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The Grove Encyclopedia of Islamic Art and Architecture (GEIAA) treats the wide range of visual arts created in the lands where Islam was a prominent, if not the most prominent, religion in the period between the rise of Islam in the 7th century of the Common Era (CE) and the present. It therefore covers art and architecture produced in southern Europe, northern Africa and west, central and south Asia over 14 centuries. The GEIAA is addressed to users—whether general readers, high school and college students or scholars—seeking information, definitions, ideas for research, overviews of recent scholarship or introductions to the many aspects of Islamic art.

Islamic art is very difficult to define. It is neither fish nor fowl. It is not the art of a religion, like Buddhist art, nor is it the art of a single place or of a single time, like ancient Rome or the Renaissance. It is not confined to a single medium or technique, such as painting. Furthermore, the boundaries of Islamic art are fluid. The arts of Córdoba in Spain, for example, were part of Islamic art in 1200 but not in 1400, and the city of Baghdad was sometimes in the Iraqi cultural orbit and sometimes in the Iranian one. We have therefore taken the broadest definition of Islamic art: “the art made by artists or artisans whose religion was Islam, for patrons who lived in predominantly Muslim lands, or for purposes that are restricted or peculiar to a Muslim population or a Muslim setting [in the Christian Art entry].” Some scholars have found this definition confusing and have proposed differentiating “Islamic,” which would refer to matters associated only with the religion of Islam, from “Islamicate,” which would refer to matters associated with cultures that flourished under Islamic rule. Such fine distinctions, however, often bewilder the general reader to whom this work is addressed. We have tended to be inclusive, rather than exclusive, in line with modern scholarship that recognizes and celebrates the many facets of Islamic cultures around the world.

The GEIAA is based on the articles about Islamic art and architecture that were scattered throughout the 34-volume Dictionary of Art, published in 1996. From 1987 we served as area editors for Islam and Central Asia at the Dictionary, where we were responsible for organizing the original coverage of Islamic art. Most of the articles on the subject were gathered in a mammoth, 468-page double-column article entitled “Islamic Art,” which was subdivided into several book-length sections on individual media such as architecture, the arts of the book, ceramics and metalwork. Each of these sections was further subdivided chronologically and geographically, so that readers could compare, say, the histories of metalwares and ceramics in Iran during the period between 1250 and 1500. Dispersed alphabetically throughout the Dictionary’s many volumes were shorter articles on such topics as building types (e.g. mosque and madrasa), dynasties, sites, artists, patrons and scholars. Information about Islamic art was found in global articles such as “Garden” or “Ornament and Pattern” and in the regional surveys of the Indian subcontinent and Africa, which other experts edited separately and in different ways. In short, there was a wealth of information on Islamic art to be found in the Dictionary of Art, but the many levels of subdivision in the main article and its widespread distribution in other articles made it difficult for the reader to find it or comprehend the overall picture.

In recasting the old Dictionary as the new GEIAA, we have tried to simplify the organization and make the material more accessible to readers so that they have to negotiate fewer levels of subdivision. We began by breaking down the mega-article “Islamic art” into its constituent sections, such as architecture, ceramics and metalwork. We further separated the “arts of the book” into its constituent parts, including calligraphy, illumination (by which we mean non-figural decoration), illustration (figural decoration), bookbinding and printing. These articles will now be found listed alphabetically throughout the three volumes. We also expanded coverage of “peripheral” areas, such as East Asia, South Asia, Central Asia and Africa, as these areas are increasingly of interest to students and scholars today. We included virtually all the articles on the Islamic periods from the Dictionary’s rubric “Central Asia, §I. Western” because they cover material still not readily accessible except in obscure Russian publications, although we were not always able to integrate the articles into the surveys by medium. It seemed better to us to err on the side of repetition rather than omission. All the countries in the modern world with a significant Muslim population have their own articles.

Having used the Dictionary ourselves and in our classes, we also included—and expanded—some other related articles, such as “Orientalism” and “Photography”—that were not originally thought to have had an Islamic art component but which we now realize are necessary to make the GEIAA complete. In consultation with some of our colleagues, we added some rubrics, such as “Banknotes” and “Stamps,” which were not in the original Dictionary and have rarely, if ever, been treated as “Islamic” art. (Prospective doctoral students should note that there are dissertations waiting to be written here!) We also wanted to carry the story further, and so we have increased the number of biographies of living artists from the Islamic lands or practicing there, reflecting current interest in the subject. We augmented biographies of scholars who had worked in the field (our criterion was that the scholar in question had to be retired) because Post-modernism has taught us that the backgrounds of authors affect the kind of art history they write.

The biggest change in the past 20 years, since we began working on the Dictionary, has been the explosion of bibliography. As a result of burgeoning interest in Islamic art since the 1970s, not only are there far more scholars and students working in the field, but they are writing more articles and books, which appear in a far wider range of publications, from a wider range of sources. In the “Old Days” one could usually judge the importance of a publication solely by the reputation of the journal in which it appeared, whereas today many wonderful articles appear in obscure journals, Festschriften, conference proceedings and the like. These used to be almost impossible to find, but thanks to the wonders of modern bibliographical tools, let alone the internet and the PDF file, we have found many and have had to select what we consider the most important, whether because they are more recent, more accessible or more comprehensive. Readers who wish to go further can go to resources such as Index Islamicus or WorldCat to dig deeper. As English has fast become the lingua franca of the field, we have usually cited English language editions of a book that may appear in several languages simultaneously.

We have also tried to include new types of references, especially websites, but as many of these are ephemeral, we have had to restrict coverage to those institutional sites that we hope will be around for a few more years. For example, much documentation about Islamic architecture can be found on the ArchNet website (http://archnet.org) maintained by the Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture at Harvard and MIT. Not only does it provide a useful photo archive, but it also allows the user to download many publications for free, including many articles from early issues of the journal Muqarnas. ArchNet is also an important source for information about contemporary architecture in the Muslim world.

Whereas we once spent much time searching in obscure volumes for the accession numbers of objects discussed in the Dictionary, it is now possible to go online and find this information directly, as museums are now maintaining websites that have become significant resources for the study of Islamic art. Among those we have found most useful are the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City (www.metmuseum.org), the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (www.lacma.org), the V&A in London (www.vam.ac.uk) and the Louvre in Paris (www.vam.ac.uk). There are, of course, many other good ones. Readers of the GEIAA will be able to use these websites to augment the illustrations for many of the articles in the following pages, and many of the websites provide brilliant supplementary material, such as timelines and links. The European Commission has also funded an innovative website with information about objects in European and Middle Eastern museums. Called the Museum Without Frontiers, it can be found at www.discoverislamicart.org.

This explosion of new information has not, however, been spread equally throughout the Islamic lands. For example, since the Islamic Revolution in 1979, Iran has become isolated from much scholarship elsewhere, as Iranian scholars find it difficult to travel freely in the West and Westerners, particularly Americans, can have difficulties getting to Iran, let alone working there. So the number of articles we have added on Iranian material is relatively small, although we should note that a few major exhibitions of Iranian art have been held in Europe and North America in recent years. Iraq and Afghanistan have been ravaged by war, and their archaeological sites and museums have been plundered and decimated. While their curators and archaeologists have soldiered on valiantly to preserve the heritage under their care, they have more pressing concerns than writing scholarly articles about objects in their collections.

The good news is that scholarship in other areas has blossomed. Turkey, for example, seems to publish new books, journals and conference proceedings daily. The number of publications on the Indian subcontinent is equally great, if not greater, and many universities in Spain are publishing their own series of studies on local urban history and archaeology of the Islamic period. There is, in short, no dearth of new information being published, but we have tried to keep the bibliographies to manageable lengths.

We were very pleased to discover how well the original articles from the Dictionary had stood the test of time. In general, the new bibliographic citations did not radically transform the articles. In the past decade, there have been few discoveries comparable to the 1954 “discovery” of the 60-meter brick minaret at Jam in Central Afghanistan, dating from the 12th century, although archaeological work there continues to refine our knowledge of the site. Rather, the new citations reflect more refined and nuanced interpretations, or more examples of a familiar type. This may reflect the realization that the study of Islamic art has “come of age.” Whereas much earlier scholarship was devoted to taxonomy, current trends lean towards hermeneutics. We have tried to present balanced views summarizing multiple approaches towards controversial topics, so that readers can form their own opinions. Our goal is to make the relatively obscure field of Islamic art as accessible as possible to the widest possible audience in the hope that a better understanding of this rich artistic tradition will encourage readers to explore other aspects of Islamic civilization and the interrelationships between Islamic art and other artistic traditions.

The GEIAA contains over 1600 articles written by 375 scholars and arranged alphabetically, along with over 450 illustrations, including some 67 line drawings and maps. For each article, a headnote defines the topic and then lists any subdivisions, whether by chronology, geography or medium. For example, the book-length entry “Architecture”—the largest and most complex in the GEIAA with over 115,000 words—has ten sections: an introduction, eight chronological subsections and a final one on architectural decoration. Each of the chronological subsections is further subdivided according to region. The final subsection on architectural decoration is divided by medium and subject matter (sculpture, tiles, painting, mosaics, stained glass and epigraphy).

The presentation of a complex narrative covering such broad swathes of space and time always involves making divisions, and these can sometimes seem arbitrary and artificial. Historians of Islam and Islamic art have generally recognized major historical periods, and we have kept to these. Generally speaking, where necessary we have divided our treatment into four epochs: 600–900, from the rise of Islam to the flowering of the Abbasid empire; 900–1250, from the dissolution of the Abbasid empire to the Mongol conquests; 1250–1500, from the Mongol conquests to the rise of the great empires; and 1500–1900, the heyday of the Ottoman, Safavid, and Mughal empires. Islamic art has traditionally been said to “end” with the emergence of nation-states in the 19th and 20th centuries and national artistic traditions, and this division was followed in the Dictionary. Articles on individual countries took up the story from there. We have retained this arrangement because it provides space to describe recent and local developments in more detail. Thus, discussion of the arts of Egypt before the 19th century will be found in the surveys of individual media, such as architecture, ceramics or metalwork, while the arts since its emergence as an independent country are treated in the article “Egypt,” along with information about museums, art education and galleries. As the borders of medieval entities rarely coincide with those of modern nation-states, we have used geographical terms in their broader historical sense. Thus we use “Iran” to refer not merely to the land governed by the present Islamic Republic but to the larger cultural entity that might, at times, include parts of present-day Iraq, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan etc.

Most of the articles in the Dictionary were signed by their authors, who were specialists in their respective fields, and it is a sign of their expertise that so few of the articles needed serious revision. Because we needed the liberty to move sections of text from one place to another, we decided to eliminate signatures at the end of articles to bring these volumes in line with other publications in the series. In no way do we mean to take credit for the wonderful contributions of our numerous colleagues, who are all listed alphabetically on the contributors’ page at the end of Volume III. The interested reader can always go back to the original Dictionary of Art articles to see who signed what. We should add, however, that some of the best articles in the original were left unsigned at their authors’ request, either because they were too modest to take credit for what they viewed as the recapitulation of known information or because they were writing works for hire.

The articles are written in clear language with a minimum of technical vocabulary. They give important terms and titles transcribed in italics from their original languages, principally Arabic, Persian and Turkish, with English translations when needed. As some letters in these languages have no ready English equivalents, scholars have devised various systems to represent these unfamiliar sounds. We have adopted the generally accepted system of using subscript dots and macrons to differentiate h from h., for example, or a from a-, but we have tried to keep such transcriptions to a minimum, usually for single terms, book titles or bibliographic citations. For convenience’s sake we have arbitrarily chosen the Arabic form of a foreign word over its Persian and Turkish cognates, so the Arabic word madrasa (“theological college”) is used for the institution, whether it is a Moroccan medersa or an Indian madrassa. For geographical terms we have tried to use the most common forms, with cross-references where necessary. For example, we have preferred “Isfahan” to “Esfahan,” as given in the Times World Atlas.

Each article is followed by a selective bibliography that directs the reader who wishes to pursue a topic in greater detail to primary sources and the most important scholarly works in any language plus the most useful works in English. Citations, apart from primary sources, encyclopedias and other reference works, are arranged in chronological order from oldest to newest. To guide readers from one article to related discussions elsewhere in the GEIAA, there are many cross-references within the articles. A few blind headings direct the user from an alternate form of an entry term to the entry itself. A comprehensive index at the end of volume III lists all the topics covered in the GEIAA, including those that are not headwords themselves.

Working on Dictionary of Art from 1987 to 1994 was an extraordinary privilege, for it forced us, two young scholars who had previously looked at the world of Islamic art through lenses deeply tinted by the Fatimids and the Mongols, the subjects of our dissertations, to think globally. Rarely do scholars have the luxury to revisit the scenes of their youth, but in recasting the Dictionary’s articles on Islamic art as the GEIAA we were able to learn from our earlier mistakes and take advantage of the generous criticism of our colleagues to make a better and more user-friendly product. We hope that the new presentation will encourage all types of readers to discover and enjoy the wonders of Islamic art.

Sheila S. Blair and Jonathan M. Bloom

Richmond, New Hampshire


Oxford University Press

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