Graduate Theological Union

Bridging Religions and Cultures through Art


A recent Sunday New York Times article hailed the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s November 1 opening of one of the most important collections of Islamic art outside the Middle East. More than half of the collection comes from Iran, and “promises to stand as a watershed moment in America’s awareness of the visual culture of the Islamic world, at a time when that world looms as large as ever on the international stage and in the American psyche,” says Randy Kennedy, the article’s author.

Kennedy also writes, “The new (collection) will … emphasize more strongly how the visual trademarks of Islamic art — geometric abstraction and calligraphy, as both language and decoration — have coexisted over the centuries with lively figuration…. It also holds the possibility at least of reshaping many Americans’ views about the deep affinities between Western and Islamic art.”

Additionally, the New York City imam Abdallah Adhami says he hopes the new Met galleries will help bridge cultural differences between Americans and the Muslim world, and serve as a nucleus for American Muslims, whom he sees as unaware of the riches of their cultural past.

Montazeri with art

The galleries’ opening is auspicious timing for Fateme Montazeri, who is beginning her Ph.D. studies in Art and Religion with a focus on Islamic Art. Montazeri, who has an M.A. degree from University of Tehran and took classes last year in the GTU’s M.A. program in Islamic Studies, is fascinated by the beauty and the “hidden meanings” in Islamic art.

She points to Islamic miniatures — tiny paintings placed in books to illustrate the work of great poets, such as the Iranian poet Hafiz. “The idealistic method of painting, the abstraction, as well as the repetition of varied patterns are all hints to the Divine realm and the Unity of the One, the Tawhid in Islamic doctrines,” she says.

“…I had no idea how different, and at the same time how similar, we all are.”
Fateme Montazeri, Ph.D. Student

Montazeri, interested in art from a young age, and herself a calligrapher, came to the U.S. with her husband just over a year ago from Tehran, Iran. Both wanted to study art. When reviewing UC Berkeley’s catalog in art history, she came upon a link to the GTU. “Most interesting to me was the great range in class offerings, from opportunities to study different faith traditions, to religion and art. I thought the GTU was meant for me!

“There are so many things for me to learn, and at the same time I see misrepresentations of Islam and Islamic art within Western scholarship. I hope my studies here will be of mutual benefit; to be influenced and to influence.”

MontazeriMontazeri describes being “shocked” by the difference between her expectations of others’ attitudes toward Muslims here, and the reality. “People in Berkeley are relatively aware of the Islamic and Iranian culture, and are willing to learn about it. Many are attempting to learn about Islam and languages like Arabic and Persian.” She is also amazed that there are so many Muslims here, and so much diversity among them.

When not immersed in the art world, Montazeri teaches Persian language and Islamic studies at the Islamic Cultural Center of Northern California in Oakland, a center that (among other activities) hosts Muslim and interfaith art exhibitions. Her vision for her future? “I am open to see what will happen. Maybe I will be a researcher, maybe a teacher. The key is to have faith; I believe we’re not left alone nor are we here accidentally. I’m here to learn things and to do things needed at this step, and there will be guidance to my next steps.

“The most impressive opportunity for me now is to know others. This is necessary for all people to experience. I had no idea how different, and at the same time how similar, we all are.” Perhaps Montazeri’s studies in Islamic art, as with the opening of the new galleries at the Met, will help bring this profound realization to others.