Tag Archives: Grabar

Astonishing

Henri Matisse

In order to test the Queen of Sheba, and ultimately to demonstrate his superiority over her, Solomon orders the construction of a sarh covered with or built of slabs of glass or of crystal (27. 45). The exact meaning of the word sarh is the subject of much controversy and it may be easier to think of it as some sort of constructed space, without trying to be more precise. The peculiarity of whatever it is that Solomon built is that it is supposed to be interpreted by the Queen of Sheba as a body of water, as something different from what it really is. The pious implications of the story need not concern us here, but what is important is that a work is manufactured in order to create an illusion of reality. Two aspects of the story are pertinent to Islamic attitudes toward the arts, in partial contradiction with each other. One is that a work of art is something to wonder about, to be amazed by; it belongs to the category of wondrous things that became known as the ajaib (pl. of ajib, “wonderful” or “astonishing”), a term used constantly to praise manufactured items of all sorts. The other implication is that a work of art is a falsehood, a lie, because it gives you the impression of something that it is not.

Oleg Grabar, “Art and Culture in the Islamic World” in Islam: Art and Architecture, 2004