Wendy M.K. Shaw in Conversation
Art history is often presented as a field cleansed of religious impulses during the process of modernity. This is a myth. Religious groups continue to produce and use art in religious contexts until our present moment. This conversation began in curiosity over the cultural and theological similarities between Judaism and Islam, and the challenges posed by a field of study presented as free of religious influences. Similar to Jewish and Buddhist art history, Islamic art history is not often given its own primacy. Instead, Islamic art becomes a place from which we are invited to learn about “other cultures,” but on preexisting terms determined by Euro-centric art history and religious studies.
At her apartment on a cold Berlin day in November–joined by her daughter and surrounded by her many watercolor paintings– Shaw discussed her new book, What is “Islamic” Art: Between Religion and Perception, and she challenged readers to take a fresh look at relations between art history and religion.
RACHEL PAFE: So how did you first come to write the book?
WENDY SHAW: I always felt alienated by Islamic art history, so I worked instead on postcolonial issues like museums, archaeology, and the translation of European artistic practice in the Ottoman Empire. But it eventually occurred to me that if we only critique post- colonialism, we create no alternatives that address the absent voice of Islamic thought I found in the field. Instead of only critiquing, I wanted to develop an alternative means of addressing the field through Islamic thought. I didn’t know that at the beginning — I was really looking much more narrowly about how poetry uses the trope of the image — but that became a much broader topic than I had imagined.
RACHEL PAFE: It was particularly interesting for me because I approach contemporary art from Jewish philosophy, Jewish history, and interfaith connections, and I often get asked the same question of why this matters. I want to first talk about the wider implications of your method and then about specific examples from Islamic culture. Do you think there are parallels with other religions or religious practices?
WENDY SHAW: Of course! I don’t think it’s just about religion as such; that’s such a complicated concept itself. But yes, of course, one of the problems I’m trying to address is the way in which art history assumes it provides a universal way of looking, but actually it’s very structured by Christian experience. The whole idea of what an image is and does is based on European Christianity. That means it looks at other cultures, or religions, and finds things missing instead of looking at them in their own terms and finding out how the senses produce meaning.
RACHEL PAFE In your book, this issue plays out through the concept of “perceptual culture,” which you define as the culture that informs our perception when we interact with the world. Could you talk about this a bit? Why did you make this a central theme of the work?
WENDY SHAW: I didn’t expect it, but the more I worked, the more I couldn’t limit myself to the terms of “art” and “history” that frame my academic discipline. I couldn’t think just about sight, or history. I thought about the frame of “visual culture” that came out in the 1990s to address the idea of “elitism” intrinsic to “art,” but that was also too limited. There was no reason to emphasize seeing over other senses, especially since ultimately the heart turned out to be the most important sensory organ – and we have a hard time even thinking about that! So I broadened what I was considering to what I ended up calling “perceptual culture,” by which I mean the culture that informs our perception when we engage with the world.
RACHEL PAFE: How does that process of informing happen?
WENDY SHAW: Let’s imagine that we are hot water. And everything that happens in our culture, that is tea – the books we read, the rituals we practice, and the ways these filter into every day life. That culture infuses into us, meaning that we are not just plain old hot water anymore. We have a color and a flavor through which we experience the world. A perceptual culture is this infusion in each of us. Partly, we acquire it from who we are. But we can also engage it by infusing ourselves with the discourses of other cultures. If we fail to do this, we keep looking at the rest of the world through our own infusion, understanding it only as long as it fits the categories we bring to the table. But if we infuse ourselves with another perceptual culture, we begin to perceive meaning in new ways. That was one of the most exciting processes of this book for me.
RACHEL PAFE: And how is that different from Islamic art history?
WENDY SHAW: Islamic art history emerged as a field designed to categorize objects made and documented in, or collected from, regions associated with Islam, largely in the modern Middle East. As the field developed across the twentieth century, art historians adopted changing paradigms in the discipline to ask questions about things like authorship and meaning, generally understood through socio-political parameters. This was part of a general premise in the twentieth century that understands meaning through secular and economic terms, like say, trade relations. However, I have always found this approach dissatisfying, in that it does not engage with Islam. Rather than framing history through politics, my work aims to frame meaning through a broader definition of cultural discourses that make up lived Islam.
RACHEL PAFE: The emphasis on secularity is particularly interesting. Why do you think religious conceptions of Islam were excluded?
WENDY SHAW: In part, it’s because art history in general is based on secularization – think of altarpieces in museums! But also, in relation to the Middle East, there was a concern, in response to critiques of Orientalism, that the East was understood as always being religious, inherently anti-modern in a time when modernity was equated with secularity. Finding non-religious meanings was a way of validating the rational humanity of Muslims in a way that somehow decreased their apparent difference and made them just like the rational subjects of Europe — often also somewhat secularized through art historical discourses. It also fit with the ideology of secularism pervasive in the mid-twentieth century Middle East, and made Islamic “traditions” appropriate markers of “heritage” for modern nation states.
The thing is — and this is why it matters — just like religion is a modern category that doesn’t serve as a good universal model, no culture has really ever become secular, and to think of pre-modern cultures saturated with expressions of the spiritual is as anachronistic in Christian as in Islamic realms. Call it Western all you like, as we can see with the revival of religious identitarianism in the twentieth century, underlying themes always persist in how we think and understand the world. If we reduce Islam to a label, without listening to its historical voices, how can we even begin to think about how art has produced, and produces meaning? The fun thing is, these voices are much more complex and varied than a lot of modern interpretations of Islam would suggest. I want us to be able to engage in the full cultural complexity of many regions, and not reduce the regions we don’t know so much about to a series of superficial styles or attractive images. Every culture, like every person, should get to be an agent or a subject, and not just an object of observation.
RACHEL PAFE: Within this complexity, which regions and times do you take up?
WENDY SHAW: Well, I was trying to keep away from an idea of development of styles or dynasties or regions, because part of the point is that we take in the world through things like literature and music, not through history. And literature travels – we read Shakespeare, for example, without being in Elizabethan England. So basically, I’m looking at the regions and times where people encountered a certain culture, a certain set of texts that were built up into a world where Islam created a dominant worldview, even if many people were actually not Muslim. Those places extend from Spain, across Africa, into Central Asia and India. In terms of time, that’s more complicated. I call it pre-modern in my book, so from the seventh century start of Islam, but a lot of the ideas emerge a lot earlier, and many of these ideas persist in modernity. That’s why I recognize and relate to them now; they are not foreign to me, so much as often hidden by modernity.
RACHEL PAFE: What is modernity in this context? And how do you relate this to pre-modern Islam, which is your main focus in the book?
WENDY SHAW: Modernity is built against this invention called tradition, and in the twentieth century tradition was described through filters like Westernization, progress, and secularity. Modern Islamic thought, so say since the late nineteenth century at least, has developed largely in this context, both modern in its methods and in opposition to political and socio-cultural colonialism. States that were in the twentieth century firmly secularist, often marginalizing religion, have today made it central to national identity. This combination — modernization plus anti-colonialism plus nationalism — has profoundly changed contemporary Islamic discourses. Thus I’m looking at a wider range of discourses, many of which have been imagined as secular or non-canonical in the twentieth century, but which are nonetheless deeply informed by Islam, like philosophy-infused romantic poetry.
RACHEL PAFE: So in a way we imagine poetry as secular, but looking at it closer can tell another story?
WENDY SHAW: First, let me just say, I’m not looking just at poetry, because in these discourses what we call prose and poetry are often mixed, and I don’t even know if the poetic can be fully segregated from the prosaic. But yes, the other story it tells is this” that the stories aren’t simply tales based in action, they are complex parables that provide way of understanding the world through a differing set of rhetorical tropes, like metaphor and allegory. The stories I look at refer to Islamic texts like the Qur’an and to each other. They circulate between very human experiences — being in love, being drunk, being jealous, being obsessive, wealth, gardens, you name it, it’s there — and the Divine in us and in the world. Just as the Qur’an points to the heart as the ultimate sensory organ, so do these texts — but you only get to the heart through the other senses. We need the world to encounter ourselves, and to encounter the Divine. I don’t think one really needs to believe in God or to be of any particular religion to engage with this way of taking in and respecting the world and each other. But I do think it matters to allow spiritual voices to articulate themselves beyond identity and labels of religion.
RACHEL PAFE: Yeah, this is important. You can also see these broader modes of “seeing,” but really encountering, the divine as challenging the stereotype of Islam as a very specific mode of interacting with the world–especially as a visually restrictive religion that completely bans images. You said something about how if we were to look at this ban literally, then there would have been a lot of bad Muslims.
WENDY SHAW: Most rulers in Islamic history, and a lot of the people working for them — theologians, artists and poets — would have been bad Muslims. Reality is much more complicated!
RACHEL PAFE: There would have also been a lot of bad Jews. It’s an imposition that gets more fixed around modernity.
WENDY SHAW: Well modernity sort of invites this totalitarian way of sorting out the good and the bad, or sorting out between religions, and it obviates the possibility of interaction, and so one of the things I was interested in was that, because of secularism, people who don’t want to deal with this very regulated, serious, conservative mode of religion have become secular; so if you’re liberal, you’ve lost your religion. I mean, in Judaism less so because of Reform Judaism.
RACHEL PAFE: True. In what ways do you feel like you were able to challenge these modern impositions? Was decolonial theory part of this?
WENDY SHAW: This may sound naive, but when I wrote decolonial in my book, I didn’t know other people were using the word. For me, the decolonial differs from the postcolonial in that it’s less focused on the agency of the colonial, on how the state of having been colonized changes the world. The decolonial focuses on peeling back the effects of coloniality to see what coloniality puts under erasure. These cannot be eliminated, of course, they are part of my motivation to this. But I want to displace colonial ways of thinking as the only categories through which we can approach the past. That doesn’t mean eliminating or surpassing them, it means acknowledging that differing systems of knowledge enrich us with multiple ways of knowing. It’s simply a change from Newtonian to Einsteinian art history. I mean that literally – rather than assuming there is a universal truth and a universally true means of accessing it, or assuming things look different but the method in which they produce meaning is universal, I want to point out that how the world produces meaning is always relative to its context.
RACHEL PAFE: I found it relevant to contemporary art history, because there are all these calls to decolonize, decenter and deanalyze, but essentially it’s just bringing them into existing art history, usually through exhibitions or texts.
WENDY SHAW: I think part of that is because people often teach criticality as somehow part of contemporary art history itself. I think this is a mistake: critical approaches are about method, not about content, and they can be applied to any sphere of study. As you say, many art historians have been expanding the idea of the modern by researching lost practices of the Middle East (and elsewhere). And I find this absolutely essential. But it’s insufficient. For example, many of the modern Middle Eastern artists’ texts engage with Islamic themes – but nobody has written about this, because art historians tend not to know a lot about Islamic discourses. A lot of works and texts are both modern, very invested in European practices, and also infused with Islam. This is true in Egypt, in Iran, all these contexts in which you sort of look at it and you’re like: why would you assume these people are thinking as Europeans? How would that even be possible?
RACHEL PAFE: Especially when the forms look sort of similar, so you don’t want to explore any further as to what the references could be.
WENDY SHAW: Yeah, there’s an assumption that when people adopt a form through colonialism, it means the same thing as it originally did. It is belated, epigonic… a mere imitation.
RACHEL PAFE: And that modernism is universal.
WENDY SHAW: Exactly! But artistic forms mean different things in differing contexts, their meanings change. You would think that art is kind of stupid and that artists are just following along with forms are doing. The weirdest thing for me with that is people are always like: these artists, these dangerous leftists. And then you look at an art history book and they’re like, talking about the formal aspects of the genius and you’re like: if this was all formal aspects of the genius, why did you put them in jail?
There’s another story, that art historians are often failing to tell, and that’s a global sort of issue, that is–and this is the big critique about formalism–when you package art as being a sequence of styles and forms, then you automatically lose its participation in a broader social, cultural or political sphere. And so a lot of the work of new modes of art history has been to rediscover the political and rediscover the social and rediscover the cultural. In terms of my work in this book, I’m suggesting that if you’re going to think about intellectual history, religious history is part of intellectual history. You can’t separate out a primary medium through which people understood their being and their place in the cosmos and declare that to be irrelevant.
RACHEL PAFE: It’s also the idea that secularism itself is an ideology.
WENDY SHAW: Is an ideology, exactly, that’s why I use a quotation from Marx as one of the epigraphs. You need to look at religion, but you also need to look at secularism as an ideology – it becomes a religion as well. And that’s such a powerful ideology that we’ve been not looking towards.
RACHEL PAFE: And we don’t see it as such, there’s some sort of feeling that we are neutral, or beyond that now.
WENDY SHAW: We don’t see it– well that’s the nature of ideology, right? But also, it’s preventing us from seeing what we’re trying to see, which makes everybody going to a museum alienated by the things they’re seeing, which are from a different episteme, built under a different perceptual culture. So what I’m trying to work on now is: how do you address art history through this perceptual mode?
RACHEL PAFE: I think that even though you propose this perceptual mode through something as complex as religious thought and culture, I think your book was successful in that I was able to come to it and engage with it without a deep knowledge of Islam.
WENDY SHAW: That’s great, I mean, for me also I was aware that I would have three basic groups. One, which knows about art history, knows nothing about Islam. The other one knows about Islam, but doesn’t know anything about art history. So I tried to give as much history as necessary about Islam and I tried to provide as much theory as necessary about art history. So if you don’t know about art history, I tell you everything you never knew you wanted to know about perspective, for example, but I’m also doing a historiography of western art historical norms, because part of what I wanted to do is get out of the ghetto. I wanted to produce something that doesn’t stay in: I’m doing Islamic art history, but Islamic art history is talking back to the Western episteme. But then I was aware that there would be a third group who knew nothing about art history or about Islam, right, so I was trying to be really careful to define every term the first time I use it. To introduce every person, to make sure that information that you needed to know later in the book would come earlier in the book. Organizing all of that to produce a narrative was really hard! [Laughs].
RACHEL PAFE: Especially to summarize Islam to the extent that you can have a working knowledge to use it throughout the book.
WENDY SHAW: I also wanted it to be the case that you weren’t thinking of Islam simply through practices of ritual, though those are obviously important.
RACHEL PAFE: It’s a lot through texts, through their codification.
WENDY SHAW: Right, but most people who are Muslim wouldn’t know these older texts, or their immense variety. That is, there’s a difference between the act of being Muslim and the engagement with the world through that ritual process and this intellectual history.
RACHEL PAFE: That makes me think of one of your classes. I remember you had a video of the Qur’an being read and despite this being such a major part of the ritual act of being Muslim, I think for a lot of people it was the first time that we realized– at least for me– that there is such music in the text.
WENDY SHAW: You know, it’s funny, because when I went to Morocco briefly when I was twenty-four. We were wandering around and we heard some chanting and we went into a synagogue and it was amazing. And, you know, it was the same chanting. That was my encounter with that kind of realization. It’s not a separate tradition, it’s a shared tradition. That was really very meaningful for me. And yeah, I did know what cantillation sounds like, there were Qur’anic readings at my home after funerals and remembrance days and things like that. But I should say: my dad was Jewish and he never stopped being Jewish, but he knew about Islam and he had no family by the time I was growing up, so we grew up much more engaged with my mom’s family.
RACHEL PAFE: Yeah, it’s the same with me actually, but my dad is Christian– although he doesn’t ever tell us about it.
WENDY SHAW: Right, I feel like there are so many of us who bring various aspects of culture and faith and experience together; it’s silly to think of everybody as different and somehow in opposition.
RACHEL PAFE: Totally. Especially important to remember in times when political fear mongering, from Trump to AfD [Alternative für Deutschland / Alternative for Germany], tries to paint these divisions as so stark.
WENDY SHAW: Yes, it’s a very weird political period to be writing this book.
RACHEL PAFE: Yeah… you started your video at the book launch by questioning “e pluribus unim” and ending with “e pluribus unimaginable.” It was interesting that it could both be understood as a question about who is excluded from the US’ unity and as a wider metaphor for the impossibility of complete vision, but it was very funny that after you showed it, everyone was silent. Like, no one knew what to say.
WENDY SHAW: Or how to deal with it. Also, it was too small. Oh well, next time. Technology did not work in my favor and that was nobody’s fault. [Laughs].
RACHEL PAFE: Technical problems aside, I was curious. In between these quotes of “e pluribus unim” and “e pluribus unimaginable,” the video consisted of you reading a spiritual poem. How did you ideally imagine that communicating some of your ideas to the audience?
WENDY SHAW: Well, here’s the thing. In the book I deal with poetry that has a lot of deeply spiritual meaning, that is where my theories emerge. I love starting my classes with these poems, and their various expressions in other cultural forms, like music and manuscript painting as well as sometimes modern videos. So I wanted to start with this poem, a small part of the “Conference of the Birds by Attar,” which gives a clear idea of how we can think of the image in a very different way. But it’s really spiritual, and that can sometimes seem very preachy in the secular situations of universities or book launches… so I thought about having a feather falling behind me, just one feather…
RACHEL PAFE: Just one feather?
WENDY SHAW : [Laughs] Yeah, and then I made a video that kind of pushed powerpoint to its animating limits. That’s why I had so many tech failures. But seriously, I like that it was powerpoint. People expect academic thought to always follow a linear argument.But that’s only if you think linearly.
RACHEL PAFE: Going back to the meaning of that poem, it’s about trying to represent something that didn’t really exist in the first place. How does that fit into the themes of the book?
WENDY SHAW: One of the ideas I’m trying to push against is the constant discussion of the supposed image prohibition in Islam. There is no universal prohibition, but more importantly, I wanted to think about why we care so much about images. After all, art isn’t about making accurate pictures anymore! It hasn’t been for a long time! Looking at another idea of the image puts into relief, what we expect from images and objects. Not simply what are they, but what do they do. Why we think they matter so much, and what other ways we could address them. Aside from thinking about Islam, I am fascinated by the anarchist and the anti-capitalist potential of this material.
RACHEL PAFE: It goes against what art history values, that you can put a thing in a museum and that you can fix it.
WENDY SHAW: Yeah, and that doesn’t mean I want to destroy museums. It means that I want us to give the respect that things are worth so that you’re not putting them into a predefined history and reducing them to signals. That is, if you’re going to keep things, give them their dignity. But if, when you’re keeping things and then also saying, but this is reduced to a signal, then you’re not keeping them, you transforming them into commodities. If you’re gonna keep something, it needs to be kept with its many layers of value, from when it was created to the often myriad ways it was used. And that’s also another project I’m working on, preservation.
RACHEL PAFE: Didn’t you say that your original title of the book was related to that, what was it? Fortress of Form, Robber of Consciousness?
WENDY SHAW: And you can imagine how long that lasted. It doesn’t sell well. But it’s the central idea, borrowed from the last frame story of the mahtnawi, the epic poem by the fourteenth sheikh and poet Jelal al-Din Rumi. The point of the story, which is about three brothers and the princess they fall in love with, is, when you have forms, you’re caught in them – they become a fortress. And that takes away your ability to imagine, your ability to have a consciousness that’s free beyond those forms – so the fortress of form is the robber of consciousness. And so this was central to the decolonial question I’m trying to address: our disciplines are fortresses that restrict how we take in the world. How can you innovate when you’re stuck within particular disciplinary practices? And it’s not that I want to get rid of museums, it’s not that I want to get rid of art history. It’s that I feel that museums are often counter-productive if their purpose is the representation of culture.
RACHEL PAFE: Depends if that’s actually the purpose.
WENDY SHAW: Well, there’s been a lot of work about how museums, whatever you put in them, are really about making us into the kind of people who go to museums. Who accept a certain model of looking, as well as a certain model of authority. There has been a lot of recent work in Islamic art history that really engages with culture as people lived it, but only specialists get to this material. If you are looking at the field from outside, I think it’s still using a very historical structure, a lot of dynasties and maps and dates that are more alienating than informative. And that doesn’t say very much about how people understand the world, for which one needs stories, not dynastic histories. All you end up saying is, “it’s really beautiful.” But it’s as if it’s just beautiful, and there isn’t any thought behind it. It’s shallow.
RACHEL PAFE: Is that only true for Islamic art or do you think it’s broader art history?
WENDY: No, it’s not only Islamic art– I think it’s something art history imposes on a lot of culture, especially pre-modern cultures. I’m interested in challenging these impositions. One of the things I’ve looked into recently is the way that we use citation as authority, but in earlier periods, people used incorporation as authority, so there’s a continual process of learning from. And I wanted to think about what does it mean to learn from as opposed to learn about. That positions one very, very differently.
RACHEL PAFE: How did that affect how you wrote the book?
WENDY SHAW: I had to get away from thinking in terms of time and place and use themes to provide order. I had to tell stories in ways that built up to an understanding of culture, a bit in the same way as the stories we encounter build up in us to make us “native” to our own culture. I think we need to think a lot more about how we can use media to communicate outside of just circulating information. You know, like say something like video gaming formats, which are generally adventure stories. One can use those adventure stories very differently.
RACHEL PAFE: Are there any stories that you think would be particularly interesting to experiment with in this format?
WENDY SHAW: You know, there’s this one story I didn’t use in the book because it doesn’t have pictures, but it’s in The Seven Icons by Nizami and it’s about the man in black. And there’s, well it’s a long story, so I won’t say the whole story, but there’s a man, a king, who always wears black. And he, the woman who’s with him, his consort, asks him why he always wears black and he says I can’t tell you, because then you will always have to wear black. And eventually she gets it out of him and there are all these multiple levels of the cosmos that he travels through, including going to China, to a place where everybody wears black. And…
RACHEL PAFE: Why is he wearing black?
WENDY SHAW: Why is he wearing black? Because he– in these multiple layers, he comes as close as possible to absolute satisfaction, but he can’t ask for one thing more. And in the moment he asks for one thing more, he falls to the ground. And it’s his self-destructive push for more that puts him into perpetual mourning. That, is he could have had everything except for this one thing, and then he asks for the one thing he can’t have. He can’t stand it. And then he goes. And that’s what every single person in this town has done. And of course, it’s not just that town.
RACHEL PAFE: So they’re all in mourning now?
WENDY SHAW: So we’re all in mourning because we, as humanity, could achieve eternal happiness. [Laughs]. Except we want this one more thing. So here we are with no eternal happiness on the horizon. [Laughs]. And, you know, there are so many stories like that which are shape-shifting. I mean, I skipped all the fun stuff.
RACHEL PAFE: Aw.
WENDY SHAW: There’s a giant bird that’s as big as a tree…
RACHEL PAFE : That does sound exciting.
WENDY SHAW: There’s a potential orgy scene in there. There’s a lot going on … but anyway, it’s a really sort of fascinating, shape-shifting level-changing story, and there are all these stories. It’s not for nothing that the Arabian Nights has this structure that fascinates.
RACHEL PAFE: It’s interesting: while you have straight-up philosophy, all of the ideas can be communicated so much wider and more easily in these sort of popular forms. Arabian Nights both has some of these ideas, and it’s actually something people wanted, and still want, to read.
WENDY SHAW: But isn’t that always the case? That is, postmodernism is familiar now because of T.V. shows like Ally McBeal and Lost. Right? Or Black Mirror. That is what these poems were doing for theology and philosophy.
RACHEL PAFE: Yeah, references that we can all make.
WENDY SHAW: All sorts of references that you know if you’ve studied critical theory, you know exactly where they’re going with those shows. So a lot of our popular culture does this work today and that’s not really accidental. But what I was going to say in terms of the shape-shifting and level-changing is this is also part of the classical novel tradition. So there’s a kind of novel called the Milesian novel, which I was just learning about.
RACHEL PAFE: What is it?
WENDY SHAW: It’s this novel where you have a narrator and in the course of the story, which frames many different tales, which are exciting and erotic and educational all mixed together. Arabian Nights falls into this tale form. But yeah, so… I’ve sort of become interested in how we communicate knowledge? What are the ways? Because today, we’re failing. And given that we’re failing, how do we need to do it better?
RACHEL PAFE: Yeah, as I said, it’s also interesting to look into the things that people really want to consume. Do you find that this tradition of communicating religious ideas through popular forms continues somehow?
WENDY SHAW: Well, there are films that have been made of, say, the story of Joseph and Zuleika. And it’s this very romantic love story. It’s Joseph and Potiphar’s wife from the Bible- … the wife of Potiphar, whoever he is, it’s different in different versions, is in love with the slave Joseph and Joseph refuses to sleep with her. In the Christian versions that became dominant in the sixteenth century, Joseph absolutely wants to have nothing to do with her, but in the Muslim versions and in the later Jewish versions, he’s tempted. So it was interesting to me that in the Persian poetry, he’s tempted. But in modern Turkish films or Iranian television series, he is not tempted at all. The stories are Islamic, but their interpretation has come to conform to the Christian tradition – the fifteenth century theological poetry version I discuss in the book would be way too racy for television.
RACHEL PAFE: [Laughs] Could you explain how theological poetry can be racy?
WENDY SHAW: Well, the European tradition does not represent sexuality like Islam or Judaism. Both restrict it to marriage, but consider pleasure to be given by God and a blessing, and they depict this. For Jami, the theologian who wrote a very famous epic poem about the relationship between Joseph and Zuleikha. In the poem, her sexual desire is absolutely necessary because she sees his divine light; and she is a model for all humanity. Jami writes about this in deeply erotic verse based in theological commentary, and which touches the most profound articles of faith. And if he can write such an erotic poem as an explanation of theological meaning, then that’s a very different understanding of Islam than the one that’s being produced now.
RACHEL PAFE: It’s certainly a different way of thinking about God, could you say a bit more about that?
WENDY SHAW: It’s a long topic – but put simply, Islam doesn’t use a lot of anthropomorphic descriptions of God. God is often described as light, but is also in our encounter with all of creation. Our experience of love is like a microcosm of the encounter with the divine. The divine includes everything, and in the poems forms are constantly merging into each other. It’s dizzying.
RACHEL PAFE: Maybe it’s a non sequitur, but this idea of merging forms reminds me of this funny example you mentioned in class… how you were listening to NPR and they described Rumi as a New Age poet. I feel like it can also be seen as some desire access the power these past forms had as interfaces with the divine, but somehow making them palatable… I remember the other example: Buddhas in bathrooms.
WENDY SHAW: Right, all of this is part of an appropriation, but also part of a history of separating out the good religions and the so-called bad religions as part of the colonial project. Rumi is best-selling poet in the US, thanks to the rewording of nineteenth-century translations by Coleman Barks, but most of Rumi’s readers do not realize that he is deeply Islamic, that the poem itself is sometimes called “the Persian Qu’ran.” And it’s not arbitrary that he’s being categorized as new age, because new age has been an… anti-Enlightenment space, let’s say, since nineteenth century theosophical movements, that also appropriated from other cultures without giving them their due.
So, you know, when one does yoga one’s engaged with things that are Hindu, but does not recognize them as Hindu, instead picks and chooses parts to take on, and parts to leave behind…, or western Buddhism, which is perfectly legitimate in it’s own right, but it takes it on differently, often without the spiritual discipline that is actually very close to that in mystical Islam called Sufism. Because there’s no God, some people say: “well, it’s not a religion.”. Well actually, it depends how you define religion – God is part of our perceptual culture, but isn’t a universal part of engaging with the world beyond materiality. Many Western understandings of Buddhism are watered-down: I encountered the arbitrary and provisional through working with ceramics for a few years. The origin of that was actually from a Zen Buddhist monk, D. T. Suzuki who moved to the United States after World War II and taught artists in New York about Buddhism, because he wanted to show that Japan wasn’t all bad. It wasn’t all fascist. Some of the greatest work of post-war US modernism comes from his teachings – Merce Cunningham, Phillip Glass, Paul Soldner – but it isn’t really Buddhism. It’s Zhen-adjacent artistic practice.
RACHEL PAFE: What sort of dynamic do you think this kind of appropriation creates?
WENDY SHAW: I think we need to recognize how appropriation functions. Knowing about Hinduism through yoga or Buddhism through art makes them more familiar, which is culturally useful. It may be inaccurate or incomplete, but it makes their foreignness feel safe and familiar. Islam almost got repackaged that way in 1976, at the Festival of Islam in London, but for the most part people don’t know very much about it and it still feels very foreign.
RACHEL PAFE: I would say Judaism went through the same process, especially post-WWII in the US.
WENDY SHAW: Not so surprisingly, the idea of Judeo-Christian wasn’t present in the 1930s… it has two origins. At first, in the early nineteenth century, it was a way of putting down Catholicism as being too Jewish. It’s only in the 1950s in the US that it becomes a way of imagining Judaism as related to what was considered to be normal, that is the Christian world. That’s built into it… like, say even the debates right now about treating Hanukkah like it’s Christmas. “It’s not really that different. Look, we have Hanukkah songs.” That was also happening in late nineteenth century Germany. Which is somehow not so heartening.
RACHEL PAFE: It’s a question I find relevant in interfaith or intercultural dialogue. There’s this need to find commonality, but why do you have to? Is it not enough to accept the difference of another?
WENDY SHAW: Yeah, one time, it was funny, I was talking about part of this research, and one of my colleagues in Islamic art history objected to my claim that Islam fosters a different way of taking in the world. He said, “but then you’re saying that they’re essentially different from us. And we can’t say that.” And I was like: I don’t see “us” as the great measure of all things. Of course I can say that– nobody has to be like “us.” I don’t even know who “us” is, and I don’t know where I fall in a distinction between “us” and “them” in such a formulation. You know, it was this really interesting sort of position in which he was like: if we say that Muslims are different from us, then we’re going to alienate our audience who is non-Muslim and we can’t do that. We need to protect both sides from difference.
RACHEL PAFE: Which is itself alienating.
WENDY SHAW: It’s a self-alienation. In a way it’s still always the problem of the minority. How do you articulate your existence in a foreign language? And retain it– retain it as something that’s different, how do you engage with the ways in which you assimilate? To what extent is assimilation viable and possible? You know, so they’re all the same issues that are part of our contemporary political spectrum.
RACHEL PAFE: Do you think there are perceptual strategies to explore these issues?
WENDY SHAW: Well, I argue in the book that instead of being objective, we need to embrace and educate our subjectivity in multiple ways, and figure out how to learn from multiple ways of taking in the world. Not just putting yourself in another person’s shoes for the purpose of empathy, but to learn their methods of experience. That is, being of a culture isn’t simply a label or category, it’s an entire, rich, human experience that we can only fully respect by placing ourselves within it.
I hope people will write about the perceptual cultures of many realms, so I can learn from them too. When it comes to this work, which is specifically about Islam, I feel like, the world is in so much pain right now. There is so much normalized violence against Muslims – in Myanmar, China, India, Yemen, Palestine, and sometimes in Europe, not to mention the so-called “Muslim ban” in the US.
This book offers a way of learning about being Islamic through how Islam fosters perception as an engagement with creation – the world in which we live, basically, whether you, as a reader, want to associate it with the divine or not. Modern emphasis on so-called rationalism has given us so little humanity, so little empathy for the human, the animal, the environment. Entering into a world that valorizes the heart gives me hope. It can be overwhelmingly beautiful. Working with this gives me a way of sharing that hope to rediscover, and protect, that vast breathtaking beauty.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
Wendy M. K. Shaw (Ph.D. UCLA, 1999) is Professor of the Art History of Islamic cultures at the Free University Berlin. Her work focuses on postcolonial art historiography, modern art history, and decolonial perceptual cultural analysis of the Islamic world. Her books include: Possessors and Possessed: Museums, Archaeology, and the Visualization of History in the Late Ottoman Empire (University of California Press, 2003), Ottoman Painting: Reflections of Western Art from the Ottoman Empire to the Turkish Republic (IB Tauris, 2011), and What is “Islamic” Art: Between Religion and Perception (Cambridge University Press, 2019).
Rachel Pafe is a writer and researcher focusing on representations of religion and faith in contemporary art, with an emphasis on interfaith connections with Judaism and exhibition histories. In addition to writing fiction and criticism, she collaborates across disciplines, including projects with artists, religious historians, philosophers and game designers. She has an MRes in Exhibition Studies (Central Saint Martins UAL) and is currently completing an MA in Jewish Studies at University of Potsdam.