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Treasures of Islam : edited by Toby Falk (Philip Wilson: $35; 400 pp., illustrated)

February 09, 1986|Pratapaditya Pal | Pal is senior curator of Indian and Southeast Asian art and curator-in-charge of West Asian art, Los Angeles County Museum of Art. and Babur: Are his memoirs a "treasure"?

"Treasures of Islam" is the catalogue of an exhibition of 567 objects of Islamic art organized by the Musee d'art et d'histoire in Geneva last summer. The book has been published simultaneously in English, French and Arabic. While the exhibition incurred the displeasure of Islamic fundamentalists, even though much of the art displayed belongs to a few wealthy Muslim collectors, one wonders how the Arabic version of the book will be received in the Arab world. The title of the book is certainly a misnomer as well as hackneyed: Can the museum-goer today be beguiled any longer by such cliches as "treasures" or "masterpieces"? Moreover, many objects included have little to do with Islam and happen to have been created in an Islamic cultural environment. Many of the artists responsible for some of the greatest Mughal paintings were Hindus (see catalogue numbers 127, 129, 134). Are books such as the "Baburnameh" (Memoirs of Babur), or "Akbarnameh" (History of Akbar), or portraits of mortals, or nature paintings and jade bowls necessarily treasures of "Islam"?

As the organizers of the exhibition claim, they were successful in bringing together a galaxy of scholars of Islamic art and culture (19 altogether, 16 of whom are Americans or Europeans) to write the book. Unfortunately, in their haste to hold the exhibition in record time--only two years--they may not have allowed the authors sufficient time to study the material in depth. Inevitably, therefore, the rather short essays only succeed in whetting our appetite while the entries on the objects are at times sketchy and not exactly sparkling. In the three introductory essays, Oleg Grabar of Harvard University discusses some of the common threads that bind the diverse objects and monuments of various Islamic traditions, A. S. Melikian-Chirvani of Paris provides interesting comments about the aesthetics of Islam, and Stuart Carey Welch gives us an interesting but personal account of how private collectors in Europe and America became interested in Islamic manuscripts and pictures. Short essays also precede each section of the catalogue.

While it is true that an exhibition catalogue cannot be encyclopedic, the uninformed but interested reader may find the book somewhat daunting. For instance, no map is provided to familiarize the reader with the vast geographical area covered in the book. Attributions of objects are constantly made with the specialists in mind. How many viewers or readers know what "Khurasan," "Northern Jazira (Siirt?)" or "Rum" means, and what geographical areas are intended by these terms? Or, again, what is Tulunid, Iskshidid or even Mamluk and Seljuq? Since scores of different dynasties ruling in different times and diverse regions are mentioned, it would have helped all readers, including scholars, if proper dynastic and chronological tables and charts had been provided.

These shortcomings aside, the book is sumptuously produced with all 567 objects reproduced in color. In that sense, it is indeed a "treasure" of book production and well worth owning. It would make a splendid holiday gift, for whether or not one is particularly interested in Islamic art, one cannot but be enjoyably seduced by the extraordinary elegance and vivacity of form and color that assault one's sensibilities almost on every page of this oversize book. There are 156 examples of paintings, calligraphy and book illustrations, most of which were created in Iran and India (Turkish and Arab paintings are poorly represented); an interesting group of late Iranian lacquers and oil paintings; a representative selection of elegantly decorated ceramics; metalwork of varied shapes and intricately inlaid designs; diverse arms and armors; a rich assortment of carpets and brocaded silks of highly imaginative designs and technical finesse; some examples of architectural embellishments and exquisitely rendered gold jewelry, and an enormous number of coins, mostly gold. In fact, of the 567 objects, 199 are coins.

While it is commendable to include coins in an exhibition of Islamic art, here the organizers may have been somewhat carried away by their enthusiasm. In any event, the "Treasures of Islam" is certainly a feast for the eyes and ought to be treasured as a beautiful book illustrating a plethora of beautiful objects created by cultures that have been dominated by the Islamic faith. Whether or not in creating these objects, the humble artists had flouted their religious injunctions, ultimately they should be viewed as much as treasures of Islam as they are of mankind in general.

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