The Transformation of Islamic Art during the Sunni Revival

Yasser Tabbaa

  • Published: July 2015
  • Subject Listing: Art History; Middle East Studies
  • Bibliographic information: 224 pp., 85 illus., 7 x 10 in.
  • Territorial rights: Contl Eur,C / Wlth(Exc Cand)
  • Series: Publications on the Near East
  • Contents

The transformation of Islamic architecture and ornament during the eleventh and twelfth centuries signaled profound cultural changes in the Islamic world. Yasser Tabbaa explores with exemplary lucidity the geometric techniques that facilitated this transformation, and investigates the cultural processes by which meaning was produced within the new forms. Iran, Iraq, and Syria saw the development of proportional calligraphy, vegetal and geometric arabesque, muqarnas (stalactite) vaulting, and other devices that became defining features of medieval Islamic architecture. Ultimately, the forms and themes described in this book shaped the development of Mamluk architecture in Egypt and Syria, and by extension, the entire course of North African and Andalusian architecture as well.

These innovations developed and were disseminated in a highly charged atmosphere of confrontation between the Seljuk and post-Seljuk proponents of the traditionalist Sunni revival and their main opponents in Fatimid Egypt. These forms stood as visual signs of allegiance to the orthodox Abbasid caliphate and of difference from the heterodox Fatimids. Tabbaa proposes that their rapid spread throughout the Islamic world operated within a system of reciprocating, ceremonial gestures, which conveyed a new and formal language that helped negotiate the gap between the myth of a unified Sunni Islam and its actual political fragmentation.

In subject matter and approach, The Transformation of Islamic Art during the Sunni Revival makes original contributions to the study of art, revealing that this relatively neglected sector of medieval art and architecture is of critical importance for reevaluating the entire field of Islamic studies. It challenges the essentialist and positivist approaches that still permeate the study of Islamic art, and offers a historical and semiotic alternative for exploring meaning within ruptures of change.
Yasser Tabbaa , who specializes in Islamic art and architecture, teaches in the Department of Art at Oberlin College in Ohio.

"This is a very useful book, both as history and as interpretation. . . . I have used it in a seminar on Islamic Art of the Period of the Crusades, and expect to use it next year in a course on the arts of Islam. Since I am in and out of the Crusader world, I expect I'll call on it recurrently. Thank you for publishing it. Tabbaa's work is valuable."
-Annemarie Carr, University Distinguished Professor, Division of Art History, Southern Methodist University
List of illustrations
Preface and Acknowledgments
1. The Sunni Revival
2. The Transformation of Qur'anic Writing
3. The Public Text
4. The Girih Mode: Vegetal and Geometric Arabesque
5. Muqarnas Vaulting and Ash'ari Occasionalism
6. Stone Muqarnas and Other Special Devices
7. Conclusion: The Mediation of Symbolic Forms

"Tabbaa deserves much credit for successfully bringing history back into the study of the architecture of the near and Middle East in this amply illustrated and elegant book."
-Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians

"[This volume] provides a detailed description of calligraphical, ornamental, and architectural developments during this period. It also establishes concrete links between the transformations in form and meaning experienced by these art forms and the contemporaneous political and religious rivalries."
-American Journal of Islamist Social Sciences