolitan Museum of Art to the Victoria and Albert Museum in England? The creation of departments of Islamic art at prestigious universities and museums? The support of prestigious foundations like Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art?
It is political correctness.
The idea is that the kinder, gentler artistic side of Islam needs to be promoted to disabuse the hopelessly bigoted perception, held by various troglodyte crypto-neo-cons, that Islam is an aggressive, imperialist, expansionist, and repressive “religion.” But even at the start of the “Islamic Art” movement there were, as we shall see, art critics who doubted that Islam provided the inspiration or the continuity for collections of art from lands under Muslim control. The push to credit Islam for so-called “Islamic Art” is beginning to look as feeble as the Obama administration’s mandate to the National Aeronautic and Space Administration to showcase the Arab contributions to space exploration.
Writing in 2004, the NYT art critic Souren Melikian had this to say about the ménage of “Islamic Art”:
Refashioning the image of cultures you know precious little about to fit preconceived ideas that suit your purpose is not a good recipe in art history any more than it is in international relations. That is just about what the Western world has been doing for the last hundred years vis-à-vis what it calls “the Islamic world.”
In 2006, as regards contemporary “Islamic Art,” the art critic Holland Cotter, also of NYT, wrote:
By far the most prominent exhibition of contemporary art on the subject yet seen in New York opens today at the Museum of Modern Art. You would never guess that subject, though, from its title – “Without Boundary: Seventeen Ways of Looking” – in which the word Islam does not appear.
All but three of the featured artists were born in some part of the so-called Islamic world: Algeria, Egypt, India, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Pakistan, Palestine and Turkey. But they all live and work in the West and have made their careers in the mainstream international art scene, which means in Europe and the United States. Despite their Western positioning, they are routinely tagged as Islamic artists by an art world addicted to marketable categories.
…Muhammad was no more an art aficionado than was Attila the Hun. The Islamic hadiths forbid artistic expression from music to dance to painting — other than abstract or “Arabesque” designs.
Muslims believe hadiths to be canonical texts of Islam. Muslims believe such hadiths to be authentic utterances of the Islamic prophet, therefore to be obeyed.
Ibn ‘Umar reported Allah’s Messenger (may peace be upon him) having said: Those who paint pictures would be punished on the Day of Resurrection and it would be said to them: Breathe soul into what you have created. (Sahih Muslim vol.3, no.5268)
This hadith has been reported on the authority of Abu Mu’awiya though another chain of transmitters (and the words are): Verily the most grievously tormented people amongst the denizens [inhabitants] of Hell on the Day of Resurrection would be the painters of pictures[.] (Sahih Muslim vol.3, no.5271)
Narrated [Muhammad’s wife] Aisha: “Allah’s Apostle said, ‘The painter of these pictures will be punished on the Day of Resurrection, and it will be said to them, Make alive what you have created.'” (Bukhari vol.9, book 93 no.646)
Narrated Aisha: “The Prophet entered upon me while there was a curtain having pictures (of animals) in the house. His face got red with anger, and then he got hold of the curtain and tore it into pieces. The Prophet said, ‘Such people as paint these pictures will receive the severest punishment on the Day of Resurrection.'” (Bukhari vol.8, book 73, no.130)
The PC thesis of “Islamic Art,” promoted presumably in the interest of inter-cultural respect and combating what is seen as the demonization of Islam, has exploded. We were somehow supposed to accept the meme that he art of the Islamic world was enriched by the influence of Koranic passages extolling art and music and independent scientific investigation, and by contact with Muhammad’s warriors. It is almost as if we are supposed to believe that whenever the illiterate, nomadic warrior tribes of Islam could take a break from the hard work of expanding Dar al Islam by invading infidel lands and demanding dhimmitude or death for kafirs, they would break out their brushes and pallets and produce great works of art.