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Whither the Spiritual? Rethinking Secularism’s Legacy in post-Ottoman Art

Organization: Université Saint-Joseph de Beyrouth
Categories: Literary Theory, Aesthetics, Anthropology/Sociology, Cultural Studies, Mediterranean, Middle East
Event Date: 2021-11-24 to 2021-11-24 Abstract Due: 2021-11-24


This dossier examines—and challenges—the implications of art history’s secular tilt—what Shaw has called an over-reliance on “Christian-based ideas of visuality” - on the study of modern and contemporary art from the Middle East. It aims to consider what new explorations in this field can offer for rethinking both art history and spirituality’s relationship to empirical argument and experience as cornerstones of modernity in a western modality.

Critical art historians, inspired by Edward Said’s study of Orientalism, have identified the idiosyncratic tropes and criteria by which a certain epistemology of “Islamic art” operated as the foundational outsider for establishing Western, modern art. The presumed formalism, aniconism, and lack of dynamism in so-called Islamic Art were brought into view only to emphasize their opposites in “Western art,” and worked as well to exclude vast swathes of material cultural produced in the “Islamic world,” all of which thereby earned the designation “non-art.” Two trends have developed: the one using art to produce “an appropriate model of Islam itself” (Flood 2007, 43); the other, in line with Christian rejection of Islam as a “failed religion,” pursues a “decidedly not religious” study that has “shunned religion as an ontological category” entirely (Rabbat, 2012, 4). Even Muslim Islamic art historians have segregated the artistic and intellectual spheres of the worlds they study, treating art as either the irrational expression of established doctrinal truths or anti-symbolic decoration (c.f., Watenpaugh, 2017, 1228; Flood and Necipoglu, 2017, 20; Shaw 2019, 22-30).

Significantly for our purposes, current codifications of what constitutes Islam coincide not only with both the art historical inauguration of the field of “Islamic Art and Architecture,” but also the decolonizing explorations by artists now (intermittently) recognized for their contributions to global modernism, including, for example, Saloua Rouada Choucair, Ibrahim El-Salahi, Choukri Mesli, Fateh Moudarres, Jewad Selim, Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian, Shakir Hassan al-Said, Behjat Sadr, Kamela Ishaq, Charles Hossein Zenderoudi, Safeya Binzagr, to name just a few. While their work evinces and propagates a concern for spirituality, this aspect of their production has been alternatively escalated as proof of authenticity (and so rendered insignificant) or put to the side because to really address it risks falling out of alignment with the dominant norms of “modernity.” If conventional Islamic art history seems to demand tracing its canonical objects to the stunde null, or zero hour, of the religion’s prophetic articulation, we argue that the events leading up to the colonization and decolonization of the countries fostering these artists, including the abdication of the Caliphate, culminated in a similar stunde null in which nothing about their religion could be simply inherited or assumed (Shalem, 2012, 6). These artists, it might therefore be suggested, helped unfurl “Islam as a discursive tradition,” to borrow Talal Asad’s articulation for the varying integrations of moral selves, population management, and knowledge channels (Asad, 2009, 10). Given the novelty of this understanding of Islam, these artists’ forays help contemporary readers grasp “the importance of being Islamic,” as Shahab Ahmed puts it, for art today (Aydin, 2017; Ahmed, 2017). What Christine Ho has found for “socialist realism” as a label applies to the ongoing unfolding of “Islamic art,” especially as it appears or is imagined in a modern idiom: no self-evidence presets the category, and artists make their art, audiences, and selves consubstantially (Ho, 2016, 352).


In this dossier, we turn then to look carefully at claims and experiments in modern and contemporary practices of Islam as they are conducted through what we are calling art acts, and by which we invite contributors to understand as the intersectional, durational interactions between art works, their material supports, their circulation, their makers (and their biographies), and their reception. Such interactions all trigger new imaginations and productions, be they of self, society, space, or spirit.

We seek therefore articles, provocations, and conjectural accounts that address any aspect of this historiography or artistic production. We are especially interested in readings that address nondenominational piety, the juncture of ethics and religiosity in material forms, cosmology, the ontologies of humanity and nature, spiritual conversion, traveling piety, and colonial relations and institutions alongside their decolonial and contemporary manifestations. We are not interested in revivifying debates about whether or not modern or contemporary art from places where Islam is a dominant religion is therefore “Islamic,” and can only be studied through the lens of Islam; these seem to have produced limited results and essentialized both art and Islam. Rather, we are looking for papers that grapple with the facts of these intersections, their consequences, their relationship to historical, cultural, and socioeconomic relations. Our hope is that exploring artistic experiments themselves will allow us to re-historicize both Islamic concepts and the corresponding, conjoined conceptualizations of Islam and art. To the degree that art constitutes a form of local knowledge, as Nasser Rabbat has suggested, case-based, ethnographic and art historical examinations of that knowledge in action, stands to restore a sense of liveliness and stakes in cultural creativity (Rabbat, 2021, 49; e.g. Zitzewitz, 2017; George, 2010). This is what we hope to return to thinking about spirituality and religion in and through artist production. 



Research axis (non-exhaustive list)

Readings regarding: Nondenominational piety, traveling piety…
The juncture of ethics and religiosity in material forms.
Cosmology, the ontologies of humanity and nature, spiritual conversion.
Colonial relations and institutions alongside their decolonial and contemporary manifestations.
Islamic concepts and the corresponding conjoined conceptualizations of Islam and art.
Ethnographic and historical examinations of local knowledge of art.
New approaches to Islamic concepts and to the relation of Islam and Art.

Submission guidelines

Authors wishing to submit an abstract (in French, English or Arabic) are invited to send it to the following address:


Before Wednesday November 24th 2021.

Authors should provide the following information:

·         An abstract of the article (approx. 500 words).

·         Keywords.

·         A mini bio-bibliography (approx. 100 words).

The abstracts will be examined by the editorial committee, and the authors will receive an answer before November 29th 2021.


Scientific Committee

·         Hamid Aidouni, PR (Université Abdelmalek Essaadi, Maroc)

·         Karl Akiki, MCF (Université Saint-Joseph de Beyrouth, Liban)

·         Riccardo Bocco, PR (Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies Genève, IHEID, Suisse)

·         Fabien Boully, MCF (Université Paris Nanterre, France)

·         André Habib, PR (Université de Montréal, Canada)

·         Dalia Mostafa, MCF (University of Manchester, Angleterre)

·         José Moure, PR (Université Paris Panthéon Sorbonne – Paris 1, France)

·         Jacqueline Nacache, PR (Université de Paris, France)

·         Ghada Sayegh, MCF (IESAV, Université Saint-Joseph de Beyrouth, Liban)

·         Kirsten Scheid, Associate PR (American University of Beirut, Liban)

Editor-in-chief: Joseph Korkmaz, PR (Université Saint-Joseph de Beyrouth, Liban)

Edition editor: Kirsten Scheid, PR (American University of Beirut), Hannah Feldman, Associate PR (Northwestern University).



Toufic Ishaya El-Khoury