Posted by R. John Howe on 09-06-2003 08:24 AM:

Some Beginning "Shots Across the Bow"

Dear folks -

Welcome to our salon hosts, Muhammad Thompson and Nasima Begum. I am sure that we will benefit from having hosts who can be alert to the problems inherent in having a "western" experience and perspective.

Just some beginning thoughts triggered by my reading of the salon essay.

First, in my own experience, the most frequent assessment of Moroccan textiles moves in quite different directions, namely, that for many collectors they seem usually to be instances of poor weaving and of mostly bad color, especially since the use of synthetic dyes seem to have been acquired early and abound even in the pieces knowledgeable collectors have published.

True, this generally negative assessment is not universal. An exhibition of Moroccan rugs and textiles is currently at the Sackler Museum here in Washington, D.C. and it would be hard not to be impressed with at least some of the items presented there. And I note that folks with high standards in weaving, such as Marla Mallet have not spurned Moroccan weaving, but rather include it visibly in the array of textiles that they treat seriously. Nevertheless, for a great many collectors, Moroccan weaving did not and has not yet reached, in their estimate, a level of quality that deserves serious consideration.

Secondly, our hosts repeat and treat seriously the oft-told story that Islamic weavers were careful to deliberately place imperfections in their weavings so as not to usurp God's monopoly on the creation of perfection. I have indicated my own view of this tale before, but will repeat it here. As a person who for awhile practiced a minor allied craft (macrame) with some seriousness, it is my experience that mistakes do not need to be provided for deliberately. In any weaving of any size they will occur without any need to make sure of that. I do not know what a devout Muslim weaver might do to observe carefully the tenets of his/her faith, but deliberately planning for and inserting mistakes into a weaving one is undertaking is entirely unecessary. This story always has for me the smell of the contrived and of the apocryphal, as inappropriate as that latter term is in this instance.

Third, there seems to me, as an outsider and an admitted westerner, a visible tendency, for the proponents of the Muslim faith, and for the celebrators of the historic achievements of Islamic societies, to ignore the fact that many of the societies that are now predominantly Muslim, had long histories and centuries of cultural achievements before their societies were "put to the sword." Ferdosi's "Shahnameh," to take a Persian example, makes almost no reference to Islam and seems more centered on the Zoroastrian context of his time.

More, there seems, sometimes, a tendency for those who celebrate the achievements of Islamic societies, to take unto themselves, as Muslims, and onto Islam, credit for achievements in which neither they or it had little part.

In the case of Morocco, about which I know virtually nothing, it seems odd to talk, for example, about the influence of Islam on Moroccan weavers (and it may well be considerable) without also acknowledging that Morocco was also occupied beforehand by the Romans and that there are major schools of Roman mosaics and mosaic design in North Africa (there is a museum collection of them at Timgad). It seems difficult to believe that there is not also some noteworthy influence from this previous occupation.

More, Morocco likely had a history before the Romans arrived, and folks there likely had to house and cloth themselves, and so there were likely prior Moroccan textiles that had not the benefit of either Roman or Islamic influence. The tendencies and designs of those times might also still visibly persist.

All this is by way of saying that it often seems to me that discussions of the influence of Islam on the culture of societies that are today Islamic, suffer from a noticeable ahistoricism. This tendency makes me feel sometimes that often what is going on is not just an attempt to open western eyes to other cultural and religious views and perspectives, but rather what turns out to be a kind of political program that, perhaps inadvertently, aggregates to Islam more than is in fact historically due.

I again thank our hosts for this carefully prepared salon essay.

I expect that the ensuing discussion may be vigorous at times.


R. John Howe

Posted by Filiberto Boncompagni on 09-06-2003 10:06 AM:

Hi John,

While I join your welcome to Nasima and Muhammad, I see you raise so many points in your posting that I feel obliged to suggest to our hosts - and others willing to participate in the discussion - to answer to each of them in separate threads for better clarity.
Best regards,