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A Tapestry of History

Art historian Allan Kohl to lead LearningLife short course on Islamic art

Nasrid Quran.jpgAs both a visual media librarian and an art historian, Allan Kohl has devoted much of his career to the study of art and its cultural impact and ramifications. A popular instructor for LearningLife, he has led numerous courses at the U, including The Civil War in Art, Getting to Know the Art of the Middle Ages, Art History 101: From Caves to Cathedrals, and The Grand Tour Cities Series (Venice, Rome, Florence, London, Paris, Vienna, Athens, Istanbul).

This spring, he will be leading the three-session short course, Getting to Know Islamic Art (begins April 26). It is an offering he hopes will not only showcase many beautiful and intricate works of art, including ornamental calligraphy used in manuscripts and dazzling patterns based on mathematical formulas, but also help people better understand the culture behind the works.

Kohl's interest in teaching--and learning--more about Islamic art came about during the first Gulf War in the early '90s. "I was leading a freshman art history survey course, and I realized that many students knew little, if anything, about that part of the world, its peoples, and their culture. And not necessarily just freshmen in college--I think it was typical of many Americans, of all ages and backgrounds."

Even now, two decades later, there are often gaps in what individuals may have learned about the Muslim world and its inhabitants. "Much of what we read and hear about Islam as a faith, about Islamic culture, and about the more than one billion people who identify themselves as Muslims focuses on how different they are from 'us,'" he says.

AlbumConqueror.jpg"This perception is ironically inaccurate in many ways. Millions of Americans are Muslims. In school we are often taught about political and military conflict between the Islamic world and the West (back to the time of the Crusades), but less frequently about the cultural and religious traditions common to the three great monotheistic faiths--Judaism, Christianity, and Islam--that trace their monotheistic roots back to Abraham. Muslim science and technology have given us the Arabic number system, algebra, the navigational instruments that allowed explorers to reach the New World, and much of our knowledge of pharmacology."

Approaching history through the lens of art, Kohl feels, can provide a good way of understanding a culture in a non-political, non-divisive way, and help show the similarities among people, as well as differences. "I feel that experiencing art and visual culture is a particularly accessible way to open a window of understanding about Muslim beliefs, values, perceptions, and modes of thought," he says.

Kohl's short course will be richly illustrated, and cover "a little bit of everything, from the life of the Prophet Muhammad (as represented in Persian miniatures) to the architecture of the mosque; from the role of art and architecture in Muslim worship to the development of mathematical patterns in tilework and mosaic; from carpets and calligraphy to garden design, and how each of these reflects significant cultural values and experiences.

"Anyone who would like to develop an appreciation for a visual culture both similar to, and different from, the Western art traditions with which most of us are more familiar, will find something that appeals to them."

The three-session short course Getting to Know Islamic Art begins Thursday, April 26, and runs through May 10.

Want to see more of the striking images you'll cover in the class? Take a slideshow tour on the LearningLife facebook page.

Images (from top to bottom): Spain, Nasrid: Holy Qur'an, calligraphic page, late 13th-early 14th century
Turkish, Ottoman: Album of the Conqueror (Sultan Mehmet II), calligraphic page based on geometric permutations of "Allah," 15th century

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