Islamic art is glorious – so why are we in the West so afraid of it?

Dazzling effect: detail from folio from the 9th-century Blue Qur’an
Dazzling effect: detail from folio from the 9th-century Blue Qur’an - Samar Kassab/Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, Qatar

“Many people think that Islam is a terrorist religion,” says Sheikha Al-Mayassa Al Thani, the sister of Qatar’s ruling emir, “and it’s not.” We are recording an interview for a new BBC television documentary about Doha’s recently revamped Museum of Islamic Art (MIA), and, dressed in a navy-blue abaya, Al-Mayassa (who, as chair of Qatar Mus­eums, is said to have an annual budget of $1 billion for buying art) is describing a Western “misperception”, as she puts it, about Islam.

Conflating it with terrorism was, she explains, a “constant narrative” while she was studying in America after the 9/11 attacks – and, she adds, it remains a “stereotype”. But “stereotypes can be broken through arts and culture”, which Al-Mayassa describes as “the most powerful tool to bring people together”.

If only: right now, it seems as if that “stereotype” is influencing Western attitudes towards Islamic art, too, and driving people apart. Why, in the United States, did the Frick Pittsburgh museum recently postpone an exhibition on Islamic art? According to its executive director, the show was put on hold at the last minute because of concerns that, in light of the conflict between Israel and Hamas, “for many people, especially in our community, [it] would be traumatic”. Thankfully, she has since apologised for her patronising statement, which seemed, absurdly, to imply that, for the museum’s Jewish visitors, historical objects from the Middle East were synonymous with atrocities committed by Hamas. (The exhibition has now been rescheduled for next summer.) But the incident provokes a troubling question: why are people today afraid of Islamic art?

Although misguided, a subliminal association with terrorism for some in the West is easy enough to understand: it is a corollary of a cari­cature of the Middle East as a heartland of extremists calling for jihad. For those who want to see beyond them-and-us narratives, there may be other reasons why Islamic art seems difficult, even bewildering. And these, I suspect, are the result not of a single overarching “misperception” of Islam, but of a number of misconceptions that have long skewed our view.

Such apprehension may simply reflect a sense of Islamic art’s ­“otherness” when compared with art from the West. There is little freestanding Islamic sculpture in the manner of, say, Benvenuto Cellini’s Perseus with the Head of Medusa or The Thinker by Auguste Rodin, while the primacy, for Western artists, of “fine” oil painting had no equivalent in the Islamic world, which tended to prefer art forms – metalwork, glassware, ceramics – traditionally viewed by Eur­o­peans as “decorative”, and therefore further down the ­aesthetic pecking order. Art historians are aware of the names of many brilliant Islamic artists, but, typically, know little about their lives – which isn’t the case with those stars of Western art who emerged during the Renaissance. Plus, of course, the (often anonymous) artisans of the Islamic lands, who were more concerned with, for instance, abstract ornament, never worshipped at the altar of naturalism with the same zeal as their European counterparts.

The Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, Qatar
The Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, Qatar - Joshua Davenport / Alamy Stock Photo

Given the centrality, within Islam, of the sacred text of the Koran, Islamic art sets great store by calligraphy. This can be hard going for audiences in the West – although those who make time for a closer look can be richly rewarded. Inside MIA’s conservation studio, I come across two folios from the 9th-century Blue Qur’an: luxurious, indigo-coloured parchment, with the verses picked out in gold. Seemingly, the elongated, angular forms of its archaic “Kufic” script were intended to impart a dazzling effect, as well as gravitas, augmenting the scriptures’ meaning.

Then, there are misunderstandings, such as the belief that Islamic art is “aniconic”: hostile to idols and images. Although figurative imagery was proscribed early in the religion’s history, the Koran doesn’t, in fact, forbid the pictorial representation of humans and animals; anyone visiting the Islamic galleries inside the British Museum in London or the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York would spot plenty of both.

“You find figurative art in Islamic art since its beginning,” explains MIA’s senior curator, Mounia Chekhab-Abudaya. Even the old idea that it only appeared in non-religious contexts, away from mosques and madrasas, isn’t, she tells me, accurate. Recently, however, this didn’t stop a liberal arts university in Minnesota from parting ways with an art historian who’d dared to show her class a 14th-century painting of the Prophet Muhammad, after Muslim students complained: further evidence that sensitivities about Islamic art – both for believers and defensive academic administrators – are as intense as ever.

Exquisite: the 10th century Doha Hind
Exquisite: the 10th century Doha Hind - Chrysovalantis Lamprianidis/Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, Qatar

In reality, “Islamic art” is a mis­nomer, a catch-all construct that’s tricky to define. “It’s invented by Western art historians,” explains MIA’s director, Julia Gonnella, referring to its emergence as a scholarly discipline during the 19th century, as the West exerted itself across the Islamic world. European art historians, she explains, happily differentiated between baroque and rococo artefacts, but lumped together objects produced elsewhere as “Chinese”, “African” – or “Islamic”. “This,” Gonnella says, “is a completely Western perception.”

Some museums no longer use the term “Islamic art”. In 2018, when it unveiled its “gallery of the Islamic world”, the British Museum explicitly “avoided” the formulation. As Zeina Klink-Hoppe, a curator at the British Museum, tells me now, a “strict definition of Islamic art” is difficult to apply to such a “vast region”, with “a population that belonged to different ethnicities, that followed different faiths, and that ranged from the most humble to the most privileged”.

Walking through MIA’s five-­storey white limestone building – which, according to the wishes of its architect, I M Pei (the man behind the Louvre’s glass pyramid), is set on its own island overlooking Doha’s futuristic ­skyline – it doesn’t take long to comprehend how “vast” this “region” is. Consider one of the mas­ter­pieces of the museum (which was inaugurated in 2008 but re­opened last year following a significant rehang): the Doha Hind. This 19in-high brass garden ornament of a female red deer was made, probably in the late-10th or early-11th centuries, for a fountain loc­ated not in the Middle East, but in the Muslim kingdom of ­Al-Andalus, in ­present-day Spain, where it likely belonged to a member of the Umayyad elite. With flaring nostrils and up­right ears, seemingly ­swivelling above its head like ­periscopes scanning the horizon, it’s characterised by naturalistic flourishes alongside stylised decoration, and would have been animated, within a palace courtyard, by the sight and sound of water gushing from its open mouth.

Yet, what kinship does this charming metal creature, excavated in the western Mediterranean, really share with the other effigies of animals on display at MIA, such as a surprisingly anthropomorphic, turquoise-glazed fritware figure of a monkey with a lugubrious expression, which was created during the 12th or 13th centuries in modern-day Iran? Or a tiny 9th-century flask fashioned, from rock crystal, to represent a fish with a forked tail, which may hail from South-east Asia?

In the past, Gonnella says, scholars considered objects from South-east Asia in “more ethnographic” terms: never truly considered part of the Islamic art “canon”. A new gallery at MIA devoted to the Muslim sultanates on islands within present-day Malaysia and Indonesia is a sign, she continues, of how much the field has “expanded”. Indonesia, Al-Mayassa reminds me, “is the largest Muslim country in the world”.

A lugubrious expression: the blue monkey from 12th century Kashan
A lugubrious expression: the blue monkey from 12th century Kashan - Chrysovalantis Lamprianidi/Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, Qatar

Sometimes, though, labelling an object as Islamic obscures more than it illuminates. At MIA, I’m captivated by a golden tree-shaped ornament from Afghanistan that might have adorned a woman’s head. Topped with red gemstones possibly representing pomegranates (associated, in ­Central Asia, with abundance and fertility), it is, says MIA curator Nicoletta Fazio, a “tree of life”. In effect, a miniature kinetic sculpture, its leaves would have tinkled and swayed as its owner moved. At the museum, the accessory is displayed above a strikingly similar yet ancient, pre-Islamic twisted-gold tree ornament.

The juxtaposition suggests that the former’s cultural DNA may have nothing to do with Islam at all, even if it was produced, as Fazio puts it, “in a geographical area at that time ruled officially by a Muslim”. Describing it as “Islamic” is therefore “problematic”. Yet, she continues, “We try to debunk the old idea [of Islamic art] by showing how diverse it is.”

Seemingly, a new generation of art historians is striving to, as it were, de-Islamicise Islamic art, by diverting attention from its supposedly universal religious essence (once said to span continents and centuries). Al-Mayassa tells me that “quality” craftsmanship is what MIA “promotes”, rather than religion: “I don’t think it’s a religious thing… In the Islamic empire, you had Arab Muslims, Arab Jews, and Christians: we coexisted.”

“Islamic art” isn’t just about the primacy of craft, or geometric designs and floral motifs, as Western scholars once suggested. Of course, these things were central to much of the art that, from the 7th to the 19th centuries, emerged from an Islamic world which spread from the Atlantic and Africa to India and beyond; there’s a reason why we use the term “arabesque” to refer to a distinctive type of ornament (based on bindweed) commonly found in the Arab world.

But the concept of a museum devoted to “Islamic art” is increasingly peculiar, because the term encompasses so much. (Can you imagine a prominent gallery in the UK called the Museum of Christian Art? Neither can I.) There’s no need to be fearful of Islamic art. But, to vanquish any lingering misgivings, we shouldn’t be afraid of expanding our idea of what such art contains.

Inside Museums: Museum of Islamic Art Doha will be broadcast on BBC News on Christmas Eve, then available on iPlayer