Zulfikar A Hirji’s: introduction to the Muslim Pluralism Seminar Series
"One of the problems of identifying pluralism in Islamic art is sorting out what is religious pluralism rather than a variation in a tradition which has grown out of the different geography, history or ethnic and cultural context of a particular area. Thus, the 4-iwan mosque is typical of Safavid Iran, the centralised domed mosque is typical of Ottoman Turkey, but this does not necessarily mean that the one is identifiably Shi‘i and the other identifiably Sunni.
Another problem revolves around the centrality of the Qur'an for Muslims of all persuasions. For this means that it is usually (though not always) impossible to distinguish a Qur’an destined for a Shi‘i believer from one destined for a Sunni one. However, despite such obvious problems, there are plenty of works of art which are distinctive products of one particular tradition within Islam. Some can be identified through the texts they adorn or illustrate, for example, books of prayers and devotions ascribed to Hazrat ‘Ali; others through the nature of the objects themselves, objects which are only useful within a religious context specific to one Muslim community, like the standards (‘alams) used in Shi‘i Muharram processions, or the paraphernalia of dervishes; others can be identified through the texts which adorn them, a common feature of steel and copper objects produced in Shi‘i Iran.
In one rare instance, however, that of the Fatimid caliphate in Egypt, a Muslim community developed a visual language to identify itself and to enable it to project its message to the Sunni majority."
Zulfikar Hirji is an Anthropologist and Social Historian of Muslim Societies and Cultures. He is currently Associate Professor of Anthropology at York University, Toronto. He was formerly a Research Associate at The Institute of Ismaili Studies, London, and Junior Research Fellow at Wolfson College, Oxford.