Beginner's guide to centuries of Muslim expression

The Timeline History of Islamic Art and Architecture
February 24, 2006

Anyone interested in Islamic art will know the name of David Khalili. His formidable collection of more than 20,000 pieces is considered the largest private holding of Islamic art, containing significant works in a range of media from the early years of Islam onwards.

As a Jew, born and raised in Iran, Khalili sees Islamic art as part of his own heritage. Indeed, his upbringing has placed him in a unique position to understand Islam and to know the reality of peaceful co-existence of Muslims with peoples of other faiths. With this experience he has established the Maimonides Foundation, whose purpose is to foster understanding between Jews and Muslims, achieved through conferences and lectures as well as through outreach programmes and activities for the young of both religions.

Khalili's background has profoundly shaped his belief that art and culture are unifying forces that can be used to overcome political and religious differences. To this end, he has used his collections to encourage an understanding of Islam and to inspire recognition for the contribution that Muslim civilisations have made to world culture. Khalili's celebrated collection is published in volumes of a catalogue compiled by a distinguished team of leading scholars, including, of course, Khalili himself. Beautiful though they are, these specialist volumes are beyond the reach of most. Khalili has now remedied this by producing The Timeline History of Islamic Art and Architecture, an affordable and richly illustrated book that aims to give the uninitiated a broad introduction to Islamic art, largely through his own pieces. The book is clearly laid out, easy to use and packed with information. Its didactic purpose and audience is evident from the straightforward textbook design and approach; discussions are already under way to distribute no fewer than 40,000 copies to schools in this country.

The book is divided into three main parts. The first includes a basic introduction to the subject, complete with map and a concise history of chief Muslim dynasties. It is here that Khalili explains that "Islamic art" encompasses both religious and secular works "produced by Muslim artists for Muslim patrons". He is quick to dispel the idea that figural imagery is forbidden in Islam, explaining that it plays an important role in Islamic art, although is traditionally prohibited in a religious context. The second part of the book is the timeline itself, a running chronicle of major historical events on to which are grafted examples of Islamic art and architecture emblematic of the age. The third and most substantial part of the book consists of chapters that address architecture and individual arts: calligraphy, Korans, miniature-painting, bookbinding, lacquer, ceramics, glass, metalwork, scientific instruments, jewellery, arms and armour, carpets and textiles, and coins. The text is accessible and informative, if cursory, and provides a ready summary for anyone with a budding interest in the subject. Finally, at the end of the book, along with a glossary, is a rotating wheel, one side showing pieces of Islamic art and the other revealing key facts about modern Islamic states, complete with population figures and flags.

Although of enormous use to novices in the subject, this volume is not without drawbacks. Inevitably, when a survey volume draws its examples almost entirely from a single collection, the coverage and balance become patchy at times. For example, there is no treatment of wooden objects such as minbars , Koran stands and boxes, inlaid cabinets, tomb markers and screens. And readers will find out little about 20th-century Islamic art, which is at odds with the introduction, which proclaims the value of modern Islamic art, stressing the importance of revivalist traditions and the work of living artists.

In many cases, objects from the collection are used to illustrate points that frankly would be better served by superior examples that do not belong to the author. In spite of the book's title, the timeline section itself is limited to 16 pages only. The purpose of a visual timeline as a tool for tracing stylistic change is somewhat limited by such cursory treatment. In such a space it is difficult for the reader to receive a true idea of the development of art in any one dynasty, period or medium. To confuse matters, the segments into which the timeline has been divided also vary in length. In this way, the period 1450-1550 is covered in two pages, the same space allotted to the period 1700-2005.

In spite of these minor criticisms, this work provides an enormous service to the neophyte, and will be of immense value as an academic reference for anyone interested in Islamic art and the Khalili collection.

Amin Jaffer is curator of Asian art, Victoria and Albert Museum.

The Timeline History of Islamic Art and Architecture

Author - Nasser D. Khalili
Publisher - Worth Press
Pages - 186
Price - £30.00
ISBN - 1 903025 17 6

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