The arabic manuscript as whole

The arabic manuscript as whole

Fig. 1. The Palmer Cup, clear glass, gold and enamels. Probably Syria, 13th century. London, British Museum, The Watson Bequest, no. 53 (Height 13 cm) (Courtesy of the British Museum)

The arabic manuscript as whole

These he subsequently assembled into five albums, three consisting entirely of independent images that, in the process, were divorced from any text which may originally have accompanied them. Diez’s approach was followed by numerous others throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, but was not only confined to Middle Eastern manuscripts: rather, it is to be considered as part of a general trend, as Western manuscripts also suffered in the same way. An illustrious case is that of John Ruskin, who cut out illuminations and miniatures from medieval Western manuscripts.

The literature on the subject partially reflected this, but also reflected the theoretical approach that Western scholars had in treating this material. An initial given is that Islamic art history has had to be elaborated in the absence of an indigenous theory. Among the latter are the Rasail (Epistles) of the Brethren of Purity (Ikhwan al-Safa’), written in late-10th-century Basra. The fifty-two epistles that make up this encyclopaedic work on the philosophical sciences show the extent to which the Neoplatonic and Pythagorean intellectual traditions had been absorbed.
With regard to the focus of the present volume, it is interesting to note the lack of any reference to the Arab world in Martin’s title, particularly since the chapter he devotes to the Fatimids and Abbasids surpasses in length the sections on both Indian and Turkish material. The artists who worked for them were predominantly Christians. Under the Fatimids he discerns an artistic revival orchestrated by the Copts, and suggests that once the dynasty fell, The painting produced under the Fatimids and Abbasids Martin judges to be superior to its Byzantine and Western counterparts. Smoothly inserted into an evolutionary paradigm, Arab art could be classed as an unoriginal prolongation of earlier iconographical traditions the function of which was to serve as a springboard for later developments.
Although the majority of surviving examples were produced in Safavid Iran and are concerned mainly with Persian artists and long-standing tradition of such writing in the Islamic world: we certainly know of the existence of much earlier Arabic treatises on calligraphy. Perhaps the most famous of these works is the preface written by the artist Dust Muhammad in the album of calligraphy and painting that he prepared in 1544 for Bahram Gur, brother of the Safavid Shah Tahmasp. After presenting an apologia for the painting of figural imagery and sketching a cursory history of early portraiture, Dust Muhammad describes the principal painters of the Persian tradition, starting with Ahmad Musa, who worked at the time of the Ilkhanid ruler Abu Sa’id (r. 1317-35) and who is famously credited with having ‘lifted the veil from the face of depiction’. The enumeration of artists that follows is couched in florid hyperbole and culminates in the late Timurid/ early Safavid painter Bihzad, who is ‘beyond all description.’ Although not quite Michelangelo to Ahmad Musa’s Giotto, Bihzad is certainly presented in a manner that suggests that he is the fulfilment of a line of artistic development. But quite what the determining values of this development were is difficult to tell, since Dust Muhammad offers almost nothing in the way of real aesthetic criticism or evaluation. Another important source of this type is the treatise on painters and calligraphers written around the turn of the 17 th century by the Iranian scholar Qadi Ahmad. Like Dust Muhammad before him, Qadi Ahmad enthusiastically eulogises a role-call of Iranian painters, with Bihzad considered to be the greatest among them.
A similar appraisal of portraiture is given in the Qanun al-suwar, a treatise on painting written by the Safavid artist Sadiq Beg or Sadiqi some time between 1576 and 1602.
When minded to portray a certain person (timsal-i kasi), his creative imagination (khyal) could penetrate to the
inner man beneath. And none could truly distinguish between original and likeness unless, perhaps, purely physical considerations of motion were invoked.
But even accepting that such writings as those by Dust Muhammad and Qadl Ahmad might appear to imply something akin to the Vasarian model for the study of Islamic painting. Painting is dealt with in these texts as just one branch of the arts of the book, an approach that contrasts sharply with the Vasarian privileging of representational art.
Weitzmann’s well-crafted and in many ways convincing argument, formulated in his Illustrations in Roll and Codex of 1947.’ This development is one that in Weitzmann’s opinion constitutes the freeing of the picture, as if it had previously been the slave of the text—indeed, the chapter in question is entitled ‘The Emancipation of the Miniature’.
Although it is true that grand pictures are found in, say, Safavid manuscripts, large- format illustrations that dominate and even fill the entire page can also be seen in some of the earliest surviving Arabic manuscripts, a notable instance being the famous copy of the Maqamat dated 1237 and illustrated by al-Wasiti. Indeed, not only are the miniatures of this and other early manuscripts often larger than those of subsequent ages, even if the images themselves may be of considerable dimensions. Weitzmann’s conclusions cannot, therefore, be readily applied to the Islamic tradition, which did not undergo a clear-cut, linear development.
This would no doubt have emerged under the pressure of the perennial needs of the market for authentication of provenance and the detection of forgery.

The arabic manuscript as whole

Fig. 2. The Hedgehog. Ibn Bakhtīshū, Kitāb , North Jazīraca. 1220–25. London, British Library,

As a final example, it would be appropriate to mention the study by Robert. S. Nelson, on prefaces in Byzantine Gospel books and their associated miniatures. In the latter case, for the reasons given above, attention has been focused especially on late miniatures and, in particular, on Persian and Indian examples. As such paintings often illustrate literary works with a strongly defined narrative, whether heroic, as with the Shahnama, or romantic, as with Nizami, scholars have certainly attended to their subject matter and the ways in which they exemplify the related passages of the text.
A pioneering step towards redressing this imbalance occurred with the publication of Ettinghausen’s great book, Arab Painting, in 1962. Set against the two trends in Western art history noted above, Etting-hausen’s seminal work can be seen to be alert to some of the problems investigated by the second, contextual trend, but ultimately not to transcend restrictions imposed by the first, evolutionary one. The concept of the autonomous work of art also inevitably affects the nature of his aesthetic pronouncements and the kinds of analysis he offers. A further basic characteristic that betrays the same disciplinary origins and its associated limitations is the lack of any concern for the relationship of the illustrations to their text. Text/image relationships are simply ignored, and it is symptomatic that the images to which most attention is devoted are those that are extraneous to the semantic core of the text, although highly relevant to the social purposes and status of the book, namely the frontispieces.
Only in the last couple of decades has a decidedly new approach finally started to emerge. Not surprisingly, perhaps, it is in the study of Persian painting that some of the most significant steps in this regard have been taken. The illustrations of the Shahnama have benefited particularly from this new approach, with scholars paying far more attention than before to the relationship between image and text in both the genre as a whole and in specific manuscripts.
To return to the Shahnama, specific copies have also been the object of this new, as exemplified by Robert Hillenbrand’s assessment of the famous manuscript made for Shah Tahmasp: the Shahnama-yi Shahi.. In so doing, he demonstrates that the distribution and subject matter of the illustrations render this a Shahnama that is ‘devoted to a quite exceptional extent to war’, and specifically to the ancient conflict between Iran and Turan. True, this is the central theme of Firdawsi’s text, but whereas other illustrated copies depict its more fantastic and romantic episodes in addition to those relating to battle, the Shahnama-yi Shahi’s paintings are uniquely and distinctively focused on warfare. This emphasis, Hillenbrand argues, is a direct reflection of Tahmasp’s struggles against the Uzbek and Ottoman Turks at the time of the book’s production. Previously admired as individual wonders of art, the illustrations of Tahmasp’s Shahnama are thus at last being considered in relation to a context of production that helps refine our interpretation of them, in the same way that the French Bible discussed above was studied.
For a final illustration we may turn from a Shahnama recognized as containing masterpieces of Safavid art to one of the Arab manuscripts that lie at the core of the present work. The Kitab na‘t al-hayawan in the British Museum, derived mainly from the Ibn Bakhtishu’ tradition of books on animals, contains descriptions and depictions of various animals, real and imaginary, accompanied in nearly every case by a miniature painting (Figs. 2, 3).
Further, as we have seen in relation to Shahnama miniatures, their positioning within it is usually carefully contrived, a case in point being the bustard: the miniature of two birds. Recalling the punning complexity of the visual and textual interaction on the Palmer cup, we may also note that the lines of text framing this second miniature both begin with sura (image).
In her eloquent assessment of the fragments of the 14th-century Kalila wa Dimna that were remounted in an album made for the Safavid Shah Tahmasp around 1560, Jill Cowen writes that ‘the Safavids considered paintings the raison d’etre of their album’. The presence in albums of miniatures taken from books thus cannot be considered convincing evidence of an attitude that disassociated text from image.
Moreover, the majority of pictures contained in albums did not derive from pre-existing manuscripts at all, but were created from the outset as individual single-sheet works. For example, the preface written by the calligrapher Mir Sayyid Ahmad in the album he compiled between 1564 and 1566 for the Safavid nobleman Amir Ghayb Beg states that the calligraphies.

The arabic manuscript as whole

Fig. 3. The Bustard. Ibn Bakhtīshū, Kitāb na t al-ayawan, Jazīra ca. 1220–25. London, British Library

True, in some cases they may be assembled in a meaningful order that can be regarded in a certain sense as narrative, but the fact that they can then be ‘read’ in some way still fails to bring them within the orbit of the ‘functional’ miniature cycles which are our present concern. This becomes increasingly apparent the further one moves on in time. For example, the single-sheet works produced by Rizayi ‘Abbasi and his contemporaries in Iran in the late-16th and early- 17th centuries, which consist mainly of depictions of courtly individuals or couples engaged in genteel pastimes, some of them, no doubt, real personages, have moved so far from the classical Islamic narrative tradition both in subject matter and feel that they must be deemed a totally separate branch of production from manuscript miniatures. Indeed, by privileging the figure as a subject in its own right and dispensing with any sort of text, these works might be regarded as being closer in intention to European figural studies and Stes champ Stres, especially since, stylistically and iconographically, they betray Western influences.
We now have a rather better understanding of later Persian painting, which has been the object of considerable scholarly attention, but it still remains the case that the early periods have been relatively neglected, and one of the main topics requiring further investigation is the nature of the relationship of early Persian miniature painting to the Arab painting that preceded it.
Hitherto, then, Islamic art historians have too often ignored the contributions that textual scholarship could make; and textual historians are perhaps not always aware of the cultural significance of illustrated copies, nor of the fact that at least some art historians do deal with texts: there is every reason to think that both parties stand to gain from a pooling of ideas. Indeed, one might go so far as to suggest that historians of Islamic miniatures would benefit from grouping their material not into ‘schools of painting’ determined by date and region, as has been the tendency hitherto, but rather by the texts they illustrate. Works such as Grabar’s monograph on the Maqamat and O’Kane’s on the Kalila wa Dimna have demonstrated the benefits of this approach, which accords the relationship between text and image its due status and allows processes such as iconographical transmission and variation to be more clearly traced.
That being so, our knowledge of the nature and narrative of the source manuscripts may well remain limited. But it is nevertheless the case, as the following chapters demonstrate, that as well as gaining further interpretative insights into the images themselves, much may still be learned about both the cultural milieux of production and the complex textual traditions manipulated within them.
Although evidently born of the desire to transcend inherited methodological limitations in its exploration of this corpus, the present work is also inevitably of its time, inscribed within the recent stages of the history of ideas. Islamic art history is still articulated, essentially, in relation to the approaches and ideologies whence derive our interpretations of Western art, and is still produced overwhelmingly by scholars from or trained in the West, however suspicious of orientalist biases they may be.