The Transformation of Islamic Art during the Sunni Revival By Yasser Tabbaa (Seattle and London: University of Washington Press, 2001. 210 pages.)

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Daniel Micallef

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Abstract

The Islamic world underwent profound political and religious changes in the
eleventh and twelfth centuries. These changes were paralleled by one of the
most significant transformations of Islamic art and architecture. What shared meaning lies at the origins of these two historical developments? How, if at
all, were these paralleled transformations part of the same struggle?
The Transformation of Islamic Art during the Sunni Revival takes us
into this dialogue. This work consists of seven chapters, including a
plethora of beautiful photographs, in which Yasser Tabbaa, a professor at the
University of Michigan and a highly regarded Islamic art scholar, argues that
the transformations in medieval Islamic architecture and ornament during
this period reflected and embodied the conflict between the ‘Abbasid and
Fatimid dynasties. It is in the struggle for political authority and religious
legitimacy that new and competing forms of expression took hold.
In discussing the book’s themes and the discourses of which it is a part,
Tabbaa refutes the essentialist traditions of some Orientalists, art historians,
and even aestheticians that, while having seemingly different intentions, all
portray Islamic art as separate or divorced from its history. They ignore or
gloss over significant historical developments in the Islamic world, and therefore
represent Islamic art, in all of its variety, as a homogenous genre, as the
term arabesque implies. Tabbaa highlights the epoch of the Sunni revival by
rejecting the essentialist models and focusing on the period’s unique conflicts
and changes. He argues that calligraphic, ornamental, and architectural
forms, in addition to being instruments of perceptual mediation, were engendered
within specific discourses to give symbolic support to certain claims to
authority and to establish a difference against challenging claims ...

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