The Genesis of one of the great collections of Islamic arts

I still can’t get over how recently two of the great collections of Islamic art were started. The Khalili Collection (based in London) was started in the late 60s or early 70s – and here’s the story of the al-Sabah Collection:

In 1975, Sheikh Nasser al-Ahmad al- Sabah, eldest son of the Amir of Kuwait, brought home a 14th- century decorated glass bottle and showed it to his wife, a committed lover of modern abstract art.
The beauty of the artifact and its design changed her mind and became the first of more than 30,000 items that now make up one of the world’s largest and most valuable collections of Islamic art.
“I realized that everything I loved about modern and contemporary art was in that piece of glass,” said Sheika Hussah Sabah al-Salem al-Sabah in Singapore, at the opening of an exhibition of 402 stunning items from the collection illustrating the wealth of India’s Mughal empire.

Read more about the exhibition (and a little more about the collection) here.

There’s Visual Literacy and there’s Legal Literacy. And you’d think a building full of lawyers would be legally literate.

In producing faux openness (look, we’re all social media and we post photos!) the White House forgot that “no copyright for pictures produced by federal employees in the line of work” clause, didn’t they? And they didn’t HAVE to publish on Flickr!
Now they’re scrambling – and it probably won’t work.

I really should blog about the great Visual Literacy seminar our Library and NITLE put on right before classes started – I’ve been bogged down! Copyright and such were certainly topics. In fact, I set up a private Tumblr blog just this morning for my Islamic Art & Architecture students. Not only do I want this to be a comfortable class environment (cough cough) but I want it to be unsearchable when we start talking about images of the Prophet Muhammad.

A new year is upon us…

Well, a new semester. We start up tomorrow, and just to greet the returning students – fresh snow! It was so warm here last week that everything melted off except in places where snow plows had pushed it into deep piles – everything was muddy, just like March. Not Geneva at its prettiest. But this morning we start with a nice inch of snow. I don’t think we’ll get much more than 2 or 3, but what do I know? I’m a Southerner!
I’ve been running around in circles getting this term started – I’ve already had enough meetings for my taste, and I have 3 more scheduled this week: Budget Advisory Task Force today and then a Review I committee and Library Committee tomorrow. Then Thursday both my classes have their first meetings. I am moderately ready – I think I could print the syllabi now, but I left them to marinate on my desk overnight and we’ll see if I still feel happy about them later today.
Much to my horror I found out when I sat down at the computer that the last time I taught these two, Greek and Islamic, we were still mainly using slides. Neither course is just sitting there with usable lectures on the server. Of course i have the slide sheets from previous iterations, but it’s a lot more work that I thought I wasn’t going to have to do for daily class prep. The good part is that we’ve acquired a LOT of new images since 2007 in both areas, particularly of Islamic architecture, so I would have been integrating those anyway.

Archaeology in Saudi Arabia!

Here’s a fascinating story about some thaw in the longstanding Saudi freeze on archaeology on the Peninsula. The hostility to even acknowledging the pre-Islamic past is still pretty strong – especially since some of the sites are specifically Jewish or Christian. I didn’t know about the 5th Century church discovered by accident and fenced off for the last 20 years!
One of the standing questions is what was the economic shape of Mecca in the time of Muhammad? Patricia Crone and Michael Cook believe that it was pretty pitiful, not a major trading center, but a pilgrimage center. There won’t be any excavations in Mecca anytime soon – but anything that explores the spice trade will help.

Dante Blogging – Inferno Canto IV

Canto IV
Canto III ends with Dante falling into unconsciousness, and IV begins with a boom that shakes him awake. Not every pair of Cantos carries action across the break so smoothly (or jarringly, as in this case), but the transitions are always worth checking. Dante was a thorough craftsman. There is certainly lots of debate about the making of the poem – he started it in exile, probably in 1304, he seems to have published Inferno in 1314. That gives a lot of time for polishing.
I think the urge to see Dante as a poet who begins uncertainly is an example of the (Romantic?) failure to separate maker from creation – to assume that Dante (in this example) is speaking authentically as Dante, that he is afraid, that he does not know where he is, that he is learning from Virgil as he goes along. I’m calling the Pilgrim “Dante” out of laziness and convention more than anything. I don’t believe this is Dante Alighieri speaking to us from the heart – this is a finely constructed object of art. It certainly has stress fractures and may even have some bad lines (I’m not enough of a judge of the Italian to say – though this effort will surely help that), but the Commedia makes much more sense as a unity. If there’s ever a poem that repays formalist analysis it’s this one.
In Canto IV we enter Limbo – and Dante asks Virgil one of those hard questions – did no one leave here before the Resurrection? What about those unbaptized infants?Is this fair??
Well, if ‘fair’ means playing by the rules, this is fair. It’s also hard lines on the virtuous pagans. Dante suggests, though he lists only big name Jewish Patriarchs and Matriarchs, that virtuous Jews from before the Incarnation were saved at the Harrowing of Hell, when Christ descended. What happens to later Jews we will consider later.
Dante is more interested at this point in showing us that there is a hierarchy in Limbo, a hierarchy not of happiness or contentment but honor. There is honor in limbo for the greatest souls.
I’ve always thought that the appearance of the first epic list of names here is hardly an accident. Dante is not only giving us a long list of virtuous unbelievers – among whom he includes 2 or 3 Muslims – because he’s in a castle full of them but also because, in Virgil’s company, he has just met Homer, Ovid, and Lucan. I think because he is accepted into their circle as a poet, he demonstrates his mastery of the genre. If we don’t believe that we have to take refuge in believing the narrative and think that a person, Dante, is walking all around the only castle in Hell with decent lighting looking at nametags.
The Canto ends with the pair leaving this Castle with clear light, headed into darkness. Dante does it with a LOT of words ending in -a.

La sesta compagnia in due si scema:
  per altra via mi mena il savio duca
  fuor de la queta, ne l’aura che trema.
E vegno in parte ove non รจ che luca.

Esolen gives us:

The company of six is cut by two,
  and my wise guide leads me another way,
  out of the quiet, into the trembling air —
Into a place where nothing ever shines

“Trembling air” sounds lovely, but when we turn the page we will find out what makes it tremble.
Click here for all the Danteblogging and none of my other ramblings.

Islamists in Nigeria

An Islamic fundamentalist group in northern Nigeria expanded its attacks into three additional states on Monday, a day after at least 50 people died during fighting between the group and security forces in Bauchi State, aid workers and police said.


On Monday, fundamentalist group Boko Haram, which means “education is prohibited” in Hausa, launched attacks in three northern states, where at least 100 bodies were counted by a reporter in Maiduguri, the capital of Borno State, the BBC reported. Casualty figures couldn’t be confirmed.

Education is prohibited. Lovely. I’m sure they mean Western education as opposed to Islamic – but the intention is clear. This is in the same region, though, that rejected polio vaccination as a Western conspiracy a few years ago – though not the same state, so far as I can tell from reading through some of the other versions. The polio problems were in Kano state, which is not mentioned in the story linked above or the CNN version as one of the four states currently involved.

Blue Mosque – muqarnas capital




Sulemaniye Mosque

Originally uploaded by Michael Tinkler.

You know, the trip might have been worth it for nothing more than getting a quick immersion in muqarnas, the omnipresent honeycomb decorative technique in Islamic architecture after the year 1000 or 1100; you might compare it with acanthus motifs in Greek architecture and forms derived from that. I have seen lots of pictures, and examples in American museums, but the only other predominantly Muslim country I have ever visited is Malaysia.

People (both officials and folks you meet) are always asking “are you here for business or pleasure?” My short answer is “pleasure,” since looking is a pleasure for me. But really I’m always on duty.

All the inscriptions of the Alhambra – I want a copy!

Talk about a corpus – all the inscriptions of the Alhambra transcribed and translated (into Spanish, but hey!), on DVD:


Researchers have produced an interactive DVD that decodes, dates and identifies 3,116 of some 10,000 inscriptions carved on the building that symbolises centuries of Muslim rule in Spain and is today the country’s top tourist landmark.
“There’s perhaps nowhere else in the world where gazing upon walls, columns and fountains is an exercise so similar to turning the pages of a book of poems,” says Juan Castilla, from the School of Arabic Studies at Spain’s Higher Scientific Research Council, whose team produced this still-incomplete guide.
Arabic artisans, supervised by poets employed in the 14th-century court of King Yusuf I, drew up the decorative plans and planned the spaces where verses – original, or copied – were to be engraved.
So, what do these words say? “There aren’t as many as we thought,” Dr Castilla confessed. Inscriptions of poetry and verses from the Koran that have inspired generations represent only a minimum percentage of the texts that adorn the Alhambra’s walls, despite the mistaken belief that they are smothered in writings of this kind, he said, presenting his study in Madrid.
Instead the motto of the Nazrid dynasty – “There is no victor but Allah” – is repeated hundreds of times on walls, arches and columns. Isolated words like “happiness” or “blessing” recur, seen as divine expressions protecting the monarch or governor honoured in each palace or courtyard. Aphorisms abound: “Rejoice in good fortune, because Allah helps you,” and “Be sparse in words and you will go in peace.”

Pretending to be a Covered Muslima in Arab, Alabama

And surprised that people smiled at her. Bet they offered her sweet tea, too.

You know, the gullibility of people conducting what passes for experimental social ‘science’ never ceases to amaze me.
Of course everyone was sweet to her – it’s Arab. That’s where my mother was raised! They’re all sweet, even some of our family who aren’t so very nice.
Driving around in America and having people not be ugly to you because you’re dressed funny does not mean they tolerate or fail to tolerate Muslims. I wonder how folks looked at my cousin the Orthodox priest when he was home for his father’s funeral. I mean, he wears what might well pass for a dress and certainly looks warm.
Would American Muslims please remember that all this practice of covering the head in public is a very recently-ended phenomenon in the West. My not-so-very-long-ago-deceased Grandmother only stopped wearing hats and gloves when she went to Birmingham to shop about the time I was born?
Oh, well. Good luck, fake Muslima. Don’t try Walmart if you’re looking for someone to be rude to you!

The man with the hardest job in the world? Bishop of Arabia.

Well, really the Vicar Apostolic of Arabia, but we get the idea. The mailing address is Abu Dhabi.
Here is an interview from a Swiss weekly with the Swiss Bishop of Arabia, Paul Hinder. He talks verrrrrry carefully about what he is and is not allowed to do in ministering to the faithful in his vicariate, where there are maybe a million Christians. For instance, he is asked about the request to build minarets in Switzerland, and balances that against his church in Qatar:

In Qatar recently, we were permitted to build a church large enough to accommodate 2,700 of the faithful. There is not a church that big in all of Switzerland. But it is true that in the agreement with the government it is clearly stated that no religious symbols should be visible from the exterior. It is only in the interior that Christian symbols are tolerated. If I had not accepted this condition, my request for the building permit would have been rejected. I did not even apply for the permission to build a church tower.

Very interesting!