Prepared by Majd Musa and Mohammad al-Asad
A questioner inquired how Grabar would look at monuments that were built by non-Muslims within the Muslim world. Here Grabar brought the story of Hassan Fathy who was very proud of the fact that in his New Gourna Village project (constructed between 1946 and 1953) he asked a Coptic architect to build the village's church. He believed that only a Muslim can build a mosque, and only a Christian can build a church. For Grabar, a good architect can make anybody's architecture; one does not have to be of a certain religion to build religious monuments dedicated to that religion. Grabar added that he views the idea of restricting the design of a religious building to the believers of that religion to be wrong. What matters, according to Grabar, is whether such buildings were designed by people who were competent or not. Grabar does not think that the issue of the religion of the architect is significant in determining the quality of a work of architecture. However, the religion of the architects of such buildings has become a significant issue in contemporary politics. In this context, Grabar mentioned that he always has wondered about who carried out the beautifully executed inscriptions of the seventh-century Umayyad Dome of the Rock. He wonders whether there were enough Muslim mosaicists with the competence to carry out such first-grade mosaics after three generations of the appearance of Islam. He added it therefore is possible that Christian mosaicists might have done some of these mosaics. For Grabar, religion plays no role in the character or quality of the work of art, and it is odd that in modern times an association is made between technique and religion.
A follow-up question was how Grabar classifies churches or synagogues that were built under Muslim rule, and whether he considers them works of Islamic art or not. Grabar answered that he absolutely considers works such as the thirteenth-century synagogue of El Transito in Toledo and the Armenian churches in Julfa near Isfahan as works of islamic art - with a small "i". He added that one cannot consider such monuments as works of Islamic art with a capital "I", but they totally fit within Islamic culture. Grabar mentioned that it is interesting to consider the opposite proposition; how one would look at a building that was made by a Muslim outside the Muslim world, for example the Contemporary Arts Center (completed in 2003) that the Muslim Iraqi architect Zaha Hadid (1950 -) designed in Cincinnati, Ohio.
Here an audience member commented that when Michele Piccirillo published his article "The Umayyad Churches of Jordan" (ADAJ, no 28, 1984, pp. 333 - 341), he gave it a misleading title. The title gave the impression that the Umayyads were building churches, but the article talks about churches which were built within the Umayyad period.
Grabar was asked whether the focus at the time when a work of art was produced in the Muslim world was on the religious aspect of that work, i.e. whether the produced art was meant to be Islamic or not. Grabar answered that this is one of the areas where contemporary pseudo-political thought, particularly that of Sayyid Hussein Nasr, has played a very negative role since Grabar believes that mysticism was secondary most of the time and cannot be used to delineate a culture. Grabar added that art was carried out because people needed a space, a house, a pot ... etc.; everybody needed that. Grabar believes most of what we refer to as Islamic art is secular. The exceptions to that statement are mosques, mausoleums, and artistic inscriptions of the Qur'an. He added that conservative Muslims often do not agree with this opinion. In this context, Grabar mentioned an incident where UNESCO had prepared during the early 1980s a series of a few hundred slides of masterpieces of Islamic art to be sent to high schools around the world. The idea of using the term "Islamic art" however was vetoed by the overly religious Iranian representative, who said there was no Islamic art since Islam and art did not fit together. This representative insisted that those slides be referred to as "pictures of works done within the region from Mauritania to Afghanistan and Indonesia" instead of "Islamic art." This person thought that the search for beauty and pleasure is against Islam, and that visual pleasure is not Islamic. He was absolutely adamant about the idea that the physical beauty of things is wrong. Grabar added that many in the Islamic world clearly disagree with this Iranian representative. In this context, one should keep in mind the work of someone such as the great Persian sufi teacher and mystical poet Jalal al-Din Rumi (1207 - 1273), who believed that everything done by man is beautiful. (7)
Grabar added that he even would argue that mosques have a secular function, since they may host secular activities. According to Grabar, it is for the wrong reasons that Hubert Lyautey, the head of the French protectorate in Morocco between 1912 and 1925, forbade non-Muslims to go into mosques. He did so because he did not want to have political incidents, as with uncouth French soldiers misbehaving in the midst of worshippers praying in mosques. However, with this, he created a "terrible" precedent. Grabar noted that mosques were never meant to be places from which non-Muslims are excluded. They are free places; one goes there to perform prayers, and to do other things such as meet with acquaintances and study. According to Grabar, mosques are unlike churches where one goes for a sacrament. Even in churches, one does not have to participate in a communion; one may only watch what other people do. Grabar commented that the later designation of mosques as merely sacred places is an unfortunate development.
Here, an audience member commented that Grabar presented two groups of people who consider Islamic art "non-Islamic." The first is a "progressive" group, which sees Islamic art more secular than sacred, and the second is a very "conservative" group, which believes there should be a disjunction between Islam and art. According to this audience member, both perspectives are unjustifiable. He believes not only did Islamic art create spaces that served utilitarian functions, but also created them for enhancing spirituality, facilitating meditation, and reinforcing rituals. According to this audience member, the problem is not so much that Islam does not reside within art, but that we have accepted an overly unified rigid perspective of Islamic art that has been strongly reinforced, especially since the 1970s. He added that there are many books on the splendors, unity, or common principles of Islamic arts, but not much has been done to highlight diversity among these arts. This audience member concluded it is time to end the emphasis on unity, and to look at differences, diversity, disjunctions, and controversies within Islamic art. Here, Grabar commented that the religious explanations of Islamic art that this audience member has mentioned are true of architecture. However, it is a little tricky when it comes to art as other arts are much more affected by masses of common currents of thought and behavior.