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The Clough Center for the Study of Constitutional Democracy

Representing the Wondrous Life of the Prophet in Islamic History

Muhammad rededicates the Black Stone to the Ka'Ba, from Jami' al-Tawarikh of Rashid-al-din-1351

Friday, March 13, 2015
4:30 p.m.
Gasson Hall, Room 305

With Nasser Rabbat, the Aga Khan Professor and the Director of the Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture at MIT


about the event

The Prophet Mohammed led an exemplary life. Generations of scholars, mystics, and literati have collected, preserved, and commented upon his sayings and actions as models to be emulated.  Some of these treatises became canonical religious texts; others belong in the domain of adab (belle-lettres) or folklore. A small number have been illustrated. These illustrations span the period from the 12th to the 19th century and come from all corners of the Islamic world. They offer a window into the beliefs, imagination, and cultural references of the artists and their audience. They also constitute a complementary yet distinct discourse from that of the texts, which can be read as a parallel telling of the Prophet’s life story with its own accents, peculiarities, and symbolism.

That is precisely what I will attempt to do in this lecture. Using images from the various schools of Islamic painting, Arabic, Persian, Turkic, and Indian, I will “re-tell” the Prophet’s life story, highlighting the particular moments emphasized in the painterly tradition and explaining their significance. Along the way, I will try to account for the various artistic techniques and representational conventions that informed the depiction of the Prophet across time.  My aim is not to present an exact history, but to try to penetrate an aspect of piety and reverence of the Prophet as depicted in Islamic painting that is lost in today’s hardened and ahistorical attitudes that reject the entire tradition.


about the speaker


Nasser Rabbat

Nasser Rabbat is the Aga Khan Professor and the Director of the Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture at MIT.  An architect and a historian, his scholarly interests include the history and historiography of Islamic architecture, art, and cultures, urban history, modern Arab history, contemporary Arab art, and post-colonial criticism.

Professor Rabbat has published more than 100 scholarly articles.  His most recent books are: Mamluk History Through Architecture: Building, Culture, and Politics in Mamluk Egypt and Syria (London, 2010), which won the British-Kuwait Friendship Society Prize in Middle Eastern Studies, 2011, al-Mudun al-Mayyita: Durus min Madhih wa-Ru’an li-Mustaqbaliha (The Dead Cities: Lessons from its History and Views on its Future) (Damascus, 2010), and an edited book, The Courtyard House between Cultural Reference and Universal Relevance (London, 2010), and al-Naqd Iltizaman: Nazarat fi-l Tarikh wal ‘Ururba wal Thawra (Criticism as Commitment: Viewpoints on History, Arabism, and Revolution) (Beirut, 2014).   

Rabbat worked as an architect in Los Angeles and Damascus.  He was a visiting professor at the École des hautes etudes en sciences sociales (EHESS), Paris (2009) and the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität, Munich (2007).  He regularly contributes to a number of Arabic newspapers such as ­al-Hayat and al-‘Arabi al-Jadid on current political and cultural issues and serves on the boards of various cultural and educational organizations.  He also consults with international design firms on projects in the Islamic World and maintains several websites focused on Islamic architecture and urbanism.