The definition of Islamic Art – sources and comments

It is quite clear that I am highly interested in the definition of Islamic Art. And of course I am not the only one. Surfing the internet it is possible to find contributions and essays (open-access) asking questions and giving old and new perspectives on an issue that is far from be settled. Recently the discussion seems to have been revived but in fact, it is an old one.

As early as 1976 Oleg Grabar noted that

“it is foolish, illogical and historically incorrect to talk of a single Islamic artistic expression. A culture of thirteen centuries which extended from Spain to Indonesia is not now and was not in the past a monolith, and to every generalization there are dozens of exceptions.”

Grabar, in the same essay, underlines another important limit, too: the Eurocentric perspective.

More than 35 years later, another scholar, Avinoam Shalem, asking “what do we mean when we say ‘Islamic Art’?” underlines the same core issues, among others.

In 35 years (at least) the academic world has not been able to better define Islamic art. Paradigms such as the ‘Unity in Diversity’, the lack of terminology, and the Western/Euro-centric perspective, have not been solved yet.

It is important to trace a bibliography of the discussion around the definition of Islamic art, or better of the critics that a variety of scholars arose against the monolithic image of Islamic art.


S. S. Blair and J. M. Bloom, “The Mirage of Islamic Art: Reflections on the Study of an Unwieldy Field”, in Art Bulletin, 85, 1 (2003), pp. 152-184.
[full article]

O. Grabar, “Reflections on the Study of Islamic Art”, in Muqarnas, 1 (1983), pp. 1-14.
[full article]

O. Grabar, “What Makes Islamic Art Islamic?”, in Islamic Art and Beyond, volume III, Constructing the Study of Islamic Art, Ashgate Publishing Limited, Hampshire 2006. First published in AARP, 9 (1976), pp. 1-3.
[full article]

G. Necipoğlu, ‘The Concept of Islamic Art: Inherited Discourses and New Approaches’, in B. Junod, G. Khalil, S. Weber and G. Wolf, eds, Islamic Art and the Museum, Saqi, London 2012. Reproduced in Journal of Art Historiography, 6 (2012).
[full article]

N. Rabbat, ‘Islamic Architecture as a Field of Historical Enquiry’, AD Architectural Design, 74(6), 2004. Reproduced in Journal of Art Historiography, 7 (2012).
[full article]

N. Rabbat, ‘What is Islamic architecture anyway?’,  in Journal of Art Historiography, 6 (2012).
[full article]

A. Shalem, “What do we mean when we say ‘Islamic art’? A plea for a critical rewriting of the history of the arts of Islam”, in Journal of Art Historiography, 6 (2012).
[full article]

W. Shaw, ‘The Islam in Islamic art history: secularism and public discourse’, in Journal of Art Historiography, 6 (2012).
[full article]


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