- Note from Founder and Director of NYU Center for Dialogues
- Changing impressions: Muslim Voices: Arts and Ideas
- The Arts of Islam in the Eyes of the West: A Historical View
- Cultural exchanges: viewing history through gifts and commerce
- Gift exchanges: Harun al-Rashid and Charlemagne
- Gift exchanges: Venice and the Ottoman Empire
- Commerce: coins, jewelry, and other goods
- Commerce: twentieth-century changes
- Creative Lives Under Changing Circumstances
- Early Muslim Society
- The Post-Mongol Muslim World
- The Early Modern Muslim World
- The Muslim World in 1900
- The Muslim World Today
- The Arts of Islam: A Brief History
- A. Poetry and Song
- B. Quranic Chant
- C. Calligraphy
- D. Belles Lettres
- E. Music and Dance
- F. Theater
- G. Painting, Sculpture, and Design
- H. Architecture
- Islamic Art Today
- Recommended Further Reading
- Poetry and Prose: Arabic
- Poetry and Prose: Persian
- Poetry and Prose: Turkish
- Poetry and Prose: Urdu
- Quranic Chant
- Music and Song
- Painting and Design
- Theater and Cinema
The Muslim World Today
The world of the modern–day Muslim creative artist has undergone a seismic reorientation. Even as the craftsman’s livelihood was disappearing –– to be sustained in most places only by a low–quality tourist trade or government–sponsored programs to preserve dying traditions –– creative individuals were adapting to a new world of artistic possibilities. Some learned new literary and artistic forms. Novelists, some of them writing in European as well as traditional Muslim languages, began to overshadow poets, who for many centuries had been the literary elite. Portrait and landscape painters graduating from newly created academies of fine arts initially imitated European styles, which appealed to a small local market of Westernized collectors but seemed remote from Islamic artistic traditions. Eventually, however, they would delve into their cultural past for idioms that would make their works more distinctive and appealing to an international market. For instance, a painter in Bahrain produces canvases that are reminiscent of New York School of abstract expressionism but also contain shapes and impressions suggestive of the life of the local suq. Another artist in Iran makes extravagant use of Persian calligraphy while depicting orientalist scenes deriving from European fantasies of the Arabian Nights.
The shadow puppet and folk theater traditions that were still alive in 1800 had largely died out in Turkey, Iran, and Malaysia by the turn of the twentieth century. They were replaced first by Western–style theater companies, and then by filmmakers whose work in recent decades has garnered international acclaim. An Iranian film like “Kandahar,” directed by Mohsen Makhmalbaf and released in 2001, admits a purely political interpretation that sees it as revealing the negative face of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, but also a Sufi interpretation that follows its protagonist on a journey—the original title of the film was “Journey to Kandahar”—from death, to life, to enlightenment.
In music, Western instruments, compositional styles, and performance techniques have found receptive Islamic audiences at the popular level. Fusion styles combining Western sounds and rhythms with aspects of Muslim tradition abound in a number of Muslim countries, as well as among Muslims living in the United States or Europe.
To be sure, wealthy patrons can still commission and collect traditional artistic products. A poet with an oeuvre consisting solely of works in praise of the Shi‘ite imams, for example, can still live a comfortable life enjoying the patronage of the pious rich in a country like Kuwait. But other artists have come to recognize newer sources of patronage. Magazines and newspapers offered new venues not just for editors and writers, but also for calligraphers, cartoonists and photographers. Here and there, an impresario would bring a theater or dance company into being, despite inherited taboos, particularly on public performances by women. Women themselves have become cultural pioneers as publishers and writers and increasingly challenge long–standing patterns of male domination. And television has opened the new vistas for cultural variety in the Muslim world as it has elsewhere.
Of course, these changes have not happened evenly across all Muslim lands. Turkey and Egypt were in the forefront of cultural transitions in the early twentieth century, while imperialist regimes in countries like India, Algeria, and Indonesia tended to be wary of new forms and venues of artistic expression that might challenge their hegemony. Wariness also surfaced in religious circles, though Sufi attitudes often proved more flexible and creative than those of religious judges and jurists. The Islamic Republic of Iran is one of several regimes that have tried unsuccessfully to suppress satellite television reception and interdict the smuggling of videotapes and DVDs deemed religiously or morally unacceptable.
In general, however, Muslim writers, artists, and performers everywhere have been deluged with western styles, manufactures, modes of communication, and forms of entertainment under political and economic conditions that have placed immense leverage in the hands of those who were most willing and able to adapt to western hegemony. Their responses laid the groundwork for understanding the rich array of Islamic cultural expression in the world today, and also established new patterns of life and professional practice for artistically creative individuals in every Muslim land. At the same time, they created a wide array of new institutional forms—museums, ministries of culture, broadcasting authorities, publishing companies, and cultural marketers—that would reshape the character of patronage in the world of the Islamic arts.