These 'savages' created some of history's finest art

The Long View: It's true, I suspect, that "cultural" Islam, which includes a lot of Christian artists, is greater than the Islamic religion

Share
Related Topics

On sale outside the Louvre's spanking new exhibition of Islamic art this weekend was a magazine headline to engage any reader. "Les fanatiques," it read. The fanatics in question were not Texas pastors or Californian video-makers who burn Korans or insult the Prophet Mohamed. "Les fous de dieu" – the "madmen of God" as the French press usually calls them – are not the Midwest Christian Apocalypse-believers who support Israel and claim, if you believe the latest posters on the New York subway, that they are fighting "savages".

Oh no, indeed, the fanatics, crazies and savages in question are the chaps who created the Islamic treasury of golden chalices and crimson rugs and silver vases and marble friezes and bronze lions and stone-paste roosters and vast, brass candlesticks beneath the golden "desert" roof of the Louvre's latest exhibition hall. Even the sumptuous new catalogue that the museum has published to mark the occasion, while padded with the worst of academe's latest clichés – "dialogue" used as a verb, and far too much "inclusivity" and "interaction" and "spaces" – admits the importance of these glories "in these times preyed on by obscurantist aspirations and extremist tendencies of every kind".

These words were written by a Muslim – and he certainly wasn't talking about Mr Breivik or the torturers of Guantanamo and Bagram. For what lies behind the fervour with which we are expected to view these masterpieces of Islamic art in Paris is a simple idea: that Muslims are not all raving, bearded, hand-chopping ambassador-killing head-bangers, but inheritors of one of the world's greatest cultures, entwined within a tolerant religion, enhanced by learned men (alas, few women) who admitted Jews and Christians into their Islamic society and who produced some of the finest art in history.

"The history of art," as Sophie Makariou, director of the Louvre's department of Islamic art, said in an interview last week, "has been written in the West by Westerners."

Ask where are the Rembrandts and Poussins and Goyas of Islamic art, and Ms Makariou will roll off their names: 16th-century manuscript painters Behzad and Mohammedi, the Christian Georgian Siyavush, his pupil Sadiki, Reza-e Abbasi of Isfahan, and Muhammad Ibn al-Zain who created the baptistry of Saint Louis....

And it's true, I suspect, that "cultural" Islam, which includes a lot of Christian artists – not least in Andalusia – is greater than the Islamic religion.

For much of its history, Muslims were a minority in the Islamic world. Their leaders spoke Turkic or Persian as often as Arabic – the Mamluks were Turkish speakers in Arabic-speaking lands – and Christians spoke Arabic as well as Latin.

So what should be our reaction to this exhibition of "Islamic art"? Being a curmudgeonly journalist, I note the artefacts seized from French royalty after the Revolution – an event which inspired 19th-century Egyptian thinkers – and the rather large number of acquisitions which might have been looted during French archaeological expeditions or military campaigns in the Middle East. Bequests are one thing. Theft quite another.

Wonder, too, must be a reaction. The AD1144 celestial globe of Yunus ibn al-Husayn al-Asturlabi – an astrolabe, indeed, of the spheres, a three-dimensional model of the entire universe – in which Husayn has almost perfectly modified the sky's dimensions between Ptolemy's calculations and the era of the Prophet (15 degrees and 18 minutes), its 1,025 stars represented by inlaid silver dots. Ride across the 12th-century Middle East desert at night and you'd need one of these in your saddle-bag.

Yes, wonder. Ottoman calligraphy – did the West create anything to match this? – and flower paintings that could adorn any European medieval panel, and a carpet of the garden of paradise. And then there's a 1599 painting of the Mughal Emperor Jahangir holding a portrait of his father Akbar and while Jahangir looks sternly at his father, Akbar stares back at his son with an expression of frowning disapproval; Jahangir had vainly tried to depose Akbar 14 years earlier.

So humour, too. Perhaps Islam needed that to survive the devastation of Ghengis Khan. There's a tremendous sketch of an Iranian "religious figure" in the late 1880s, a turbaned divine, cross-legged beneath a thick woollen coat, a deeply dissatisfied man, his drooping eyes looking at us with a mixture of blindness and sheer distress.

Painted by Abu Turab Ghaffari – he committed suicide in 1890 – the old Imam looks disturbingly like the fous de dieu of popular journalism. And that – 1890 – is where the Louvre's exhibition comes to an end.

Which brings me to my saddest reflection. Has Islamic art produced anything that is non-derivative this past century? (Or Christian art, for that matter – and please don't talk to me about the "new" Coventry Cathedral.)

And if not, why not? Has technology taken over? Are we to conclude that Islamic culture could survive the horrors of Ghengis Khan – but not the invasion of CNN?

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Digital Marketing Consultant

£28000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Senior Digital Marketing Cons...

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Stores Keeper

£16640 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Assistant Stores Keeper is r...

Recruitment Genius: Claims Administrator

£16000 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an excellent opportunit...

Recruitment Genius: Software Developer - C# / ASP.NET / SQL

£17000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Developer required to join a bu...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Election catch-up: I’m not saying the Ed stone is bad – it is so terrible I am lost for words

John Rentoul
 

Election 2015: The SNP and an SMC (Salmond-Murdoch Conspiracy)

Matthew Norman
Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

Everyone is talking about The Trews

Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living