Orality, Writing and the Image in the Maqamat: Arabic Illustrated Books in Context

Alain George

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The Islamic world witnessed, in the twelfth to thirteenth centuries, an explosion of figural art. The representation of living creatures had existed for centuries before in Islam, but during this period its nature and scale transformed. A demand for images stemming from an ever broader social base prompted craftsmen to create new designs for a wide range of objects that, in this culture of the book, naturally included manuscripts. One of the main works chosen for illustration, the Maqamat of al-Hariri, garnered a particular appeal among educated Arabic-speaking audiences from Iraq to Spain. In a convivial mode of appreciation, these members of the urban élite would assemble for sessions during which the text was read aloud from manuscripts. This performative dimension linked the Maqamat and its illustrated versions to a culture of
orality that permeated different strata of society, from the common people to ruling circles. When considered against the physicality of these books, this context can go a long way towards explaining the rationale for their images and their unabated sense of humour, sometimes sprinkled with sexual themes. In this light, the bound volumes themselves appear not primarily as repositories of aesthetically pleasing pictures, but as complete objects able to engage with the social life of their time through their combination of text, image and this third, evanescent dimension of orality.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)10-37
Number of pages28
JournalArt History
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - Feb 2012


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