Art and the Islamic World: Toward a Deeper Understanding

Mahnaz Anwar Fancy

In working with various organizations over ten years on bringing a greater understanding of Islam through the lens of arts and culture, I am immensely heartened by the realization of the Muslim Voices: Arts & Ideas festival. I have served on the Cultural Committee in support of this extensive and ambitious festival and want to commend the tireless work of those who have developed the programs, the organizations involved and the funders who have made this ten-day festival possible.

The significance of the Muslim Voices festival exists at several levels. First, the impressive number of notable New York City institutions involved indicates a deep commitment to the kind of cultural diplomacy that can improve public understanding of Muslim culture in the US and dismantle one of the most difficult cultural barriers of our time. Second, the depth and breadth of programs offered in the festival demonstrate a thoughtful recognition of the diversity of Muslim culture that is often misunderstood as homogeneous other. Third, and this one holds the greatest significance for me, in offering both Muslim and non-Muslim audiences such a perspective on the cultural and artistic diversity from across a great geographical expanse, the Muslim Voices festival has the capacity to make an important contribution towards showing Muslims worldwide much needed recognition that the actions of an extremist minority have not permanently damaged the image of Islam.

In the book Who Speaks For Islam?: What a Billion Muslims Really Think (Gallup Press, 2008), John L. Esposito and Dalia Mogahed put forward an important finding from 35-country-wide, six-year-long Gallup polls – that Muslims universally believed that relations with Western societies could be improved by redressing the imbalance in mutual understanding. More simply, Muslims feel unrecognized and unknown by a Western world that has accepted the negative stereotypes of Islam perpetuated since 9/11. Only through knowledge could these dangerously polarizing misconceptions be swept aside and a more moderate view of Muslims emerge, making a true cross-cultural dialogue possible. As a Muslim American who discovered a deeper understanding of, and pride in, her own cultural heritage through the arts I believe that the accessible “language” of the arts provides the best vehicle for such a public education effort and the Muslim Voicess festival presents a significant opportunity to redress this imbalance in the awareness of Islam in New York.

I am a vocal proponent of such cultural diplomacy efforts because my own understanding of Islam and its history has been profoundly shaped by the arts. It is through the arts of the Islamic world that I have found the language to impart a greater understanding of the religion and culture I was raised in, which consequently led to my graduate studies and the work that I do today. I have developed programming in various arts , including literature, music, art and film, and believe more strongly everyday that the arts permit for the truest reflection of Islam’s worldview and that the accessibility of the visual arts have the greatest power to affect change in the present situation.

While New Yorkers are fortunate to have two of the most significant museum collections of Islamic art available to us at the Metropolitan and Brooklyn Museums, I welcome audiences of the Muslim Voices festival to look at Arts of the Islamic World, the virtual museum project generously funded by the Shelly & Donald Rubin Foundation. The virtual museum aims to bring Islamic art to a wide public through the internet. We hope that the materials found there will serve as one of the accessible resources that these audiences can turn to as they look to expand their understanding of Islam and Muslim culture.

The visual art assembled in this virtual museum serves as a record of Islamic history from the 7th century through to the 19th century, spanning from its origin in the Middle East to southern Spain and North Africa, and then extending out as far as Central Asia and China at the height of Islamic influence. A new perspective on Muslim cultural heritage becomes visible to the viewer, one that is anything but the rigid monolithic Other reproduced by the Clash of the Civilizations discourse. The breadth and depth of this heritage reveals the cosmopolitan dimension of the Islamic world that has been eclipsed today, a world inhabited by people of diverse religious, ethnic and cultural identities who exchanged ideas and shared values. Islamic culture cannot be viewed as a homogeneous tradition, but rather as a nexus where Persian, Turkish, and Indian indigenous traditions are intermingled while simultaneously drawing on Byzantine, Chinese and European cultures.

This virtual museum was launched a couple of years ago with a selection of works from some of the most important collections of Islamic art in the world and accompanied by extensive glossaries.

I invite you to see:

Mahnaz Anwar Fancy is currently the Director of Development for the Alliance of Civilizations Media Fund, a consortium of media industry leaders and philanthropists dedicated to using mass media to improve cross-cultural understanding and respect. Previously, she was the Executive Director of Arts of the Islamic World. From 2000 through 2003, Fancy was the Director of IndoCenter of Art & Culture, the first NY arts center aimed at the South Asian community. Fancy did her graduate work at the University of Chicago, with a dissertation focusing on Islamic and Indian aesthetics and their effects on modern Europe. Born in Pakistan, she grew up in Paris, Abu Dhabi and New York, where she presently lives and consults for a variety of non-profit organizations, developing international cultural programs in the South Asian, Middle Eastern and Islamic arts.