- Aisha’s Cushion: Religious Art, Perception, and Practice in Islam by Jamal Elias
(Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012), 404 pp.
The figured cushion of Muhammad’s wife is a metaphor for Muslims’ ambivalence toward images, and ambivalence abounds in this ambitious but flawed study of “Islamic religious art.” Elias wants to uncover widespread, nonelite views but does so largely by recourse to elite written sources, for some of which he claims an unsubstantiated “enthusiastic readership.” He excerpts numerous texts that touch on representation, resemblance, idolatry, iconoclasm, beauty, wonder, alchemy, dreams, visions, Sufi metaphysics, monumental texts, legibility, and iconicity, but the book is almost devoid of images. Until the final chapters, scant attention is paid to differences in attitudes and art across time and space, and it is not clear what the selective juxtaposition of a ninth- century Arab’s opinion of beauty with that of a sixteenth- century Turk is supposed to reveal. Such essentializing flies in the face of recent trends to distinguish the art and, by implication, the underlying visual praxes of Muslims in different regions, as evidenced by the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s new galleries for “Art of the Arab Lands, Turkey, Iran, Central Asia, and Later South Asia,” each further subdivided by period. [End Page 333]
Linda Safran, research fellow at the Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies in Toronto and currently visiting fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Jerusalem, is coeditor of Gesta, the journal of the International Center of Medieval Art. She is the author of The Medieval Salento: Art and Identity in Southern Italy and editor or coeditor of Heaven on Earth: Art and the Church in Byzantium; The Early Christian Book; and Confronting the Borders of Medieval Art.