ART THE TIMELINE HISTORY OF ISLAMIC ART AND ARCHITECTURE By NASSER D. KHALILI [Worth Press, 186pp., 2005]
CREATING A GENERAL survey of Islamic art is a bold move. There are already quite a few on the market, so it is hardly uncharted territory. For a new publication to make an impression, it has to be different. Originality of approach is Nasser D. Khalili’s major contribution to the field. He is well known as a collector, but less so as a writer. With one of the greatest collections of Islamic – and other – art, he is in a good position to produce a comprehensive view of a little-understood field.
The first difference with The Timeline History of Islamic Art and Architecture is size. It is taller than many bookshelves and presents the impression of being a rather superior atlas. Inside, the timeline approach takes over. This consists of about 20 pages out of a total of almost 200, so it is not the most numerically significant part of the book. It does set the tone, however, showing the full geographic and chronological extent of the Islamic world. More effort than usual is made to show that this world extends further than the Middle East and Iran, although the splendid introductory map does not venture far into the generally ignored margins of China and sub-Saharan Africa. At least they turn up in other parts of the book, which is more than can be said of most surveys. There are pictures of Chinese and Sudanese Qur’ans, too, and even Southeast Asia is brought out of the academic abyss with illustrations of textiles and manuscripts.
Other attractions include an easy- to-follow analysis of ruling dynasties, which is by no means an easy task to master, and then on to a serious look at different media. Inevitably this starts with calligraphy. The approach throughout the book is informative and desperately trying not to be provocative. Stoking controversy is clearly not the author’s aim, although where differing opinions exist, he is prepared to mention them. There is an earnest appraisal of the right way to use the word “Kufic”. Accuracy rather than trailblazing is the aim, and this works well. Among the few errors spotted were stating that Jawi is a script, when it is actually an adaptation of the Arabic alphabet for the Malay language.
The straightforward delivery is backed up by a wonderful selection of religious manuscripts and other works. It is good to see some rarities brought out, such as a Bulgarian Qur’an. Other chapters include ceramics, glass, metalwork and all the other great aesthetic achievements of the Islamic world. A bonus is a special two-pager on scientific instruments, objects which in the Western tradition are rarely allowed into the art enclosure. The examples presented here should convince anyone that they are worthy participants. As with every part of the book, the emphasis is on the visuals. There are about 800 images, all in colour. Some of these will be familiar from exhibitions such as Heaven on Earth, a joint venture with the State Hermitage Museum, and the superb series of books about the Khalili Collection that have been published by Azimuth Editions. The Timeline is a far more affordable option.
This is an ideal book for browsing. There amount of text is not excessive and is aimed at readers without specialist knowledge. Those who want to probe deeper should go for the highly academic approach of the Azimuth Editions, but for the rest, this is an attractive and readable approach to the subject.