“The Theory of Islamic Art”, by I. M. Hanash

I. M. Hanash, The Theory of Islamic Art, Aesthetic Concept and Epistemic Structure, The International Institute of Islamic Thought, London – Washington 2017.

When dealing with Islamic art, it is good, from time to time, to step back, and look at the bigger picture. Going from the particular – the object studied – to the general – what is Islamic art as a whole – can be tricky and the one does not exist without the other

: you cannot study an object without having a wider understanding of its context of production, and you cannot understand the general context without having some examples at hand.

This is why lately I have become more and more interested in the theory of Islamic art: what is Islamic art, what is the underlying theory, how it should be approached. The synopsis of The Theory of Islamic Art, by Professor Idhan Mohammed Hanash reads ‘Why has Islamic art evolved as it has, what form does it take, what is the logic underlying it?’. These were exactly the questions I was asking myself when I bought the abridged version of the book and decided to start reading it. And now I am ready to share my impressions.

The position of the author in the wide debate on the aesthetic theory of Islamic art is not clearly stated from the start of the book but can be inferred here and there. Hanash’s point of view though can be summarized in one sentence that the author puts, oddly enough, in the conclusive chapter of the book:

“In response to denigrating Orientalist attitudes toward the Islamic tradition as it relates to the aesthetic, a number of contemporary Muslim scholars set out to demonstrate the existence of an authentic Islamic aesthetic that could provide the needed foundation for a theory of Islamic art.” (p. 78)

coverThe book has a fascinating structure, even evocative in a sense. As I said, Professor Hanash never states it overtly, but his position is strong and creeps between the lines of the book, and in the structure of the chapters itself. The book comprises, after the introduction, five parts: four chapters and the conclusion.
While the first chapter deals with an exhaustive (and occasionally exhausting) dissertation over technical terms used in the field of Islamic art, their Western origins, and the difficulties the Arabic translators had to face, the second chapter focuses on the theories that fall under the label ‘Unity in Diversity’.
The central part, chapter 3, is the longest and the only one that deals exclusively with presenting an organic (Islamic) theory of the aesthetic in Islamic art. The theory presented is the one proposed by Isma’il R. al Faruqi, and evidently, it is also the one fully embraced by the author. The sources of this theory are to be found in the realm of the Islamic tradition: the Qur’an, the hadiths, the Sunna of the Prophet.
In the following chapter, the fourth, wants primarily to adopt the previously exposed theory to the study of the material art. The author chooses for the undertake the best-known and most distinctive product of Islamic art: calligraphy.
The symbolism of this construction of the book looks great to me: even if the author stands behind the scene and seems to simply propose a series of theories over the aesthetic dimension of Islamic art, this structure allows him to make an even stronger statement, to take an even more substantial position on the topic.

The book is not free from shortcomings though. First and foremost, it is far from being an easy reading. Aesthetic theories are hard to understand, and their proximity to philosophy makes them even more obscure for the general public. Still, in the foreword, the editor points out how this abridged text ‘is being published to widen discourse’ with the hope that ‘both general and specialist readers alike will benefit from the perspective offered’ (p. viii). In fact, the book is hard to read in many parts, the concepts are expressed too briefly to be fully understood, and the vocabulary is too technical. Not a book you can enjoy in the park.

In the same foreword, the editor explains that ‘the abridged edition contains far fewer notes than the original book’ and the ones that were retained are the most needed for clarifications (p. viii). Well, in the whole edition you can find only one single note, at page 70, in the only place where, personally, I did not feel any need for clarification. Notes are painfully lacking, even more, when the author makes questionable statements. For example, right at the beginning of the book Professor Hanash provides a quotation of ‘some modern scholars of Islamic art’ according to which ‘Islamic Arab civilization felt no need to produce a theoretical, methodological discourse around beauty on which we might draw in discussing the aesthetic foundations of Islamic art’. Who said this, in which context, what was the conclusion of the scholar that said this? No notes, no hints.

I have perceived the same shortage of notes in the chapter dealing with the calligraphy: I enjoyed a lot reading about the concept of ‘calligraphic image’ and the communicative aspect of calligraphy, but I felt uncomfortable when the author a-critically states that ‘the first Islamic emblem understood in the artistic and communicative sense was the noble prophetic seal’, providing a description of the seal (nowadays sadly connected with Isis black flag) and a historical account of its usage. I felt quite uncomfortable as from a professor I would have never expected a dissertation on the emblems in Islamic art based on an object, such as the seal of the Prophet, whose appearance has been strongly debated among scholars. Again, I needed notes, I needed references, and sources.

In general, though, the lack of notes is not that terrible, and the dissertation of Professor Hanash is enjoyable and interesting, particularly when it comes to the second chapter, where the author presents the variety of theories that go under the general title of ‘Unity in Diversity’. In this chapter, the phrase acquires more hues and meanings: unity as the heart of Islamic life, diversity as the essence of art, the different focuses on unity in diversity and diversity in unity, and lastly, the unity in diversity as perceived in Islamic tradition. A chapter I urge everyone to read and read again.

The book is interesting and has the merit to challenge perspectives, and this can only be positive. I have personally found it questionable, but this is what theories are made for: to be questioned. It is not an innovative research, and from time to time, the structure and the overall composition reminded me of an old reference book. Because this is what it primarily is: a reference book. Even if the use of purely traditional Islamic sources is intriguing and something quite unexpected, the resulting discourse sounds like borrowed from someone else And it is, namely by Isma’il R. al Faruqi, whose theory is hardly debated, in any of its tenets.

Worth reading, for sure, but not a breathtaking experience to me.

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