Skip to content
Hyperallergic | Redefining Modern Art in the Muslim World

By Nageen Shaikh

Karachi-born conceptual artist Rasheed Araeen’s Islam and Modernism encourages Muslim artists and scholars to learn from the Islamic history of ideas pertaining to modernity in lieu of a Eurocentric discourse. The London-based author juggles philosophy, religion, a short critique of Hegelian aesthetics, and abstract art under one title, taking only the so-called “Arab world” as a reference point of Islamic scholarship and art. As a result, the book is a timely and necessary, but also a puzzling and cluttered read.

An engineer by education, Araeen is one of the pioneers of minimalism in Britain and co-founder of the art journal Third Text. His geometric sculpture and painting from the 1960s to ’80s brought prominence to the presence of Pakistani diasporic artists largely made invisible by the British art scene. Western art critics of the time could not reconcile his expressions of identity as a Muslim, Pakistani artist interested in minimal, geometric art. He has since been highly critical of Western scholarship that ignores Islam’s spiritual and philosophical ethos, which has influenced modern art created across Islamic cultures.

Araeen concisely turns to formidable Islamic scholarship on modernity, such as works by Indian poet and philosopher Muhammad Iqbal, Swiss writer Titus Burckhardt, and verses from the Qur’an, instead of Eurocentric literature dominated by Christian authors. He writes, “The main issue is Eurocentric modernism and its history, which can be dealt with by redefining modernism and re-writing its history. How can this be achieved when Eurocentric modernism is persistent in its domination of the art world with all its institutions”?

He suggests rectifying this problem in two ways. First, missing gaps in Islamic philosophy and history of knowledge that arise because of deliberate or unconscious ignorance must be addressed by contemporary scholars and practitioners. Secondly, institutions that promote research “liberating” art from Muslim regions from its “subservience to the West” must be established. As an example of the latter, he mentions the Sharjah Biennial in the United Arab Emirates. Araeen cites the case of the influential Pakistani Modern artist Anwar Jalal Shemza, who began to work in Britain in the late ’50s within an art scene that maintained an incompatibility between modernism and the works of non-Western artists influenced by Islamic scripture.