Variations on a Theme: 2018 H.A.R. Gibb Lectures Delivered by Nasser Rabbat

May 1, 2018
Nasser Rabbat Gibb Lecture

Nasser Rabbat, Aga Khan Professor and Director of the Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture at MIT, was the distinguished speaker this year for the H.A.R. Gibb Arabic and Islamic Studies Lecture Series, established in 1964 in honor of Sir Hamilton A.R. Gibb, who was a director of CMES as well as University Professor and James Richard Jewett Professor of Arabic at Harvard. Meredyth Lynn Winter, PhD Candidate in History of Art and Architecture and Middle Eastern Studies, covered the lectures for CMES.

Nasser Rabbat Gibb 2018

In his two talks, entitled “The Historian and the City between Ibn Khaldun and al-Maqrizi" and "Designing Transcendence: Light in Islamic Architecture," MIT's Nasser Rabbat took to the platform as this year's H.A.R. Gibb Lecturer to re-assert the subjective in the formative chronicles of Islamic historiography and the logical structures underlying the oft-repeated themes of Islamic architecture. In the first of his lectures, he presented the historical works of Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406 CE) and al-Maqrizi (1364-1442 CE), situating their writing within a late medieval Cairene intellectual milieu. He considered how, in a period of fading Mamluk glory, these forefathers of Islamic history sought to explain the causes of their society's apparent decline. His second lecture focused on architecture to analyze the crowning achievements of Islamic architecture, from the Great Mosque of Cordoba to the Taj Mahal in India. In it, he took a broad look at the centrality of light, a theme that is generally considered an essential feature of Islamic architecture, and identified the formal elements that constituted it. By selecting two topics so all-encompassing and yet divergent, Rabbat united his talks through a subtle point of intersection: the importance of revisionist thinking in the field. The Western Academy, Rabbat's lectures remind us, interprets Islamic artistic and intellectual culture using received narratives from places and epochs now foreign. Without continually returning to the sources—be they the writings of Mamluk historians or the light-filled spaces of Islamic architecture—the student of these civilizations stands at such a remove that detail and specificity risks turning to trope and generalization. Rabbat provided a model for doing just this kind of work.

This approach asks us to return to the sources of the discipline—be they literary, physical, or conceptual—not in order to attack base assumptions, but instead to broaden the analytical framework we apply. Rather than reversing the direction of scholarship, it makes slight corrections to course and discourse. As Rabbat stressed in his opening remarks, his comparison of the Mamluk historians Ibn Khaldun and al-Maqrizi was meant to serve as an "addendum" to a work of H.A.R. Gibb himself, "Tarikh," in which he crystallized the contributions of major figures in Islamic historiography, but somewhat skirted the complex works of these two core figures. Thus, the first lecture gave a close study of the pair, who were in fact contemporaries and knew one another. Whether one takes the Muqaddima of Ibn Khaldun or the Khitat of al-Maqrizi, the works of these pre-modern historians represent the most heavily quoted sources for the study of the Islamic world. On the one hand, their ubiquity is the natural result of the fact that the two scholars recorded a rare and not insubstantial amount of detail on topics so varied that they touched upon everything from quotidian urban life to plague. In addition, they drew on sources documenting earlier medieval ruling dynasties of Egypt otherwise lost to history. Perhaps, however, as Rabbat stressed, the works of Ibn Khaldun and al-Maqrizi have endured and remained relevant because their approach seems so familiar to what we now understand as historical inquiry. He emphasized that they, like the modern historian, charted the cycles of cause and effect over time and considered this to be the primary objective of the historian.

But whereas others might characterize this perspicacity as prescience, Rabbat is careful to situate the two contemporaries in proper context. It is true, he tells us, that when Ibn Khaldun was active in fourteenth-century North Africa and Cairo—the center of Mamluk Egypt—his fellow intellectuals were still very much concerned with writing histories driven by the fatalism more often associated in the present day with the tragic heroes of antiquity. Yet Ibn Khaldun was uniquely positioned to observe, and from these observations, theorize. It should come as no surprise that someone formed in the analytical modes of Islamic jurisprudence should develop what Rabbat terms "the hermeneutics of political history," but he situates Ibn Khaldun’s particular genius in the lessons gleaned from a lengthy political career in the courts of the Islamic world.

Rather than following a predetermined course, history, as Ibn Khaldun understood it, depended on the power (sulta) of the state. Thus the state could affect changes within civilization—good or bad—via the manner in which they exercised authority. And since civilization was, as Rabbat pointed out, synonymous with urbanism, it was the city itself which became the principle theater for observation. In theory, Ibn Khaldun’s approach was objective; it was informed by natural cycles of rise and decline. That said, his characterization of the later Mamluk sultans as having brought about a decline, leaves space for little other than criticism. And indeed, around the time that he was solidifying the theories in which he directly correlated the rise and fall of cities to that of states, Ibn Khaldun met and influenced a young al-Maqrizi: an Egyptian-born, increasingly disgruntled member of the Mamluk bureaucracy's scribal classes.

That al-Maqrizi picked up and carried the banner of Ibn Khaldun's causational history to more pointed effect, Rabbat argues, was a direct result of his high moral and methodological standards (a trait which may have contributed to his subsequent withdrawal from the conservative intellectual circles that received the patronage of the Mamluk sultans). Having internalized Ibn Khaldun’s framework, al-Maqrizi increasingly linked the city’s poverty and the patrimony's dilapidation to the failings of the early fifteenth-century sultans and insisted on recording them. After all, in contrast to his well-traveled mentor, Cairo was al-Maqrizi’s only frame of reference and, indeed, his hometown. An underlying nostalgia for the grand city of his youth coupled with an uncompromising eye for detail—and not an inherent capacity for historical transcendence—are what Rabbat argues has made his work resonate with so many for so long. But impressively, Rabbat is careful not to characterize this as a failing, but merely a feature of his detail-oriented scholarship and of his case-study structure. For what Rabbat does is to take these scholars’ narratives, which are now fundamental to the study of the region (for the Mamluk period, but also most periods before and after), and look for motives and subjectivity in what is so often treated as objective fact. Furthermore, he situates them explicitly in the context of our own scribal class—academia—and its founding father, the eponymous professor in whose honor these talks are given. In some sense, Rabbat asks us to see Ibn Khaldun, al-Maqrizi, H.A.R. Gibb, and even himself, as part of the same tradition, and as a critical part of the founding myths that underpin all Middle Eastern area and cultural studies.

These, nonetheless, have shaped scholarship and indeed the public notion of what Islamic art and history essentially are. And although he began his second lecture by stating that it (and it alone) contained "no hidden agenda," the same revisionist approach stood out and linked the first lecture to the second. The second lecture covered Islamic architecture, but it was likewise an intervention into established narratives that does not attack or tear down, but instead subtly re-orients.

His point of departure, the trope of light in Islamic architecture, is so often repeated as to be completely uncritical in the vast majority of its iterations. But Rabbat carefully broke the theme apart, taking his audience through so much content as to constitute a survey of Islamic architecture in its own right. He demonstrated how light, which is often discussed as an essential feature of Islamic art, can be rooted in structural features. Rabbat noted that, in the post-colonial period, the thematic and structural have become entwined. Although they are deeply interconnected aspects of the study of Islamic architecture, distinguishing the two nonetheless proves fruitful. To illustrate this, he took his audience through three of the intersection points of light as theme and light as structure.

He began by reading the Light Verse of the Quran (ayah al-nur) aloud, highlighting in the language of the Arabic itself what he termed the "imperceptible shifts" from the concrete to the abstract. In this way he signaled from the start that, despite constituting the subject of his lecture, there is difficulty in assigning to the physical forms of Islamic architecture the intangible core value of light. His lecture sought to address this inherent contradiction, but also to complicate it. The verse speaks of a niche and an eternal, sacred light, which many associate with the characteristic prayer niche (mihrab) on the wall of the mosque indicating the direction of prayer (qibla) or the glass mosque lamps, such as the fourteenth-century example of the Mamluk Sultan Barquq highlighted in the lecture. But Rabbat focuses on examples with light-filled prayer spaces such as the Hagia Sofia in Istanbul, which pre-dates Islam and was originally a Christian church, and the sixteenth-century Selimiye mosque. Located in Edirne, the mosque was designed by the famed Ottoman architect Sinan and, according to the doctrine of the Hanafi legal tradition, was not sacred as no places of prayer were, with the exception of the holy cities of Mecca, Medina, and Jerusalem. In such examples, Rabbat shows that the hallowed space of God’s light can find reference but not direct expression in mosque architecture. Even the Safavid Shaykh Lutfallah Mosque in Isfahan, with its gleaming, colored tiles receding into a heaven-like dome, and the Spanish Umayyad Great Mosque of Cordoba, wherein a forest of stacked columns and arches manipulates light, do not explicitly reference a purpose or doctrine in which light played a part—even though one could hardly deny light’s formal role.

The breakdown between form and presupposed religious content became all the more apparent when Rabbat went on to discuss the quintessentially Islamic form of the muqarnas. These fractal-like niches appear to have evolved from serving as structurally unobtrusive squinches into the honeycomb decoration which refract and reflect light, now so recognizably Islamic. Rabbat highlighted the fact that so many of the muqarnas' iterations, from the Seljuk Great Mosque of Isfahan to the Nasrid Palace of the Alhambra in Granada, had little intentional link between their formal characteristics and an Islamic interpretation. Even the twelfth-century mosque of Zumurrud Khatun in Baghdad, which has been interpreted as a statement of an ‘Ashari conception of God’s nature, recommends little evidence to see Islamic thought as the driving force behind the how structural feature derived its formal qualities. Instead, the seeds of such associations were sown and accrued with time. Certainly, Rabbat seemed to tell his audience, by the seventeenth century, wherein the music room of the Safavid palace of the Ali Qapu and its nearby garden pavilion, the Hesht Behisht, reverberated with reflection and light, it was a light liberated of the bonds of doctrine.

But it was not until his third example, of the mushrabiyya (pierced screens or latticework), that Rabbat made explicit his alternative mode of interpretation. He showed how the formal similarities one would like to use to create a single Islamic building tradition—from the stone example in the eighth-century Umayyad Great Mosque of Damascus, the stucco work at the Ibn Tulun Mosque of a century later in Cairo, the jali screens of India, and through to early modern domestic architecture in North Africa—are not driven by the same logic. The famed spaces of Humayun's tomb and the Taj Mahal of the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Mughals was rooted in earlier examples on the subcontinent and fueled by an efflorescence in marble carving techniques arrived to India through trade, whereas the wooden window seats of examples like the Suheimi house in Cairo (1648) were practical solutions to climate and culture seized upon by Orientalists. In fact, Rabbat explained, there is nothing essentially Islamic about light except perhaps that it is fundamentally human to seek it. But this is not to denigrate either Islamic architecture itself, or the role of light within it. Jean Nouvel’s work at the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris (1981-87) and the Louvre, Abu Dhabi (2017), is no less Islamic, he argues, than any architecture explicitly built by Muslims. It is precisely this tension between light as form and light as idea that remains constant. At this point, Rabbat referenced the Quran once more, this time the Promethean Verse 17 of the Surah al-Baqarah: "Mankind sought to emulate the Light of God by kindling a fire, but when it was lit, God retracted His own Light and left them in darkness." In this way, Rabbat concluded, Islamic architecture's fascination with light lay in the most human of desires and one which unites all architecture: to push the limits of the possible.

By linking these "Islamic" features of light as form, muqarnas, and latticework to different—indeed entirely distinct—expressions of what we now label as Islamic architecture, he shows us that there is no reason to seek out something “essentially Islamic” in Islamic architecture. In that way, he both upholds and challenges the founding myths of art history, just as he did with Gibb's approach to Islamic history. His was not to challenge long-upheld truths or to present evidence that all previous ideas were based in misinformation. Instead, he took us back to the source of our discipline, charting a straighter course for certain aspects of these narratives, characterized at times according to whim and bias, rather than through the logical reasoning and thinking-through of what fact has shown us.