Art is for everyone. This is the egalitarian message of Taschen’s lovely series of art books. The Taschen series includes over thirty books, which are notable for their accessibility, affordability and quality. Each book is a delightful primer, designed to educate and encourage readers to learn about the essence of an art style or period. “Islamic Art” was written by Annette Hagedorn and edited by Norbert Wolf. Hagedorn and Wolf are German scholars specializing in art history and criticism. They aim to illustrate the beauty and diversity of Islamic art through the centuries and across the vast geography of the Islamic world. This is a daunting task, but they succeed by offering representative masterpieces in painting, calligraphy, ceramics, tapestry and carpets from some of the world’s great museums and collections, such as The British Library in London and Topkapi Palace Museum in Istanbul. Hagedorn and Wolf begin by considering the signature form of Islamic artistic expression – calligraphy. “The art form of calligraphy,” they write, “can perhaps be seen as Islamic culture’s most important achievement.” Calligraphy is an act of faith and an expression of reverence for the Holy Qur’an. As the authors note, “The activities of reading and writing are indivisibly linked with the practice of religion, so from the beginning, the art of writing gave rise to exquisite beauty and was much venerated.” They present an excellent example of early Abbasid calligraphy by showing a fragment of a page from the Holy Qur’an, written and decorated in the Kufic (Iraqi) style. One of the most beautiful illustrations the authors feature is a depiction of a group of horsemen awaiting a festival procession from a copy of the Maqamat (“Assemblies”) by Muhammad Al-Hariri (1053-1122) of Basra, illustrated by Yahya bin Mahmud Al-Wasiti. This famous work may be found in the Bibliotheque nationale de France in Paris. It is remarkable for its striking composition, and is characteristic of the artist’s interpretive rendering of his age and culture.
Al-Wasiti’s illustration graces the cover of Princeton historian Bernard Lewis’s influential book, “The Middle East: 2000 Years of History from the Rise of Christianity to the Present Day” (2000).Hagedorn and Wolf also feature many stunning works of art from Egypt, Persia, Afghanistan and Turkey.
All of these are superb examples of the vitality and creativity of numerous cultures rooted in Islam. The authors show how other cultures also influenced the art of Muslims, especially in Persia and India. The grand Ottoman Empire (1299-1922) ruled for centuries across vast territories, and its cross-cultural exchanges shaped its sophisticated art.
Ottoman artists, for example, imitated - and perfected - Chinese color schemes and styles in ceramics. Artistic and intellectual dialogues across cultures did not diminish Islamic civilization. On the contrary, Islamic civilization was the beneficiary of these exchanges. As the great Muslim philosopher, Al-Kindi (c. 801-66), said: “We should not be ashamed to acknowledge truth from whatever source it comes to us, even if it is brought to us by former generations and foreign peoples. For him who seeks the truth there is nothing of higher value than truth itself.” This slender book will inspire us to think more deeply and carefully about history, art and culture. All too often, discussions about these topics become religious or ideological arguments. Art should be evaluated on its own terms and by its own standards. Art can be praise or protest; worship or dissent; it is a social act undertaken to define, reinforce or transform reality.
Hagedorn and Wolf open the door to one of the most beautiful aspects of Islamic civilization - their book is only an introduction, but it an excellent start. Aristotle reminds us that knowledge begins with curiosity. There is a great curiosity about Islamic art and civilization around the world. Many major museums, such as the Louvre in Paris and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, offer exquisite exhibits of art from Islamic cultures. The magnificent new Museum of Islamic Art in Qatar stands as a shining symbol of art preservation.
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia also plans to intensify its efforts to support art history and preservation by opening five new regional museums in the country. These are positive steps in our evolving understanding of human culture. All of our lives are enriched by this constructive process. - SG
Joseph Richard Preville is an American writer living in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.