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The Art and Architecture of Twelver Shi'ism: Iraq, Iran and the Indian Sub-Continent.

twelverJames W. Allan

Biennial Ehsan Yarshater Lecture Series, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London (January 11–16, 2007), Azimuth Editions, London, 2012.

This book arose from the exhibition Pilgrimage: The Sacred Journey, held at the Ashmolean Museum in 2006, curated by Dr Ruth Barnes. Those of us involved in it discovered that, amongst the many tens of books on the art and architecture of the Islamic world, there are none in which to look up the art and architecture associated with Twelver Shi'ism. This is the dominant faith in southern Iraq and Iran, and has also had a major historical role in India, in particular in the Deccan and in Lucknow. This book attempts to correct the situation, and is the first in its field.

It looks first at the history of the great Shi'i shrines of Iraq and Iran, a subject almost completely untouched in the standard works on Islamic architecture; on the role of Shi'i and, unexpectedly, Sunni (orthodox Islamic) patronage in their development; at the collecting of relics, and the use of inscriptions and symbols to identify religious buildings; and at the way in which different Shi'i religious buildings (e.g. tekiyehs, ashur khanehs and kerbalas) appeared in Iran and in India.

It then turns to the impact of Shi'ism on the craft industries, highlighting in particular the role of shrines in promoting art, the likely importance of Shi'ism in the development of Iran's steelworking industry, the use of inscriptions to identify objects as Shi'i, and the rise of figural art to communicate Shi'i faith – in the arts of the book, in paintings of the Kerbala drama, and, since the Islamic Revolution, on Iranian banknotes and stamps.

Finally, it turns to the impact of the art of Shi'ism on the annual Muharram processions, with their magnificent steel and brass standards ('alams), and highlights the syncretism characteristic of Shi'i art and architecture in the subcontinent.