The Material Culture of the Caliphate

The caliphate emerged in the seventh century as a form of political succession to the Prophet Muhammad that aimed to lead the spiritual community that had united under his authority. Within decades, the institution was contested by rival parties with radically different understandings of its parameters. Should the caliph be the arbiter of righteous spiritual activity, or a political ruler on the model of pre-Islamic kings and emperors? Should the caliph inherit his position, or be elected by his peers based on his piety? These arguments played out differently across the growing territories under Islamic rule and have recently reemerged with the so-called Islamic State, whose minting of Islamic coins echoes earlier strategies of caliphal legitimation even as their destruction of Iraq and Syria’s cultural heritage departs radically from historical attitudes. This course examines the visual and material culture of the many groups that have claimed the caliphate, from the first caliphs until the present. We will focus on objects associated with the Prophet Muhammad and the early caliphs (many of which had long afterlives), as well as coins, manuscripts, luxury objects, inscribed textiles, palaces, and mosques made by or for later caliphs. Close examination of these objects and spaces reveals the intersection of religion, political power, and material culture, and sheds light on the emergence of a conception of “Islamic art.” A visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art is planned. 3 credits. Satisfies the non-Western or pre-1800 requirement.