At Doha’s new Museum of Islamic Art, Youssef Rakha wonders when ‘Islamic’ came to mean ‘antique’.
Last week when I went to preview the new Doha Museum of Islamic Art, it did not occur to me to ask why objects and buildings from different cultures, both secular and religious, are referred to collectively as Islamic (this is true even in Muslim countries). Since the galleries were not yet open even to journalists, I took in what I could of the magnificent exhibits from behind glass doors, took pride in the range and the power of my heritage, and eventually took the plane home.
When I returned, a Western colleague asked me: What is it that makes an art object Islamic – even when it is secular? Works of art and architecture in the West are rarely exhibited as “Christian” – even when they are overtly religious. “It’s generic,” I responded, reflexively: a thing is called Islamic to indicate that it was produced under the rubric of a civilisation, a culture, other than the one predominant today – in many ways the only civilisation now, one that happens to be Christian in origin. Modern and contemporary works by Muslim artists are not usually referred to as “Islamic”, even when they have religious connotations, so the use of the term “Islamic” to refer to objects like chandeliers, statuettes, scientific manuscripts, carpets and other artefacts that have no religious content would suggest that the word, in this context, indicates that these are relics of the past.
That night I recalled the chapter of Istanbul: Memories of the City in which Orhan Pamuk remarks that, while growing up in the republican (hence vehemently secular) upper class of 1950s Turkey, it was unclear to him why he was supposed to reject anything Islamic. The only justification he was offered was that religion, and the religion of the Ottomans specifically, impeded progress. As per the essentially authoritarian dictates of the Father of the Turk, Mustafa Kemal – himself, ironically, a native of Salonika in present-day Greece, with no more claim to Turkic ancestry than any Muslim anywhere in the myriad lands formerly comprising the Ottoman Empire – to be modern, intelligent, educated, evolved, even to be benevolent or respectable, you had to be of the West.
Pamuk never poses the question, but I wonder whether, had the European powers defined themselves explicitly as Christian, Ataturk would have ordered a mass conversion to Protestantism.
As it was, he prohibited the broadcast of Eastern music or Quranic recitation on the radio, closed down the dervish lodges, silenced the azan, disinherited men of religion, and effected the irrevocable divorce of the Ottomans’ direct heirs from the great literary traditions of Farsi and Arabic by switching to the Latin alphabet. He abolished all those incredibly sophisticated turbans, and forcibly replaced the fez, that unique trope of Muslim modernity, with the hat of the common white man.
It was all in the name of progress – and nationalism, another European import, perhaps the most destructive of all. But nationalism (irony of ironies) was not a theory anyone could apply without recourse to religious affiliation. When all was said and done, in the Ottoman scheme of things, nothing unified the Sultan’s Muslim subjects apart from the faith. There were those with their own languages, nationalisms and territories newly granted by the British and the French. But the subjects who remained in Constantinople and Anatolia, those who spoke Arabised and Persianised varieties of the ancient Turkic tongues, had no sense of collective identity or a common ethnic root. The only thing that could qualify them to be citizens of that modern republic to which the First World War reduced the devleti aliya, or the Sublime State, was the religion that they were urged not to practice. To be a good (that is, non-Muslim) Turk, by the logic of the Ata, you must first be a real (that is, Muslim) Turk.
So much for nationalism. Turkey had been on my mind in Qatar because the highlight of the museum, for me, was a firman, or royal decree, of Sulaiman the Magnificent, heir to the combined glories of his father Selim the Grim (who took Egypt) and his great grandfather Mehmed the Conqueror (who took Istanbul). As Caliph, Sulaiman was the closest thing to a worldly embodiment of the deeply moving Quranic verse with which Pamuk prefaced My Name is Red: “To God belongs the East and the West”.
That verse becomes doubly moving once you realise, as a Muslim living in the shadow of post-Christian civilisation, that there was once a time when the predominant culture was that of the faith into which you were born. Under Sulaiman, the word “Islamic” could viably lay claim to the world in the way “Western” does today, normatively categorise it, and in so doing produce such jaw-dropping objects as the scroll of that firman, its bottom quarter sealed with one of the most beautiful images I have seen in my life: the tughra, or abstracted calligraphic monogram, of the Sultan, which manages to compress the words “Sulaiman the son of Selim Shah Khan, victorious forever” into a single sign.
The real question raised by the term “Islamic art” is how Muslims in the contemporary world might strive to be part of the predominant, post-Christian civilisation without losing, à la Ataturk, all that is meaningful to them. Islamic is a difficult framework in which to define your make-up precisely because it is so hard to say how, in an increasingly uniform, identically global world, Muslims might nonetheless positively affirm their identity.
It would have to be in a very subtle way, perhaps through a shift in world view, maybe a willingness to be more catholic at a time when the contemporary world is so mechanically narrow, to make room for contradictions, to understand and accommodate the impulses to violence that have more recently stunted Muslim progress, rather than attempting to exterminate them. Islam, and especially its Ottoman incarnation, demonstrated remarkable scope for tolerance, realism and exchange. How might this repository of constructive memory enrich humanity today?
There are as many responses to this question as there are Muslims, from the most secular to the most devout; and the Doha museum, an initiative to preserve heritage and make it globally accessible in the framework of a Western-style institution, is certainly one of them. But the response this Muslim wants to suggest, in the Sufi tradition of speaking through a veil, is a riddle:
Between the East and the West there is an object in common. It exists in both but can be found whole in neither. It is something that people seek. Once you have it, you will have the power to see human beings, lucidly and insightfully, as human beings, to interact with them in a way that is beneficial to all, and to realise that the rifts between them are mere shadows. Once you have the object, you will find a way to transcend without looking down on the day job, the chores of house, finance and family. The pursuit of fun becomes not an escape from reality but a way of engaging with it. But those who are aware of only the East – or only the West – have no chance of finding the object.
A hint: the answer to the riddle is Islamic.
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