Wednesday, January 06, 2021

New articles on the World of Islam Festival of 1976

A number of articles have been published recently dealing with the World of Islam Festival of 1976, held in London, financed mostly by the UAE, and presenting a very Traditionalist perspective of Islamic art, given the major roles played by Titus Burckhardt, Martin Lings, and Seyyed Hossein Nasr.

The most comprehensive article is Klas Grinell, "Framing Islam at the World of Islam Festival, London, 1976," Journal of Muslims in Europe 7, no. 1 (2018): 73–93. This (open-access) article is also the only article that fully discusses Traditionalist involvement and perspective. It describes the Festival and its organisation in detail, and identifies two problems with its underlying conception. One is that it understood Islamic art as a single essence ("an art form governed by a few esoteric and timeless principles"), rather than following normal academic practice that looks at art (including Islamic art) in terms of periods, styles, and so on. The other is that it excluded contemporary Islamic art; Islamic art was shown as traditional, in opposition to modernity--which is fine in Traditionalist terms--or alternatively as being "incompatible with contemporary British everyday life," which is more problematic in contemporary (Islamophobic) terms.

Grinell argues that the Festival has a continuing impact today. Even if academic scholars of art were never very impressed by the way the Festival was organized, this has had a lasting impact on museum curators. Grinell does not say which museums he is thinking of, but the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, Qatar immediately comes to mind. For the adverse reaction of academic scholars of art, Grinell cites an earlier article by Oleg Grabar, "Geometry and Ideology: The Festival of Islam and the Study of Islamic Art," in A Way Prepared, Essays on Islamic Culture in Honor of Richard Bayly Winder, ed. Farhad Kazemi and R. D. McChesney (New York: New York University Press, 1988), pp. 145-52. This has been republished and is also available online, at

A similar but less comprehensive article in French is Monia Abdallah, "World of Islam Festival (Londres 1976) : Naissance d’un nouveau paradigme pour les arts de l’Islam," Revue d'art canadienne / Canadian Art Review  39, no. 1, 2014, pp. 1-100. Abdallah broadly agrees with Grinell (or rather, Grinell follows Abdallah), and makes similar arguments.

Another article is Anneka Lenssen, "'Muslims to Take Over Institute for Contemporary Art:' The 1976 World of Islam Festival," Middle East Studies Association Bulletin 42, no. 1/2 (Summer/Winter 2008): 40-47. Tis has a good discussion of the exhibition at the the Hayward Gallery.

One further article on the Festival does not engage in these discussions, but tells a good story: Rachel Ainsworth and Sarah Worden, “Jean Jenkins: Music and the 1976 World of Islam Festival,” Journal of Museum Ethnography 28 (2015): 184–197.