Jonathan M. Bloom is professor of Islamic and Asian art at Boston College and the author and co-author of many books on Islamic art and architecture, including Minaret: Symbol of Islam. His most recent book is Paper Before Print: The History and Impact of Paper in the Islamic World (Yale) Grove Encyclopedia of Islamic Art & Architecture: Three-Volume Set, Islam: A Thousand Years of Faith and Power, Rivers of Paradise: Water in Islamic Art and Culture, Arts of the City Victorious: Islamic Art and Architecture in Fatimid North Africa and Egypt, The Art and Architecture of Islam, 1250-1800, Early Islamic Art and Architecture, Images of Paradise in Islamic Art and The Grove Encyclopedia of Islamic Art & Architecture.
Q: Islam: A Thousand Years of Faith and Power, how can Muslims keep their Faith and Power? This was a book that my wife and colleague, Sheila Blair, and I wrote to accompany a 3-hour Public Broadcasting Service television documentary (Islam: Empire of Faith). It was meant to introduce American readers to the sweep of the first 1000 years of Islamic history and culture. The idea was not to focus on wars and dynasties, but on great cultural achievements. The TV show and book came out just before 9/11 and then became very popular as Americans were looking to understand more about what they thought was a foreign culture. We don't try to offer advice to Muslims--that isn't our role--but to show an American readership that Islam is one of the world's great cultural traditions.
Q: Could you show how Islamic artists incorporate figural ornament, written text, geometry, and even vegetation in their designs?
It is a misconception that Muslims disapprove of all figural ornament in their art in favor of writing, geometry and vegetation.
Instead, figural ornament is thought inappropriate for certain situations, particularly religious settings, and writing is thought more appropriate.
There is a long tradition of figural ornament on Islamic ceramics, metal wares, etc. from many times and places, and in many times and places artists illustrated books with figural scenes.
The important point is that some kinds of art are thought to be more appropriate for certain settings--but that is as true in the West as in the Islamic lands. Calligraphy, the art of beautiful writing, took on a particularly important role as it was often thought to be the only true art, principally because it was used to transmit and glorify the word of God in the Koran.
Q: Minaret: Symbol of Islam, among the most distinctive sights in anyIslamic city are the minarets, which is the oldest and which is the biggest of them?
Minaret: Symbol of Islam was my first book, published in 1989. I'm working on a new edition of it to be published by Edinburgh University Press next year. Although the call to prayer goes back to the time of the Prophet, everybody knows that the minaret is one of the parts of the mosque that was introduced later. I got interested in how and why it became part of the mosque, since not all Muslims approved of using towers. I discovered that towers were introduced not for the call to prayer, but as a symbol of the mosque and of Islam, not in the Umayyad period but under the Abbasids. Eventually people began to combine the two ideas--a place for the call to prayer and the tower as symbol of Islam--and that's how the minaret became what we know it today. The oldest surviving minaret is probably the one in Kairouan, Tunisia, which dates from about 836 CE. Cairo has the most diverse collection of minarets, from that of the Mosque of Ibn Tulun to those of the Mamluk and Ottoman periods. The tallest minaret, I believe, is that of the Hassan II Mosque in Casablanca, which is 210 meters, although I understand that they are building two 230-meter tall ones for a mosque in Tehran.
Q: Images of Paradise in Islamic Art, how do they imagine Paradise?
This was the catalogue of an exhibition that traveled in the USA. Sheila and I edited, but didn't write the book. The book was about how Muslims imagine Paradise in their art, and how many images of gardens in Islamic art are meant to evoke the hereafter.
Q:The History and Impact of Paper in the Islamic World, it describes the transmission of paper making skills from China to Europe via the Muslim Caliphates. Most of the narrative covers the period between 700 and 1200 AD, Could you elaborate on that?
This is my favorite among the books I have written. Everybody knows that paper was invented in China, but they didn't know that people in the Islamic lands were responsible for transferring paper and papermaking from China to the West, and that along the way, the use of paper transformed Islamic civilization. Muslims first encountered paper when they conquered Central Asia--the story of capturing Chinese papermakers is just a legend because paper had been used there for centuries--in the early 8th century and quickly began using it in the expanding Abbasid bureaucracy. Paper then became available to all sorts of other writers, which explains in part the flowering of literature under the Abbasids. Paper replaced parchment, which was expensive to make, although Muslims still preferred to copy the Koran on parchment until around 1000 CE. At the same time paper also replaced papyrus, which could be made only in Egypt. Paper allowed the creation of enormous libraries in Baghdad, Shiraz, Cairo and Cordoba at a time when European Christians had very few books. Europeans learned about papermaking from Muslims in Spain and began making paper themselves in the 12th and 13th centuries. Eventually they got so good at it that they began exporting paper back to the Arab lands. That's why my book focuses on the period when Muslims were not only using paper but also making lots of it.
Q: The invention of paper in China by 2nd century BC, its contact with Islam in the 8th century, the 2 centuries it took to spread throughout the Islamic empire, its impact on book production, on mathematics, commerce, cartography, and its eventual use for preparatory sketches for artwork, allowing artists to transfer designs between media, Prove, please.
Before the invention of paper, it was very difficult for someone to know what something else looked like without actually going to see it. So, for example, everyone says that the Mosque of Ibn Tulun in Cairo is supposed to look like the Mosque of al-Mutawakkil at Samarra in Iraq. Well how did that happen? The builder of the mosque in Cairo didn't have drawings or photographs of the mosque in Iraq because they weren't used at that time. Instead, craftsmen must have come from Iraq to Egypt bringing their skills and knowledge with them.
Once paper was used by lots of people, it was easy for someone to design something and send the drawings to another place. Just think of the Mosque of Muhammad Ali on the Citadel--the workmen who built it may not have ever seen one of the Istanbul mosques on which it was modeled, but the architect was able to draw plans and have his Egyptian builders follow them. This is, of course, an extreme example, but the availability of paper made it relatively easy for designs to be transferred from one medium--let's say textiles--to another such as ceramics.
Q: You show readers examples of paper arts in 50 color plates and 53 black-and-white illustrations. I have to admit that the beauty of this book scores extra points with me. The cover is a reproduction of a 1478 work by a Persian calligrapher, what else would you like to show us?
I hope my book inspires other people to work on other problems in greater detail. For example, I think that the shift from parchment and papyrus to paper had a great effect on calligraphy, because the great calligraphers such as Ibn Muqla and Ibn al-Bawwab were working just at the time paper began to become important. I would like people to see how the kind of Arabic writing we use today is a product of the shift to paper.
Q: Your argument that Islamic civilization has a major role in the proliferation of paper is extremely plausible and convincing but many scholars and individuals are reluctant to accept the validity of Islamic civilization as a great and inspirational one, why?
Some people are, I'm sad to say, ignorant and have a very narrow view of history. This is particularly true in the USA, where students are not often taught about the history of the world and how the US has only been around for a few hundred years while such countries as Egypt, Iraq, India, and China have civilizations going back thousands of years. Some people are intolerant and don't believe that any religion except their own can be meaningful or true. Current events have tended to give Islam a very bad reputation in the US, and so many people are reluctant to see that the acts of a few people do not represent the views or history of millions of others.
Q: Now in a time of increasing hostilities and conflict between the two cultures If there is ever to be a reconciliation or assimilation of the two cultures, it would have to involve recognition of each other's greatness, how can we serve to advance civilization and bring upon an unprecedented global society in which peace and understanding prevail over war and hatred?
I think that we all have to be more tolerant and work together to accept each other's differences. Anybody who believes that he has direct access to the Truth--whether Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, or whatever--is simply wrong. We all strive to get closer to Truth, but we cannot ever achieve it. Some people believe and others do not. But that is no reason to kill each other, although people have been doing that for centuries.
In this globalized world it is easier to find out what people are doing around the world, but we all have to learn to live with each other, not make everyone else do it my way.
I hope that my teaching and writing about the arts of the Islamic lands helps people to appreciate something that is otherwise strange and forbidding to them. But simply, I want people to think that anyone who can make such beautiful things must be interesting.
Q: We knew you traveled to Baghdad, Damascus, Tehran and Cairo what else cities helped you to write your great books?
I've never been to Baghdad, but I've traveled to lots of other parts of the Arab and Muslim worlds over the past 40 years though I've never been to Saudi Arabia or to Indonesia (and Southeast Asia). While the governments of many countries don't always get along with the government of the USA, we've always found people to be extremely welcoming and friendly on a personal basis. My children simply loved Cairo when we took them there as schoolchildren, because they grew up in a tiny little town with fewer than 1000 people and they loved all the excitement all day and night. There are many cities I'd still like to visit if I have the chance.
Q: It's known that Islamic Art and Architecture aren’t not limited to a particular region, or to a defined period of time, it is suitable for all scholars and admirers of Islamic art and architecture, how do you persuade some people such as Fitzgerald who denied Islamic art?
This is a difficult question because today many scholars are questioning whether there is something called Islamic Art. Certainly no artist in medieval Egypt or Turkey ever called what he did "Islamic Art."
Islamic art is a convenient term that tries to stress the connections between the arts of countries where Islam was important, so it says that writing, geometry and arabesque, for example, are more important than the differences the way these ideas are realized in Andalusia or in India. One could also look at it the other way and stress the differences between the artistic traditions of the regions, so that early Spanish Islamic art is very different from later Indian Islamic art. What you find depends on what you're looking for. As an art-historian, I'm interested in how people use visual means to express themselves. There is no question that people made "art" in the Islamic lands, even if it isn't the same as Raphael's paintings or Michelangelo's sculptures. But that doesn't mean it isn't art.
Q: There are many examples of the finest examples of Islamic art, could you show us some of them and comment?
That's what I do in my classes! But if you want something more, we wrote this for Saudi Aramco World about the 10 Masterpieces of Classical Islamic Art (http://www.saudiaramcoworld.com/issue/200201/islam.an.introduction.htm).
"Great nations write their autobiographies in three manuscripts, the book of their deeds, the book of their words and the book of their art," wrote Ruskin. "Of the three the only trustworthy one is the last." The objects listed below, chosen by historians of Islamic art Jonathan M. Bloom and Sheila S. Blair, are only 10 pages from the vast "manuscript" of Islamic civilization, but they offer a sample of the riches of the whole.
1. The Dome of the Rock, Jerusalem, 692. The first great work of Islamic architecture. It was built over the rock from which the Prophet Muhammad made his miraculous ascent to heaven, which is described in Chapter 17 of the Qur'an.
2. The Malwiya minaret, Samarra, Iraq, mid-ninth century. This 50-meter (160') helicoidal tower of sun-dried and baked brick may have been modeled on ancient ziggurats. It symbolizes the power of Islam at the zenith of the Baghdad-based Abbasid caliphate.
3. The Mughira pyxis, carved at Córdoba, Spain, 968. This small, exquisite box, carved from a cylindrical section of elephant tusk, is the most beautiful of the handful of known Islamic ivory carvings. Now in the Louvre in Paris.
4. The pulpit from the Kutubiyya Mosque, Marrakesh, Morocco, 1137. This wooden pulpit, nearly four meters (13') tall, was carved in Córdoba by the descendants of the workmen who carved the Mughira pyxis. Hundreds of thousands of pieces of wood and bone are carved and fitted together with consummate artistry.
5. The Mihrab from the Maydan Mosque, Kashan, Iran, 1226. (A Mihrab is a niche in a wall of a mosque indicating the direction of the Ka`bah.) Composed of glazed ceramic slabs fitted into a complex, harmonious ensemble of calligraphy and arabesques, this is the acme of the difficult luster technique of overglaze decoration perfected by Persian ceramists. Now in the Islamic Museum of Berlin.
6. The Baptistery of Saint-Louis, Cairo, 1300. This hammered bronze basin, inlaid in silver and gold, is decorated on both the interior and the exterior with marvelous figural scenes showing hunters, servants and warriors. First made to catch water after hand-washing before prayers, it was only later used as a baptismal font by the French court. Now in the Louvre.
7. The Ahmad al-Suhrawardi Qur'an manuscript, Baghdad, 1307. This is arguably the finest display of the calligrapher's art. The paper was polished to an impeccable smoothness, allowing the pen to glide effortlessly across apearly surface. This was a multivolume manuscript for an anonymous patron, and it is now dispersed. The colophon is in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
8. The Ardebil Carpets, Iran, 1539-40. These two enormous carpets were worked in 10 colors of silk and wool. Each has more than 25 million knots, making them one of the most splendid examples of the weaver's art. This one is in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London; the other is in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
9. The Selimiye Mosque, Edirne, Turkey, 1574. The breathtaking interior of the mosque is the masterpiece of the Ottoman architect Sinan, who created a huge and uninterrupted space under a towering dome. The centralized space of the prayer hall literally and symbolically embraces the community of believers and unites them under God's radiance.
10. The Taj Mahal, Agra, India, 1647. This enormous white marble monument is set in a garden along the banks of the Jumna River, centerpiece of a complex designed to evoke the gardens of paradise that await believers.
Abdur-Rahman: Thank you very much.
Welcome to Islamic art. welcome addition to the interview Islamic architecture. With well-chosen excellent photographs taken by Professor Jonathan M. Bloom, it provides one of the best-balanced accounts of Islamic art in 10 Islamic centuries , ... a thoughtful and illuminating survey of questions and answers.
Thank you very much.Professor Jonathan M. Bloom's imposingly broad range and analytical subtlety helped transform the Western study of Islamic art and architecture.
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