Credit: Andonian Timothée / Iméra
Visual cultures in pre-islamic arabia (2nd-6th c.): revisiting the modern myth of the “artless arab”
Summary of the research project
Over the centuries Muslims and scholars developed the idea of pre-Islamic Arabia as an age of ‘pagan’ ignorance and cultural isolation (jāhilīya). Yet, recent discoveries of inscriptions in Saudi Arabia and Yemen confirm not only the presence of Jews (conversion of South Arabian kings to Judaism around 380 AD) and Christians, but also the connections of the Arabian Peninsula with the Levant, the Mediterranean, the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean. More crucially, late antique Arabia (2nd-6th c.) is extremely rich in surviving structures, artefacts and images (Sanaa, Marib, Shabwa, Qaryat al-Faw, Wadi Dura, Gerrha, Falaika, Nakhlat al-Hamra, Hisn al Urr, Dumat al-Jandal, Zafar) and much effort has been devoted to documenting individual sites and buildings. However, in spite of its importance within the greater history of Late Antiquity and early Islam, Arabian visual cultures remain a blank spot on the map of art history and early Islamic studies. This project is the first attempt at an art historical exploration of the Arabian background of Islam (2nd-6th c.). The research starts from the position that in premodern societies where literacy was rare, visual languages and material cultures were central to the shaping of identity, the construction of political and religious authority and the control of superhuman forces. Artefacts from late antique Arabia survive whereas the available literary evidence on the pre-and early Islamic world varies considerably in its density and reliability.
Nadia Ali is an historian of Islamic art with strong interests in the reception of late antique art in early Islam, comparativism and the critical historiography of the field. She was trained in art history, Islamic studies, and Arabic at the University of Aix-Marseille. Her educational and professional background spans France, the Middle East, the USA, Germany, and the UK. From 2018 to 2020, she was a faculty fellow at Silsila: Center for Material Histories in the Islamic World (New York University). Before that, she held a postdoctoral fellowship in the Empires of Faith project, a five-year humanities research project funded by the Leverhulme Trust and jointly hosted by the British Museum and Oxford University. She has just completed her first book provisionally entitled Qusayr ‘Amra and the Power of Images in Early Islam (7-8th c).