Oleg Grabar’s Vocation as The Historian of Islamic Art


Parvez Manzoor


Of all the academic disciplines aimed at the ‘understanding’ of Islam that have arisen within the Western worldview, the study of Islamic art appears at first to be the most innocuous. Apparently unencumbered by doctrinal and confessional sensibilities, it even shows great promise for the emergence of a truly cross-cultural and universal form of scholarship. The presumably asymbolic and aniconic nature of Muslim visual art, it is generally held, makes it ideally suited for non-partisan inquiry. Thus, despite the inconvenient fact that the entire field has been the exclusive preserve of outsiders (non-Muslims; even non-Middle-Easterners), the foreign scholars’ confidence in their own ability and suitability has seldom been faltering. On the contrary, it is adduced that this anomalous situation, that no degree of cultural self-analysis supplements outsiders' critical examination (read: value-judgement), is actually conducive to academic progress. Or, as Richard Ettinghausen, surveying the state of his discipline some thirty-five years ago, expressed with great assurance : "It was, however, more than twelve hundred years after the rise of Islam before the arts of the Muslim world were critically studied. Actually, even today this study is only in its infancy. Yet for the European and American student it is a source of great satisfaction that in this field of research the West did pioneering work for the East, and tried, for the first time, not only to collect all available historical and archaeological data, but also to evolve criteria with which to judge the works of Muslim artists" ("Islamic Art and Archaeology", in Near Eastern Culture and Society, ed. by T.C. Young; Princeton, 1951, p 17. The first emphasis has been supplied by the author, the second added by this reviewer).

Things, however, are not quite that simple any longer: Muslims since then have started studying their artistic heritage, or at least have developed some sensitivity towards it; the discipline of Islamic art history itself has witnessed a change of guard, and somehow the twain have been brought together by the vagaries of our ‘ecumenical’ times. At last the academics have found a Maecenas in the Agha Khan whose patronage of Islamic architecture has resulted in the establishment of special chairs both at Harvard and MIT, as well as the initiation of a prestigious architectural award which has supplied much stimulus and impetus to, inter alia , the contemporary theorizer. Muqarnas, the annual of Islamic art and architecture, is one visible, welcome fruit of this patronage and collaboration. (Muqarnas: An Annual on Islamic Art and Architecture. Ed. by Oleg Grabar. Vol. I, Yale University Press, New Haven & London, 1983. Pp. 209.)

The new mood is aptly personified by the man who after Ettinghausen has indisputably established himself as the doyen of Islamic art historians, namely, Oleg Grabar, the Agha Khan Professor of Islamic art at Harvard and the editor and progenitor of Muqarnas. Judging by him, it appears that the ‘pre-Fall’ state of blissful innocence and isolation is definitely over for the academic scholar. After two decades of ‘pure’, though peerless, scholarship, Grabar has involved himself practically with the contemporary realities of Islamic architecture in such a way that his backward looking scholarship, so to speak, has acquired a participatory aspect as well. For him this ‘exhilarating but daunting’ experience has entailed not only developing sensitivity to the issues of ‘indigenous’ interest and the demands of Muslims asking the historian ‘un-academic’ questions, but also reviewing the achievements and failures of his discipline from a unique vantage-point. The result of all the academic experience, practical involvement, a keen intellect and the historian's inalienable perception is a synoptic statement that is a paradigm of civility and courtesy yet does not eschew scholarly reprimand and contention when in order.

Significantly, Grabar starts by questioning the assumptions and practices of his predecessors. Making no excuses for the ‘personal side’ of the scholarly vocation ‘that shape our understanding of Islamic art’, he finds it legitimate to investigate the attitudes, and prejudices, that have traditionally informed this discipline. Many challenging observations follow in the wake of this inquiry. First of all, there is the recognition that the traditional routes that led individual scholars to the study of this art form, viz. archaeology, art-market and Orientalism, invariably ended in the blind-alleys of the prejudices of the Semiticist, the classicist and the medievalist. The interest of these scholars being in antiquarianism, their point of departure in medieval studies and their fascination with origins, Grabar points out, gave the discipline its characteristic bias towards the more distant, Arabic, past of Islam. (All this in his opinion would have been permissible, however, had it merely been made explicit.) Then, one finds the admission that the highly refined instrument of the study of Islamic art, its traditional methodology, has been ‘profoundly Western’. This prompts Grabar to pose a very disconcerting question, namely, ‘whether any culture can be meaningfully understood through the application of techniques developed outside it'. (our emphasis). Clearly, Unlike most academics, Grabar aspires to some theory of meaning in art.

Before answering it for himself, however, the learned inquisitor embarks on a survey of the available literature, displaying no illusions about the scholarly limitations of the works that claim to be comprehensive or introductory accounts of ‘Islamic art’. One incisive point after an other follows in rapid succession, i.e., the celebrated Propyläen Kustgeschichte (J Sourdel-Thomine, B Spuler, etc.: Die Kunst des Islams, Berlin, 1973) is medievalist history; Papadopoulo's deliberately ahistorical approach (L`Islam et l`art musulman; Paris, 1976; English tr. New York, 1979) deals with ‘an abstraction that calls itself Islam’; in Burckhardt (Art of Islam, Language and Meaning; London, 1976) ‘dogma’ triumphs over ‘methodology’ and so forth. Neither is there any mincing of words about the less perceptive approaches that hide their intellectual poverty behind the masks of regional or national prides. In sum, Grabar the conscientious, albeit fastidious, historian presents his argument against ahistorical, essentialist scholarship in the form of a very cogent indictment. Likewise, Grabar the contemporary partner to inter-cultural dialogue makes a strong case against the ‘medievalist bias’ of his discipline which has chiefly been perpetrated by his Orientalist predecessors.

One of Oleg Grabar's salient contribution to his discipline has been his questioning of the protean concept of ‘Islamic art’. Long before the crusading fury of, say, Edward Said made Orientalism a byword of political complicity and scholarly prejudice, Grabar had already raised (see, The Formation of Islamic Art, Yale and London, 1974) formidable objections against the Orientalist epistemological propensity to the reification of Islamic history. The artistic heritage of the Muslim peoples is too vast and varied, spanning numerous historical epochs and encompassing enormous geographical expanses, Grabar has also untiringly insisted, to be meaningfully conceptualized under a single rubric, be it as general, amorphous and attractive as ‘Islamic art’. In other words, he tactfully denies the ‘unity of Islamic artistic tradition’ which is accepted axiomatically, so to speak, by all Muslim scholars - and many outsiders as well. Nonetheless, given the fact that all his scholarly discourse takes place within the broad generalization of ‘Islamic culture’, it would be truer to say that Grabar is still searching for demonstrative proofs, both in the form of empirical evidence and intellectual theory, that would allow him to express the intuitively experienced unity of Islamic art in a ‘meaningful’ way.

Even after his participatory involvement with the contemporary Muslim scene, as it were, Grabar continues to proclaim and preserve his identity and integrity as an outsider. Wisely and humbly, thus, he sets explicit limits as to what may be permissible for him to probe and inquire. As a historian, for instance, he does not feel qualified to answer the normative question of the nature of Islamic art or that of the aesthetic links the contemporary Muslim culture has with its past, because ‘ultimately it requires choices and decisions that derive from one's own search for identity’. The non-Muslim, he maintains with disarming candour, ‘at best can provide information and perhaps some comparable experience, but he cannot supply the precepts that derive from membership in a Muslim culture’. We must profusely thank Professor Grabar for this gracious insight that is also a candid confession of his objectivity.

By setting definite limits for the non-Muslim historian, the Harvard Professor thus puts the role of historical research within the supposedly non-normative parameters of Western academism in its proper relationship with the Muslim culture's own ‘search for contemporary identity’. What is the nature of the historian's vision and in which way can it help, modify or even supplant the Muslim's own probing of his soul, as it were, then becomes an issue of capital importance. After all, no one may suggest that just because the historian is unwilling to deliberate issues of norms, or is unable to arbitrate question of values, the search itself is ‘meaningless’. Surely the Muslim's involvement with his past can neither be abandoned nor abdicated in favour of the historian's method, if this is all the historian has to offer. In sum, given the awareness that the insider-outsider dichotomy is relevant to trans-cultural, even intra-cultural, hermeneutics, and that these and a host of other questions require deliberation from both sides, no scholar of Islamic art may eschew the question of personal commitment, worldview and bias any longer.

It is to Grabar's credit that having renounced the unity of Islamic art, or at least having left its search in abeyance for the time being, and having set limits for the outsider's involvement with issues impinging on faith, norms and values, he does not lead us to the cul-de-sac of absolute relativism. From the vantage-point of a broad humanism and responsible ecumenism, he is still able to propose a scholarly method which, he hopes, could be acceptable to insiders and outsiders both. His first assumption, or rather plea, is that the normative and reflective questions of the essential meaning of Islamic art be kept out of the academic discipline. Anyone interested in the legacy of the Muslim artistic tradition must, in his view, pre-occupy himself with the questions of ‘intrinsic, time-bound meaning’ of a particular Islamic monument. (The disconcerting possibility that the historian's ability to decipher the ‘intrinsic, time-bound meaning’ of a bygone age may be seriously delimited by the intrinsic, time-bound nature of his own existence, however, is not a subject of reflection with Grabar!)

With the judicious utilization of Muslim literary sources and working more in collaboration with the general historian, Grabar is confident that our knowledge of Islamic art would acquire a greater degree of specificity and sophistication. Muqarnas in fact is part of Grabar's continuing effort to prove this point. No doubt, by the canons of ‘traditional’ scholarship, the articles included in the journal display a high level of scholarly competence and, as nearly all of them are written by Grabar's own students, constitute a tribute to the vision and dedication of the old master himself. The Journal's epistemological Aristotelianism nonetheless is disturbing and its lack of thematic unity a legitimate reason for not attempting a synopsis in these pages.

To demonstrate the validity of his method, however, Grabar himself takes the case of Nishapur pottery and, by a collateral extrapolation of Wilkinson and Bulliet's well-known findings, he is skillfully able to demonstrate that we could speak about not only ‘a conscious attempt to create a visual language adapted to the internal complexities of the society’, but even of the ‘close relationship between social and religious alliances and visual choices’. Though much of the evidence is circumstantial and the reasoning conjectural, nonetheless a plausible thesis does emerge which posits that ‘visual analyses, if carried out for sufficiently large group of objects, can provide us with a human dimension which can then be related to the great social and intellectual struggles and debates of the early centuries of Islam’. The identification of certain ceramic wares to the theological-social ‘ordering of the society’ of the ninth-tenth century Nishapur is indeed a stimulating hypothesis and it does enhance our ‘knowledge’ of the historical Muslim culture beyond the commonplace. However - if and when reasonably established - the wider question, how is one to construe the significance of this ‘fact’, remains unanswered. Needless to say, in the ‘interpretation’ of this ‘data’, the historian's viewpoint is as arbitrary and dogmatic as that of the believer.

Throughout this extremely gratifying and rewarding essay, words like ‘meaning’, ‘meaningful’, ‘history’, ‘the historian’ (the definite article is the author's usual choice) abound. Though Grabar is preoccupied with the question of meaning (much relief from the conventional, vacuous, analysis of form!), he takes it for granted that only history provides the key to it, or more precisely, it is the historian who is the final arbiter of meaning (one might even call it truth!). Ignoring for the time being the nagging voice within us which insists that ‘the historian’ of Grabar's epistemology is by no means an ahistorical being with no cultural moorings or prejudices, that it is merely an academic cover for the metaphysically fundamentalist modernist and the culturally supremacist Westerner, we still have to reckon with the fact that Grabar's sophisticated argument rests on the unproven, for us equally ‘dogmatic’, assumption that ‘history’ is a sovereign concept and that it is autonomous of all other human constructs. For our part, we could claim with equal certainty that it is not history that supplies meaning to existence (or its manifestations like art) but history itself is a human construct evolved from human concern for meaning. In other words: History does not provide meaning, but meaning creates history. Historical meaning, at any rate, is always embedded within a matrix of trans-historical values and norms.

Hence, to the seminal question about the nature and essence of Islamic art, alas the empiricist has no answer. The question of how is the preserve of the historian, the empiricist, but the question of what precedes it. Like the owl of Minerva, the metaphysician is already present at the dawn of epistemology long before the arrival of the historian. The how answer, furthermore, can never disenfranchise the what question. At best, it may corroborate and clarify the vision of the seeker of what, but it cannot supersede it. Moreover, if it be true, as claimed by Erich Heller, that ‘all historical generalizations are the defeat of the empiricist and there is no history without them’ (The Disinherited Mind, New York, 1975. Pp. 184-5.) then why single out generalizations about ‘Islam’ and its history? Similarly, if it is permissible to question, in the manner of Grabar, the epistemological validity of ‘an abstraction that calls itself Islam’, then what about the protean ghosts like ‘form’ ‘art’ and even ‘beauty’, that are the very daemons of the art historian? Wouldn’t a strict application of the empiricist’s method dissolve them into meaningless nonentities? Physician heal thyself!

If the history of Islamic art is to achieve a genuine cross-cultural and ecumenical dimension, the what of it must also be reflected upon by the insider just as the how of it is being looked into by outsiders. And that goes even for Muqarnas and Oleg Grabar. If the outsider would not like to monopolize Islamic art history - and thereby cause permanent parting of ways (Indeed, Grabar himself is aware of this possibility as he accepts that the implications of his discipline are ‘no longer the preserve of the historian, and especially of the non-Muslim historian. The contemporary Islamic world will make its own choices.’), he must accept the Muslim's quest for the essential, as opposed to the accidental, i.e. historical, meaning of Islamic art as complementary to his own search.

The painful fact, however, is that whereas the Agha Khan Professor, with his outsider's method and epistemology, has an established academic discipline, a first rate journal and a team of dedicated scholars to corroborate his vision of Islamic art, the Muslim student has nothing to offer beyond sentiments to support his claim. The search for the Muslim meaning of Islamic art has not yet begun!