Early Islamic Art

One of the first efforts in my course on Islamic art and architecture is to convince the students that figurative art is not prohibited in Islam. I make them chant “at some times, in some regions, and in some contexts figurative art was prohibited.” Maybe it sinks in.

One of the most luscious examples of early wall painting has recently been restored – the walls and ceilings of a fortress-palace from the early 8th century, Qusayr’Amra. Go look!

A Muslim Great Books School?

This seems like a really interesting experiment!

Q: In Light Without Fire, you draw comparisons between Zaytuna — which aspires to combine intensive study of Arabic and the Koran with a liberal arts curriculum loosely based on the Great Books — and other, mostly Christian, religious colleges. Does Zaytuna aim to eventually model itself after evangelical colleges, most of which aim to educate those who share the faith of the colleges’ leaders? Or does it plan to follow the path of some Roman Catholic colleges, which consider their faith a key part of their identity but enroll many non-Catholic students? In other words, would Zaytuna rather be the Georgetown University or the Wheaton College of Islam?

A: In the early days of the school, Hamza Yusuf and Imam Zaid often tried to describe the school — and their ideas about its founding — in an American historical context, reminding their audiences at the school’s convocation, during fund-raising events, and in radio interviews, that Yale and Harvard were both founded as religious colleges. It’s difficult at this point to see Zaytuna in the model of these Ivies, and it’s not their vision at the moment to expand the school much beyond a total population of 200 students. That size alone to me suggests appealing almost exclusively to Muslim students. And while Islam will likely remain a part of each class the students take, I think the hope of the school will be to appeal to Muslims of all stripes — and even the rare case of a non-Muslim student who finds incredibly appealing the school’s vision of creating morally committed individuals.

This in an interview with Scott Korb, author of Light without Fire, a book observing  the start-up of Zaytuna College. I just ordered the book – I’ll tell you what I think.

from Inside Higher Ed

Cathedral, former Great Mosque, Cordoba

Yesterday I took a day trip – about 40 minutes each way – to Cordoba.
Cordoba was the capital of Roman Spain, and one of the bigger cities in the western empire. There’s not a lot left of it to see, but the archeological museum was full of good stuff.
More important for looking was the Cathedral, formerly the Great Mosque. I have been teaching this in Art 101 every year since I started, and now I have it much better integrated! in my mind!
Not that I’ve been saying anything WRONG – but I have never been as clear about the disposition of parts as I would like. And I see why! I’ll try to find a plan to upload – but the essential story is that the mosque was built in stages over several hundred years and then the Christian cathedral was inserted more or less in the center of the building.
There have been so many restoratoin campaigns the photos have always been hard to sort out – so seeing it was really satisfying. I spent a long time wandering around, then made a disciplined front to back visit, then wandered some more.
The folks who run it provide explanatory brochures in the usual langauges – Spanish, French, English, German, Dutch, Japanese, and Chinese. But they also provide Arabic – and there were a number of obviously Muslim (though not clearly Arab) visitors yesterday. I’d love to see the text compared to the English.
In the English brochure, they make the point fairly firmly, though not in an ugly way, that Yes, the Castilians turned this mosque into a church, but the Umayyads had destroyed a previously existing church on the side (though it was not the cathedral of the city) and systematically reused columns from previous buildings to signify their conquest.
I’ve read about Andalucian nostalgia among Arabs, especially in North Africa. Really now – with the exception of the Kingdom of Granada, most of Spain was under Muslim control for a shorter time than it has been in Christian hands since – and it was Christian before. Look on the map to see how far south Cordoba is – and be reminded that the Castilians conquered it in 1236.

Luckily, Sevilla is pretty flat

photo by Michael Tinkler
photo, a photo by Michael Tinkler on Flickr.

Luckily, Sevilla is pretty flat. I’m tiring here in the home stretch (starting to figure out my move to Madrid and thence home). I spent some time today in the Museo de Bellas Artes sitting in front of Murillos and Zubarans (Murillo’s not as bad as I thought he was and Zubuaran is better even than I thought before seeing so many paintings live). I wasn’t just contemplating art – I was resting.

The picture here is a view of the cathedral room from the top of the Giralda tower (see previous post), the churches bell tower and originally the minaret for the mosque the cathedral replaced. Interesting – the great mosque was only about 50 years old before Fernando III conquered the city in 1248.

The right side of the photo shows an interesting phenomenon – the vaults of the gothic cathedral are exposed. That is, no one ever put a giant wooden superstructure and roof with its associated lead sheating over the vaults – so the walls and buttresses can be a lot thinner. .You canget away with that in Sevilla because it doesn’t rain much or snow at all – northern Europe can’t do this with a vaulted roof. They need the waterproofing and the protection from the weight.

Hard times in Bosnia

The National Museum of Bosnia in Sarajevo, home to the Sarajevo Haggadah, is set to close.

The Sarajevo Haggadah is an important 14th Century manuscript of the Seder service produced in Spain (testimony to the Sefardic tradition), brought to Italy sometime in the Renaissance. It was sold to the National Museum in the 1890s – so though it is an important object documenting Jewish history, it doesn’t have much to do with Bosnia. I hadn’t read the provenance until just now – I, silly early medievalist, had always imagined it got to Bosnia (an example of the Spain-to-Islamic-Ottoman-Empire) in the wake of the expulsion of the Jews from Spain rather than an example of the Spain-to-just-as-Christian-Italy population movement. I’ve never read enough to know what the relative sizes of emigration to the Ottoman Empire versus other Christian territories.

Casualties of civil war – knowledge

Always among the first to the wall — libraries and museums. And I don’t buy the “if they didn’t want us to burn the library down the army shouldn’t have stationed men on top of it” argument. That’s a barbaric argument, even if it’s from someone helping to clean up.

CAIRO — Volunteers in white lab coats, surgical gloves and masks stood on the back of a pickup truck Monday along the banks of the Nile River in Cairo, rummaging through stacks of rare 200-year-old manuscripts that were little more than charcoal debris.
The volunteers, ranging from academic experts to appalled citizens, have spent the past two days trying to salvage what’s left of some 192,000 books, journals and writings, casualties of Egypt’s latest bout of violence.
Institute d’Egypte, a research center set up by Napoleon Bonaparte during France’s invasion in the late 18th century, caught fire during clashes between protesters and Egypt’s military over the weekend. It was home to a treasure trove of writings, most notably the handwritten 24-volume Description de l’Egypte, which began during the 1798-1801 French occupation.
The compilation, which includes 20 years of observations by more than 150 French scholars and scientists, was one of the most comprehensive descriptions of Egypt’s monuments, its ancient civilization and contemporary life at the time.
. . .
Volunteer Ahmed el-Bindari said the military shoulders the brunt of responsibility for using its roof as a position to attack protesters before the fire erupted.

This will be an embarrassment for the London School of Economics

Saif al-Islam, noted alumnus of the L.S.E. and one of Gadafi’s sons, survived, and may go to trial for war crimes. Professor Soltan has a number of entries on the subject — go here for a quick search of University Diaries to read about access, power, and money corrupting the university. The things people said about Saif al-Islam really are discreditable.

How do you spell the name of Obama’s Enemy?

Arabic transliteration — sheesh! This is the most useful thing I’ve read on the subject, from Britannica.

…in reading those stories and many others since the uprising began in Libya readers might be befuddled by the various spellings of Qaddafi’s name. At Britannica, we spell with a “Q,” as do the New York Times and Bloomberg, while al-Jazeera, BBC, the Guardian, the Toronto Star, and the Sydney Morning Herald (among others) uses a “G,” and the New York Daily News, San Francisco Chronicle, and Boston Globe use a “K.” Even accounting for different first letters, news outlets spell the rest of the name differently.

And if you’re interested, follow up with this old post of mine, So what do we mean when we say we teach Arabic? Or maybe this even older post, What is “Arabic” and how do you go about teaching it?
By the way, the correct answer to the question in the title is “However you please.” There is no single answer, so all honest attempts are probably o.k. The same goes for pre-Attaturk Turkish, so far as I read.

Dante Blogging – Canto XXVIII

Dante has a broad vision of schism – the schismatics have divided religion, cities, and families – but all are punished by being divided, split into parts. As they pass around their track they heal, only to be split again.
The pilgrims’ first interlocutor is Muhammad. Some medieval versions of the history of Islam counted Muhammad as a disappointed bishop or cardinal who went off and started his own religion – and, in fact, historians of early Islam still argue to what extent Muhammad did know Christians and Jews first hand in Mecca. It’s clear he had some contact, but accounts differ. Dante has him split almost in half, gruesomely.
There was a long tradition of depicting Muhammad in Hell – there is a particularly fine version in San Petronio in Bolgna which was threatened by al-Qaida in 2002. Here’s a link to an archive of images of Muhammad – you have to scroll a long way down to find it, but it’s worthwhile.
Some scholars like to see the Night Journey of Muhammad, in which he saw the torments of the damned and the pleasures of heaven, as a source for Dante’s journey. That’s possible, but unnecessary – there is a tradition that goes back to patristic times of narratives of just such journeys, including Purgatory. I’ll have to figure this out though before Fall, because the colleague with whom I will be team-teaching loves any sort of Islamic source. That comes from having lived in Spain too long, I think. I wonder if the Miraj, the legend of the Night Journey, had been translated, and if not how Dante is supposed to have known about it.
There’s a connection in this Canto to The Name of the Rose – Muhammad sends a message to Fra Dolcino that he should get in supplies. The fallout from the Dolcinists, a radical poverty movement that turned into a civil war at the turn of the 14th century in Italy, is a motivating factor behind a lot of the plot and a number of the characters in Eco’s novel.
Then after a number of relatively obscure civil-dividers the last interlocutor is the man who provided Doré with the subject for the illustration here – Bertran de Born, Provencal poet and encourager to civil war.

Clearly I saw, and the sight still comes back,
  a trunk without a head come walking on
  just like the others of that sullen pack,

That held the chopped-off head by the long hanks,
  hanging like a lantern from his hand,
  and the head gaped at us and said, Ah, me!”

He made himself a lamp unto himself
  and they were two in one and one in two.
  How that can be, He nows Who steers the helm.

Dante, who has mentioned lots of poets’ work, never mentions that Bertran de Born is a poet – even though Dante was very interested in the methods of the Provencal poets. Odd, that.
Click here for all the Danteblogging and none of my other ramblings.

The thin edge of the wedge

Scholastic Press takes on the Arabic language market. Will Clifford the Big Red Dog offend Muslim anti-dog sensibilities? Yes!

To observant Muslims he is, because dogs are considered ritually unclean. Scholastic wanted to be careful not to appear culturally imperialistic, so Clifford was put in the “no” pile.
The education ministers, who came from Bahrain, Lebanon and Jordan, drew up a list of 27 “no-nos,” according to Sakoian. “No dogs, no pigs, no boys and girls touching, no magic,” she said, naming a few.
They liked values and talk of honesty and cooperation among children. Anything that hinted at overly independent children or religion was eliminated. The colorful “I Spy” series was excluded after a tiny dreidel was spotted in a picture.
. . .
The U.S. and other Western governments have funded Arabic translations, particularly of textbooks. But Scholastic’s Arabic publishing effort is by far the largest, experts agree.
[17 million distributed so far!]
During an interview near the publisher’s global headquarters in Lower Manhattan, Sakoian said that she’d long ago set her sights on selling to the vast Arab market. She first approached a private foundation to underwrite translations but got nowhere. In post- 9/11 America, none was interested in supporting Arab culture, she said. The U.S. State Department eventually paid for translations through a democracy-building initiative and for printing about half the books.
But Scholastic had a long way to go before it started printing. First, it had editing to do even of classics. Because Islam does not acknowledge the celebration of birthdays, “Ladybug’s Birthday” was renamed “Ladybug’s Anniversary.” Ms. Frizzle’s students on “The Magic School Bus” were given Arabic-sounding names, skirts were lengthened, body parts were covered and the skin tone and hair of the Swiss orphan girl in “Heidi” was darkened for the Arabic edition. (A tiny church steeple on the cover picture of Heidi’s village escaped notice, however. “We just couldn’t catch everything,” Sakoian said.)

Gotta love that – overly independent children, bad. Dreidels – do you think that’s religion, or a specific religion, driving the veto? Heidi darker than blonde? Oh, well – it’s a publishing venture.