SURVEYS OF ISLAMIC ART TEND TO VENTURE NO further east than India. Similarly, art historians have shown a long-standing lack of interest in the output of Muslim artists from sub-Saharan Africa. The same applies to Islam in Europe, unless it happens to be Spain or Sicily, which have acquired perhaps the greatest mystique of all. Islamic art of the Balkans does not have the same allure, partly because it is of a more recent vintage and includes embarrassing items such as wine cups.

The conventional approach has for more than a century determined that Islamic art comes from the “heartlands” and everything else is ethnographic. No one can say that the quantity of books on Islamic art is anything but massive, especially when the number of collectors is so small. The geographical range is, however, very limited. Books may occasionally mention China or Southeast Asia, but seldom do they show what works from so far east actually look like. To find a volume dedicated to Islamic art from these regions is almost inconceivable.

China remains off-limits; it is of little interest to Islamicart historians and only arouses the curiosity of Sinologists when an artifact turns out to be of Ming imperial quality. Southeast Asian works have, however, acquired more recognition recently. The Message & The Monsoon, a pioneering exhibition at the Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia, is the first attempt to put the art of Southeast Asia into an Islamic context. The title takes its name from the summer and winter monsoon winds that brought trade, prosperity and Islam to the region. Works that are typically viewed as being merely “regional” are examined for their relevance to neighboring religious traditions and the world of Islam. To examine Islamic artifacts in Southeast Asia is less divisive than it would be in that other overlooked Far Eastern nursery of Islamic culture. Malay world objects do not suffer from the outright hostility that is found in China. For at least three centuries the central authorities of the Middle Kingdom have felt threatened by Islam. This has continued into the 21st century. The means of oppression have become less severe than in the past, when the simplest way to deal with unrest was to massacre Chinese Muslim communities.
Maritime Southeast Asia is a very different proposition. As its population is mostly Muslim, there is less reason for the Islamic art of the region to have been so overlooked. However, it took the Bali bombing in 2002 to remind the world that this large pocket of Islam existed at all. Last December’s Asian tsunami provided another reminder. The area most affected, with the loss of well over 100,000 lives, was Aceh. This province of north Sumatra received more attention over a few hours than it had in three decades of conflict between Muslim separatists and Indonesia’s central government.

As the death toll mounted, international awareness of the catastrophe became intense enough for charity football matches to be played by major European clubs. The Acehnese loss that received no attention was the destruction of its heritage. Once known as the “verandah of Mecca”, this was the launching pad of Islam in Southeast Asia around 700 years ago. Within a century or so, most of the region’s islands had become Muslim. It was one of the fastest and most peaceful conversions in the history of Islam. Other local religious communities – Hindu, Christian and animist – have generally lived in peace with the new Muslim majority, despite the occasional outbursts of church burnings in Sulawesi or head-hunting expeditions in Borneo. The different societies that have coexisted since the fall of the HinduBuddhist kingdoms have much in common. Unlike many parts of world, their differences have seldom been exploited for political gain.
The art of the region has an equally multicultural feel to it, with the same techniques and similar products being used throughout the archipelago and in the Malay peninsula. Despite this, the works of Muslim communities have a special identity. Their unique approach is a fusion of Islamic principles with vestiges of the Hindu-Buddhist past. By making small changes, the results became overwhelmingly Islamic – not only different from their non-Muslim neighbors, but also distinct from the art of other parts of the Islamic world.

The uniqueness of Southeast Asian art owes much to the region’s topography. Unlike the arid territories through which Islam first spread, Southeast Asia is hot and humid. Vegetation is abundant and the only sand to be found is on the beach. It is a less austere environment than that in which the three great monotheistic religions emerged. God’s bounty is all around and little effort is required to harvest it. Sitting under the right sort of tree will ensure a windfall, in the metaphorical sense at least, as wind is a comparatively rare phenomenon in these gentle climes. The two monsoons are the closest to violent weather as one can get. They are still manageable enough to be useful for sailing, although not for the huge quantity of trade that passed through the “Spice Islands” in the days before steamships.

The importance and proliferation of nature is the most conspicuous feature of Southeast Asia’s Islamic art. Whether it is a machete or a manuscript, flowers and tendrils are bound to make a showing. Just about every item of aesthetic value from the Malay world shares this homage to the natural world. In a land such as Arabia, it was to the boundless sky that artists looked for inspiration, seeing God in the infinite. In Southeast Asia, the sky is more often obscured by a tree. Instead, the concept of God the Infinite is represented in trailing arabesques of flora or a geometric fruit.

The concept of “fine art” in the Western tradition is as absent from the Malay world as it is from most parts of the Islamic world. There are virtually no paintings or sculptures. The “applied arts” are at the core of the region’s oeuvre, beautifying the mundane and at the same time paying homage to the Almighty. To some extent there is a hierarchy of media. The written word occupies the highest rung. Copies of the Qur’an are at the summit of all Islamic arts, and in Southeast Asia there is as distinctive an appearance with the holy book as with every other product of the artist’s atelier. The influence of longer-established Islamic societies is highly visible, which was inevitable when missionaries came from India, the Middle East and China. Despite this, there is still a unique identity to Southeast Asian religious manuscripts. They tend to use less gold and are plainer overall than the Qur’ans from India, Persia or the Ottoman empire. This lack of ostentation conveys a purity that is sometimes as striking as the North African Qur’ans from the first centuries of Islam. Invariably, plant life will be incorporated in the designs.

As is common with most of Southeast Asia’s output, manuscripts are seldom older than a couple of hundred years. This is another factor that has given the region’s oeuvre less credibility than that of the heartlands. Although Qur’anic works have been copied locally for many centuries, the climate is not kind to paper. The same applies to what might be considered the region’s second-highest art form. The region’s early Islamic buildings differed from those of Hindu-Buddhist societies, which had emphasized stone structures. The preferred Islamic approach was wood. It is not clear whether this was in deliberate opposition to the extravagance of their predecessors or whether there was a lack of skilled stonemasons at the beginning of the Islamic period. The results are certainly no match for a Buddhist temple like Borobudur in Java.

Despite their lack of grandeur and longevity, the wooden mosques of the Malay world mark a notable contribution to Islam. With three-tiered roofs and no trace of the later onion domes and ogival arches, traditional Malay mosques are well ventilated and perfectly suited to a tropical climate. It does not follow that superior function take an architectural style into the Islamic hall of fame. The mosques of Southeast Asia receive even less attention than the decorative arts.

The artifacts that have received the consideration of scholars and collectors for several centuries are weapons and textiles. Occupying opposite extremes of the aesthetic spectrum, both have been viewed in their Southeast Asian rather than Islamic context. Among weapons, the kris is the most well known. With a characteristic blade that is often wavy and always flares toward the hilt, it has long been accepted as an effective killing instrument with mystical properties. Although its origins are undoubtedly pre-Islamic, there have been modifications to make it more appropriate for Muslim users. Hilts that once glorified Hindu deities were given abstract form after the arrival of Islam. Occasional Qur’anic inscriptions on the blades are another indicator of new patronage. Similar inscriptions occur on other regional weapons, including swords and spearheads of great technical accomplishment. Islam may not always have been as supremely pacific as some suggest, but there can be no denying that this was a faith that fully realized the aesthetics of warfare.

Beautifying every aspect of life was once central to most parts of Islam. The effort is less conspicuous these days. Magnificent clothing used to be an expression of devotion, and Islamic textiles from Andalusia to Southeast Asia were universally admired. It was not unusual for Catholic priests’ vestments to be discreetly adorned with the Shahada. In the Malay world, textiles were a symbol of status and religion. Although other parts of the region had equally high regard for the weaver’s art – as much the domain of women as weapons were of men – the Muslim approach was distinctive.

Sometimes the difference between the cloth of a Muslim and a Hindu is not immediately apparent. Plentiful use of silk and gold would hardly please observers who are aware of the hadith that discourages males from wearing these materials. Southeast Asian Islamic textiles win more pious approval when it comes to figurai representation. As with weapons, anthropomorphic images in weavings are heavily abstracted. Where they exist at all, they are usually a graphic device created from calligraphic elements, such as the birds that often appear on Javanese batiks.

It is not just the design of a textile that indicates the wearer’s religion; another Islamic aspect to Malay world weavings is the way they were worn. A different approach to modesty was noticeable in the Muslim communities. Going topless may have been acceptable in Hindu Bali, but it certainly wasn’t among the region’s Muslims. Cloths with religious inscriptions were especially revered and often had talismanic properties. This may not be entering into the anti-superstition spirit of the faith, but it is a weakness that has been shared by many communities.

The most highly regarded inscribed cloths were those cut from the kiswah covering the Ka’ba in Mecca. These could be tailored into waistcoats and other apparel conveying exceptional status – the owner would have needed to be extremely influential to secure a sample from the kiswah, even if it was replaced every year. The prestige of these items lay almost entirely in their sacred association. Imported goods also gave them a special position. The holy cities were a highly desirable place of origin, but almost anywhere from outside the region had cachet. Exquisite as their own goods were, rich members of the Malay world did not necessarily want to shop locally. Weavings from many other places were sought after. With the arrival of Europeans in the 15th century, there was much demand for laces and velvets from the West. Wares from India and China were also highly regarded and more widely traded. The 21st century new rich of Southeast Asia are equally inclined toward foreign goods, although it has to be said that the appeal of Indian and Chinese products is not what it was.

The respect given to imports might partly explain the lack of recognition given to the region’s heritage. When the communities that once commissioned sophisticated works of devotion forget the purpose and overlook the importance of those works, there is little hope that they will ever be fully understood. The Message & The Monsoon attempts to explore this forgotten field of Islamic art and rescue it from the dustbin of ethnography.

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