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In Memoriam: Oleg Grabar (1929-2011)

6th January 2011

Over the course of six decades, his innovative and prolific output and teaching have touched the lives of many, besides being the motive force behind a surge in the number of historians specialising in Islamic art, particularly in the United States. Prof. Azim Nanji, former director of the IIS and currently Senior Associate Director of the Abbasi Program in Islamic Studies at Stanford University, reiterates this: "In addition to his writings, many of which are classics in the field, his most lasting legacy was the training and development of a generation of scholars. Each of them, as archaeologists, architects, museum directors and creators of new academic programmes in Muslim Arts, built on his teaching and scholarship to make the field what it is today.”

Throughout his lifetime, he was part of myriad archaeological expeditions and research trips, across the Islamic world in Africa, the Middle East and Muslim Asia, continually documenting and devising new methods to illuminate aspects of art, history and culture of Muslim peoples. According to Prof. Nanji it is because of Grabar that, “the Arts and Architecture of the Muslim World are now part of the larger study of human civilisations and a lens that allows us to see Muslim cultures beyond a narrowly defined, theological and textually-centred field of study.”

Prof. Grabar was the first Aga Khan Professor of Islamic Art and Architecture when that chair was established at Harvard in 1980. In 1990, he retired from Harvard to assume a position in the School of Historical Studies at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey becoming Professor Emeritus in 1998. In November 2010, he received the Chairman’s Award by the Aga Khan Award for Architecture, “in acknowledgement of the valuable contributions he has made to the study of the Islamic world’s architectural evolution, from the early Islamic period up to the present. Through his teaching, writings, and lectures, Oleg Grabar has greatly widened and enriched our understanding of the Islamic world’s architectural production, emphasising its geographic and chronological diversity, as well as positioning it within the wider political, social, cultural and economic contexts”.

His involvement dates back to 1990, when he participated in the Islam in the Contemporary World Conference held at St Catherine’s College, Oxford and delivered a lecture on the arts in Islam. In 2003, Oleg Grabar delivered the opening lecture at the international colloquium, Word of God, Art of Man: The Qur’an and its Creative Expressions that was held to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the founding of the IIS. In his memorable lecture, he raised several theoretical questions using examples from Muslim history to examine how revelations, more generally, and the Qur'an specifically, have interfaced with the arts in providing a visual expression to the Sacred Word. More recently, in March 2009, Prof. Grabar delivered a lecture at the IIS/British Museum co-sponsored conference, People of the Prophet’s House: Art, Architecture and Shi‘isminfo-icon in the Islamic World. In his paper entitled: “Can we identify Shi‘i Features in Art and Architecture?” he put forth that there is a distinction between labelling an object as Shi‘i purely because of certain inscriptions and attributing Shi‘i provenance to forms and subjects, stating that we must consider the receiver rather than the creator of an object in order to understand it.

Prof. Grabar is survived by his wife of 59 years, Dr. Terry Grabar, a retired professor of English, his son Nicolas, daughter-in-law Jennifer Sage and grandchildren Henry, Margaret and Olivia. The IIS extends its condolences to his family and pays tribute to this outstanding scholar who dedicated much of his life to the study of art and architecture of Muslim societies. He will be remembered for many years to come by his many colleagues, friends and students at the Institute of Ismaili Studies.