There has been much misinformation about
Islam. Reports in Western media tend to perpetuate stereotypes that Islam is a
violent religion and Muslim women are oppressed. Popular films like “American
Sniper” reduce places like Iraq to dusty war zones, devoid of any culture or
history. Fears and anxiety manifest themselves in Islamophobic actions such as
burning mosques or even attacking people physically.
At the heart of such fear is ignorance. A
December 2015 poll found that a majority of Americans (52 percent) do not understand
Islam. In this same poll, 36 percent also said that they wanted to know more
about the religion. Interestingly, those under 30 years were 46 percent more
likely to have a favourable view of Islam.
These statistics highlight an opportunity
for educators. As a scholar of Islamic art and architecture, I am aware that
for the past 20 years, educators have been trying to improve the teaching of
Islam - both in high school and college history courses.
The problem, however, is that the teaching
of Islam has been limited to its religious practice. Its impact on the arts and
culture, particularly in the United States, is seldom discussed.
Teaching of Islam Misses
In high school history books, there is
little mention of the intertwined histories of Europe, Asia and Africa in the
middle ages and the Renaissance. There is even less mention of the flowering of
art, literature and architecture during this time.
In a world history textbook for New York
public high schools, for example, the “Muslim World,” appears in the 10th
chapter. In condensing a thousand years of history - from the seventh to the
17th century - it focuses only on “Arab armies” and the rise of early modern
Palatine Chapel borrowed from the art of
the Fatimids. Al-dabra, CC BY-NC-ND
Such narrow focus misses out on the
cultural exchanges during this period. For example, in medieval Spain, the
Troubadour poets borrowed their lyrical beauty from Arabic. Arabic was the
courtly language of southern Spain until the 15th century. Similarly, the
12th-century Palatine Chapel in Sicily was painted and gilded in the imperial
style of the Fatimids, the rulers of Egypt between the 10th and 12th centuries.
Such exchanges were common, thanks to the
mobility of people as well as ideas.
The point is that the story of Islam cannot
be told without a deeper understanding of its cultural history: Even for early
Muslim rulers, it was the Byzantine empire, the Roman empire and the Sassanian
empire (the pre-Islamic Persian empire) that provided models. Such overlaps
continued over the centuries, resulting in heterodox and cosmopolitan
The term “Middle East” - coined in the 19th
century - fails to describe the complex social and cultural mosaic or religions
that have existed in the region most closely associated with Islam - and
continue to do so today.
Arts Can Explain Important Connections
So, what should educators do to improve
From my perspective, a fuller picture could
be painted if identities were not to be solely defined through religion. That
is, educators could focus on the cross-cultural exchanges that occurred across
boundaries through poets and artists, musicians and architects. Both in high
school and university, the arts - visual, musical and literary - could
illustrate the important connections between Islam and other world histories.
For example, a class on the Renaissance
could explain how the 15th-century Italian painter Gentile Bellini gained famed
at the court of Mehmet II, the conqueror of Istanbul. Mehmet II commissioned
Bellini to design an imperial portrait that was sent to rulers throughout
Europe. His art presents a wonderful example of the artistic exchanges that
took place between early modern cities such as Delhi, Istanbul, Venice and
It might also help students to know that
the Dutch painter Rembrandt collected Mughal miniature paintings. Silks from
the Safavid Empire (the Iranian dynasty from the 16th to 18th century) were so
popular that Polish kings had their coat of arms woven in Isfahan.
This exchange of art continued into the Age
of Enlightenment, a time when ideas around politics, philosophy, science and
communications were rapidly being reoriented in Europe. A class on the
Enlightenment may highlight the fact that writers like Montesquieu turned to
the Middle East to structure a critique of their own religious institutions.
Goethe found inspiration in Persian poetry. kaythaney, CC BY-NC
A poetry class could similarly show
connections between the German author Wolfgang von Goethe’s writings and Islam,
as exemplified in his “West-Eastern Diwaan,” a collection of poems. This
epitome of world literature was modelled after classical Persian poetry in its
style, and inspired by Sufism, the mystical tradition in Islam.
Most students are open to seeing these
connections, even if it might require overcoming their own preconceptions about
Islam. For example, when I teach my class on medieval architecture, students
are surprised to learn that the two oldest continuously run universities in the
world are in North Africa (in Fez - a city in Morocco - and Cairo).
Indeed, it is not easy to disentangle
contemporary politics from historical fact, to teach more fully the culture and
diversity of a religion that is almost 2,000 years old.
Perhaps educators could learn from a recent
exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York titled “Jerusalem
1000-1400: Every People under Heaven.” The show illustrates how Abrahamic
religions - that is, Christianity, Judaism and Islam - borrowed freely from
each other in the realm of art, music and literature. Jerusalem was home to
diverse populations and the arts played an important role within its religious
and political life.
It’s not in the past alone. We see these
connections continue today - here in America, where Islam is an intrinsic part
of the culture and has been for centuries.
From the Mississippi delta to the Chicago
skyline, Muslims have made contributions, which might not be so obvious: West
African slaves in the South were central to the development of the blues. Its
complex vocalization and rhythms incorporated the rituals of Islamic devotion
many of them had to leave behind.
The same is true of architecture. A
quintessential example of modern American architecture is the Sears Tower in
Chicago, which was designed by the Bangladeshi-American structural engineer
Fazlur Rahman Khan.
Muslim contributions to art and
architecture don’t just reflect the diversity of America, but the diversity of
Islam in this country. Muslims in America comprise a rich tapestry of
ethnicities, languages and cultures. This knowledge is particularly meaningful
for young Muslim Americans, who struggle to claim their place in a country in
which they are sometimes made to feel like outsiders.
Educators, especially within the arts and
humanities, have an important role to play in this religious literacy that
helps students understand the unity in the diversity. After all, as the most
popular poet in America, the 13th-century Muslim mystic Rumi wrote:
All religions, all
this singing, one song
are just illusion and vanity.
Kishwar Rizvi, Associate Professor in the History of
Art Islamic Art and Architecture, Yale University
“There has been much
misinformation about Islam”. “At the heart of such fear is ignorance”.
Misinformation, fear and ignorance are bound to come when there is unprecedented
attack like 9/11 or Orlando attack. This associated professor writes like an
average Muslim. She could have included one sentence like “Of course there was
no islamophobia before the terrorist attack”