Parviz Tanavoli, Persepolis #1, 1961, tempera on paper, Grey Art Gallery, New York University Art Collection, Gift of Abby Weed Grey.
[Note: Thank you to the Vancouver Art Gallery for images from the Exhibition – Parviz Tanavoli: Poets, Locks, Cages
– July 1, 2023 to November 19, 2023]
Much water has flowed under the bridge since Edward Said’s Orientalism (1978) rocked the boat of Western scholarship on the “Muslim world.” Essentialism, stereotyping and ahistorical commentary about Muslims and Islam haven’t ceased, of course, even in elite academia on both sides of the Atlantic. But Said empowered a postcolonial critique that calls out orientalist reductionism, in terms that have acquired broad familiarity. The critique has extended to a growing Islamophobia—before and after the events of 9/11—and to valorizing Muslim feminism. A host of Muslim scholars, including Talal Asad, Shahab Ahmed, Fatima Mernissi, Abdullahi An-Naim, Amina Wadud, Anver Emon, and Saba Mahmood, have radically reshaped how we understand Muslim history and cultures, as well as our ideas about secularism and human rights.
Parviz Tanavoli, Fallen Poet, 1967, ceramic, The Manijeh Collection.
What is Islamic Studies? is largely a response to key questions raised by that cluster of scholars. Nine essays, with a lively introduction by Leif Stenberg and Philip Wood of the Aga Khan University’s Institute for Muslim Civilizations & Cultures (London), take the reader through the conceptual bases of “Islamic Studies.” Note the subtitle, which narrows the focus to Europe and North America—and here, to the US, UK, and northern Europe. Not surprisingly, the two political events cast as milestones in this field are the 1979 Iranian Revolution and 9/11, though neither is actually discussed. The various contributors hew tightly to “approaches” as a matter of theoretical perspectives, mostly eschewing empirical data on the “what, why and where” of Islamic studies programs.
Parviz Tanavoli, Farhad and I, 1973, oil on canvas, The Tanavoli Family Collection.
That said, the introduction touches on aspects of the geo-political environment that shade the unfolding of academic approaches—such as “foreign policy interventions in the Middle East by the United States and its European allies,” the US-Israel relationship (p. 3), and the pattern of “recent migration to continental Europe … from Muslim-majority countries” (p. 4). There is hardly any discussion of the impact of these and other political realities in the rest of the chapters. Likewise, while the introduction recognizes that gender is today an integral part of “method and theory” in the study of Islam (p. 9), the volume consigns the evidence of this to the single female-authored chapter by Juliane Hammer at the end of the volume. She delivers a potent plea against a purely deconstructive approach to Islamic studies (favored by the editors), in a scholarly venture “of world-changing rather than world-accounting” (p. 193).
Parviz Tanavoli, Here No One Opens Any Gates III, 1986, bronze, The Tanavoli Family Collection.
To its credit, the volume avoids the tendency of centering “Islam” in the Middle East, ranging widely in its points of reference to Muslim societies and communities. An interesting example is Jonas Otterbeck’s chapter on “Power Practices and Pop,” where the South African singer-songwriter-activist Zain Bhika (b. 1974) takes centre stage. Bhika’s lyrics and civic activism connect to “ethics well-grounded in Islam” as well as to personal beliefs (p. 117), on topics ranging from drug abuse, child welfare and domestic violence to refugees and Palestine. His collaborators include Yusuf Islam and Dawud Warnsby, and his vocal musical roots span Anglo-American and South African cultures. The upshot, for Otterbeck, is a “pop nashid” genre in which Bhika reaches out “in a way that few intellectual theologians have the means, skills, or knowledge to do” (p. 122). This is smartly framed in terms of Talal Asad’s idea of Islam as a “discursive tradition” that is situated historically (i.e. within specific economic and political contexts):
“Islam as the object of anthropological understanding should be approached as a discursive tradition that connects variously with the formation of moral selves, the manipulation of populations (or resistance to it), and the production of appropriate knowledges (Asad, quoted at p. 108).
The framing is consistent with the tenor of this volume, albeit with varied readings of what a discursive tradition implies. Yet one searches in vain for any serious engagement here with the arts in Muslim settings, including in Europe and North America. Not even with architecture, which has enjoyed pride of place in both religious and secular forms.
Parviz Tanavoli, Heech and Hands, 1965, mixed media, The Manijeh Collection.
At the time of writing this review, the Vancouver Art Gallery highlights the half-century long oeuvre of the Iranian-Canadian sculptor and painter Parviz Tanavoli (b. 1937). Embedded in classical Shi’a as well as ancient Persian narratives, and often criss-crossed with North American motifs, Tanavoli’s lyrical works are a meditation on the human condition. Their deep spirituality, juxtaposed against the intense consumerist heart of the city, is striking. For the art historian Venetia Porter, Tanavoli manifests “the genius of a great ustad.” Meanwhile in Toronto, the Aga Khan Museum’s summer season features “Rumi: A visual journey through the life and legacy of a Sufi mystic.” Visitors are invited to reflect on in-between worlds and fragmentation through the eyes of the Afghan-Canadian artist Hangama Amiri, recalling the itinerant Rumi in her own experience of displacement. All this in an elegant architectural locus, with an open courtyard that connects spaces of faith and material culture.
Parviz Tanavoli, Poet and the Beloved of the King II, 1963, bronze, The Manijeh Collection
What is Islamic Studies? notes with approval Hamid Dabashi’s view that “adab [custom] and architecture are just as significant as fiqh [jurisprudence]” in a civilizational take on Islam (p. 15). One expects this (not to mention cinema, on which Dabashi is prolific) to play out in what follows—together with an appreciation of the esoteric / mystical traditions that are an ineluctable part of the heritage. This volume is certainly a valuable resource on contemporary Western scholarship, by Muslims and non-Muslims, in a field that has come some way from what Orientalism critiqued. Its strength is in the mapping of themes and ideas critical to an informed discourse on Islam and Muslims. There are rich bibliographies that accompany each chapter. And in the introduction, at least, traces of what would have made this an even more robust resource if it had ventured further.
- Foreword, Parviz Tanavoli: Poets, Locks, Cages (Vancouver Art Gallery, 2023), p. 33.