The World is not a Place of Dwelling: Spiritual Creativity in the Arts of Contemporary Islam
An eminent art historian has recently commented that the vast majority of academic surveys of Islamic art stop in the 17th or 18th centuries. Such a phenomenon has given the impression that the Islamic arts (or at least anything original in them) ceased in modern times, to be replaced by, if anything at all, only cheap copies thereof. “In surveys of Islamic art it is axiomatic that the advent of modernity heralds the end of art,” he tells us. As the story goes, at some point in recent history, the paths of art and Islamics diverged from one another, the former going in the direction of secular life, mimicking trends in Europe, while the latter took on a deeply anti-aesthetic bent, from the austere iconoclasm of Muslim reformist traditions, to the tasteless architectures of the nouveau-riche. Yet, such a perspective not only overlooks important examples of a re-aestheticization of Islamic traditions made uniquely possible in modernity, but also ignores the important theorists of the creative arts who are thinking through the problems and possibilities of Islamic aesthetics in our fractured present. Through exploring the writings and movements of two theoreticians of Islamic art in the Arab world, as well as a series of examples from the arts themselves, this lecture will explore the arts of contemporary Islam as a both a critical isthmus between the adornments of this world and the promises of the next, and as a space to reimagine possibilities of being and belonging in an age of deep and unsettling uncertainty.
Noah Salomon is Irfan and Noreen Galaria Research Chair and Associate Professor of Islamic Studies in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Virginia. He the author of the award-winning book For Love of the Prophet: An Ethnography of Sudan’s Islamic State, as well as a series of articles on Islamic politics, law, secularism, the negotiation of religious diversity, and the critical humanities. From 2018 to 2023, Salomon has been a Mellon Foundation New Directions Fellow working between Beirut, Muscat, and Khartoum on a research project that explores new articulations of human potential in the context of political change and at inflection points of Muslim difference.