SFU co-hosts series on Islamophobia with the Ismaili Centres

The first event opens with discussions on Western perceptions of Islamic art and its consequences

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two people, one sitting on the left is Dr. al-Khamis, and Dr. Sajoo sits on the right
The conversation, hosted at the Ismaili Centre Vancouver, features miniature artworks at the Aga Khan Museum. PHOTO: Courtesy of Amyn Sajoo

By: Nancy La, News Editor 

Editor’s note: This article was updated on April 6, 2022 to clarify this event was co-hosted by SFU and the Ismaili Centres.

On March 26, 2022, SFU co-hosted “Art as Dialogue: Ethics of Citizenship and Identity” with Drs. Ulrike al-Khamis and Amyn Sajoo. Sajoo is an international studies lecturer and visiting scholar and al-Khamis is the director and CEO of the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto. This conversation opened a five-part series on Islamophobia hosted by SFU and the Ismaili Centres. 

The event focused on historical Muslim art and their representation of the Islamic world in relation to Western perceptions.  

Sajoo opened the conversation by discussing the necessity of art in addressing Islamophobia. “Culture matters. It can’t be an elite top-down change. We can pass all the hate crimes laws, and all the public policies against Islamophobia or anti-Semitism, or the intolerance of any group, but until it peters down into the social imaginary, into the culture, we’re not quite there yet.” 

Al-Khamis spoke about how the public’s opinion on Islamic art is a Western invention from late 19th to early 20th scholars and enthusiasts. This invention does not reflect the artwork but focuses on Western ideas “than the reality within the Muslim world itself,” she said.

As an example, Al-Khamis showed a miniature painting from Delhi, India and explained the misconception of the Middle East being the central location of Islam when India had the third largest Muslim population in the world.   

“The same scholars also made popular the notion and the misconception that images are forbidden in Islam. So these two problems we have were actually created by Western scholars,” she said. 

Sajoo added, “And it’s totally contrary to the evidence. There’s no shortage of images in Muslim art absolutely from the beginning.” 

Despite the geographic distance, al-Khamis pointed out the spiritual connections between Muslim art and Indigenous culture. “It really comes down to the relationship with the divine [ . . . ] and within that, our relationship with the environment, with nature, and with all living beings in harmony.” 

She added, “We do all face similar, if distinct, issues of alienation, of not being accepted, of being discriminated against.” 

Al-Khamis pointed out the importance of “intangible heritage” within a culture. Instead of the Western focus on materiality, intangible heritage focuses on wisdoms, culture, and collections that many pre-modern cultures possessed. 

Throughout her discussion, aAl-Khamis showcased various paintings from the Aga Khan Museum, one of which, The Court of Kayumars, she used to discuss a culturally diverse existence. “We are all yearning for enlightened leadership, we are all yearning for a land and a society where we can all live together, shoulder to shoulder, as is in the case in the in the picture, in peace across differences, not only tolerating our differences but actually realizing that our differences enrich us and make us stronger and more exciting as a society.”

The event is available to view on YouTube. The Onstage Conversations will take place at various locations, including SFU Harbour Centre and the Ismaili Centre Toronto, until September 2022. Interested parties can visit their website to find out more information on registration.