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Flood Finbarr B., Objects of Translation, Material Culture and Medieval “Hindu-Muslim” Encounter, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 2009, 366 p.

Valérie Gonzalez

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1If, still, there was a need to demonstrate the efficiency and indispensability of theory and thought to advance the study of visual forms, Finbarr B. Flood’s outstanding book on the Islamic material culture of pre-modern India offers an unquestionable proof of it. With a widely interdisciplinary methodology sustained by references to the most updated experts in cultural studies, Flood investigates a large spectrum of objects, from architecture, epigraphy and ivories to textiles, metalwork and coins. The period covered extends from the Emirates of Sistan and Sind up to the Delhi Sultanate, with an emphasis on the decisive but ill-known rule of the Ghurids in the area’s Islamic history. Approaching this material as a semiotic signifier of the relational intricacies of diverse nature between the local and Muslim peoples, Flood exposes in a radically new light the complex mechanisms of exchange, translation and cross-fertilization that have shaped this rich hybrid culture. Mastering the method of deductive reasoning and empowered by his solid critical knowledge, the author establishes meaningful connections between the results of inquiries in fields as diverse as pure history, art history, semiotics, anthropology, political thought and even linguistics. Furthermore, he situates these connections in a broader perspective, by resorting relevantly to the comparative study with other Islamic cosmopolitan contexts, another sophisticated critical tool Flood manipulates with great skill. The book’s outcome is a subtle hermeneutic of the artistic, sociological and political constructs in this key period, yet scholarly neglected, for the development of both Islam and the local pre-Islamic cultures and polities under its yoke in South Asia.

2Each of the book’ six chapters explores diverse topics including artistic media, cultural phenomena and ideological concepts that have participated in the formation of a particular cultural pattern. Flood explains this textual organization in a substantial introduction expounding the theoretical premises of his work and the epistemological issues it raises.

3The introduction indeed is of the greatest importance for two main reasons. First it criticizes the linear and taxonomic approaches of the historians of art and material culture of South Asia, particularly their dichotomist categorization of the supposedly two opposed Indic and Islamic cultural systems and practices. Second, it discusses and defines essential questions and notions such as “hybridity” or “translation” that any scholar dealing with transcultural phenomena should thoroughly reflect upon prior to any other type of analysis. Clearly, the recent worldly history has engendered a great interest in these phenomena. As a result, an unprecedented intellectual trend focused on the theme of cosmopolitanism has emerged. It has revealed the necessity to reconceptualize obsolete scholarly views and paradigms and, by inference, the need to create more suitable ones. As tedious or superfluous as they may appear to some historians of Islamic art and visual culture, Flood’s extensive epistemological arguments throughout his book attests to and fulfills these new requirements. For example, one of the important aspects of the existing studies the author rightly deconstructs is worth to comment in these lines. It concerns the supremacy given to texts over things for the understanding of an Islamic cultural fact or process. In Islamic art history, usually original writings are read in a simplistic and unidirectional manner as the supreme carriers of cultural values. As a result they are viewed as the main providers of response to scholarly problems and questionings. This approach potentially leads to reductive, flawed or even faulty interpretations because it ignores a major fact, pointed out several times in the book, which is, the significant discrepancies between visual and textual expression. Furthermore it downplays the visual media’s autonomy of creative logic, as well as their semantic weight and shaping power in the process of cultural elaboration. Not surprisingly then, Flood makes a point in situating himself along with polyvalent specialists of cultural studies free of legacies and engaged in lively debates of ideas like James Clifford or Sheldon Pollock. At last, this utterly useful introduction offers a sample of the author’s writing style. This is not a trivial point considering the verbal sophistication and rich terminology that characterize it. While perhaps difficult or cumbersome for some, it is never obscure. Always relevant and delightfully elegant, Flood’s elaborate language serves to eloquently express and convincingly communicate the deepest observations all along the chapters.

4Setting up the book’s chronological order, Chapter 1 focuses on the 9th and 10th century. It investigates the first cultural encounters between the native and Muslim populations in the Islamic Emirates that were newly established in these confine regions to the East of the Baghdad Caliphate. Examining the most significant materials of this early period (mainly ivories, metalwork and coins) in the light of the times’ political and religious events, Flood shows how those encounters took the form of dynamic and multidirectional flows, far from the static antinomy and brutal rupture traditionally assumed in scholarship, and in contrast with the more antagonistic tone of some contemporary texts. In fact, he observes an attitude of pragmatism and negotiation toward the non-Muslims dictated by the necessities to build a sustainable economy and secure a solid political construction in the context of the region’s growing autonomy vis a vis the central power in Baghdad. This attitude was also underpinned by a religious re-orientation resulting from the abandonment of Sunny orthodoxy in favor of Shi’ism in this period. Processed, translated and recycled looted artifacts, booties, tributes, gift exchanges and traded commodities reveal unsuspected networks of circulation and interactions of objects, subjects and ideas between the different cultural entities in question. These operations effected the blurring of political, ethnic and religious/sectarian boundaries inside and out of the Islamic realm. This complex phenomenon the author deciphered with maestria, has created syncretistic cultural spheres that challenge the perception of a stiff Islamic iconoclasm and a systematic rejection and destruction of Indic polytheistic imagery. For example, precious Hindu metal images and icons were reutilized and re-ritualized through various processes of detournement and manipulation of meaning and value in order to acquire a new “Islamic” cognitive function.

5Clothing, the subject matter of Chapter 2, constitutes a significant and historically well-documented example of this appropriation of foreign artifacts. Here Flood provides an exemplary historical and anthropological analysis of the highly symbolic medium of the dress as it engaged the process of visual articulation of political dominance and submission in the region. Quoting stories from original chronicles and referring both to young scholars and celebrated anthropologists such as Claude Levi-Strauss or Pierre Bourdieu, the author discusses the process of “cultural cross-dressing” attesting to the fluidity of formulas between the Turkic-Persian and Indic models. Sartorial choices were determined by empirical necessities, conveniences and motivations that helped to transcend and transform with great ease the dress’s common association with a particular ethnic identity or religious affiliation. Geopolitical frontiers could thus be culturally diluted, expanded or moved in different directions, reflecting the linkages between different groups and authorities as much as their ever changing identity. This complexity can render difficult the interpretation of hybrid artwork such as the Dukhang Temple’s murals representing Ladakhi elites dressed in Persianate garments with tiraz on the sleeves that scholars have confused with Muslim foreigners.

6Chapter 3, 4 and 5 thoroughly investigate the Ghurid period that sees the creation of a vast Eastern Islamic Sultanate and the return to Sunnism underpinned by sectarian shifts and disputes. Flood’s detailed screening of the epigraphy, coinage, and the architectural structures and decoration shows that the Ghurids’ new religious claims and ambitions were carefully expressed in visual forms. Similarly, the latter express the attitude of the conquering dynasty toward the non-Muslim subjects in Northern India. This attitude was clearly marked by a sensitivity to and consciousness of the cultural differences between the subjects from the Ghurid domains in Iran and Afghanistan and those from India. Resolutely avoiding all schematization, the author discerns diverse patterns of relationship between the Indic and Turkic-Persianate components forming the Ghurid culture. This relationship could take on the form of interference, cross-fertilization, juxtaposition or, on the contrary bipolarity, depending on both the cultural parameters of the dominated zone, and the specific objectives of the official political-religious rhetoric. Overall, rather than the oppressive domination described in many studies and in some heavily ideological texts of the period Flood’s analysis lets appear a flexible system of accommodation of the non-Muslims in and out of the Sultanate. His interpretations rest upon a principle at the center of his reasoning which is that one and the same artistic object or cultural feature is able to harbor multiple meanings and fulfill different purposes. It is all about manipulation and translation as -I am tempted to recall- Marcel Duchamps had boldly demonstrated it with his famous “Fountain”. In the cosmopolitan Ghurid realm, this potentiality de facto has facilitated the negotiation with the “other”, particularly active and necessary in the realization of artistic programs involving cosmopolitan labor and materials, and relying on the creative adaptation of foreign formulas.

7Thus, Chapter 4 scrutinizes the modalities through which an object is re-contextualized as well as the many ways its meaning is recreated and reprocessed in the hybridizing practice of loot and reuse in art making. Chapter 5 targets the major subject of Ghurid architecture represented by great monuments such as the Qutb Mosque in Delhi or the Chaurasi Khamba Mosque in Kaman. In this last chapter, I would bring a little correction regarding Floods’ statement about the two styles that distinguish the architecture of the region of Afghanistan and the Indus Valley, and the architecture of Northern India. He talks about the “dryness and rigidity” of the geometric ornamentation characterizing the former (p.137), as opposed to the more organic quality of the latter’s design. The rather pejorative terms “dryness” and “rigidity” are inappropriate, for they convey judgmental values resulting from a subjective aesthetic appreciation instead of an objective scholarly observation. I would replace them by the words “abstract” and “two-dimensional”. Indeed, what Floods describes is a difference of aesthetic nature that has nothing to do with artistic quality whatsoever. In the Western part of the Ghurid polity, by aesthetic choice, taste and habit, abstraction and two-dimensional ornamentation were emphasized, in contrast with the more sculptural and naturalistic Indian stylistic tradition. Here, I engage in the field of art criticism which participates only marginally in the book’s argumentation, but could be considered in a future research.

8The final chapter (6) examines the subsequent period of the Delhi Sultanate with the same plural methodology and intellectual objectives. It explores the processes of syncretism and translation culminating on this multilayered locus that became the Great Qutb Mosque. This building is indeed the epitome of the hybrid culture in this part of the Islamic world during pre-modern times. At last, the conclusion highlights few important ideas and, interestingly enough re-introduces the epistemological questioning and positioning that underpins the book. Again, attention is drawn on the complexity resulting from the use of different languages (in the broad sense) in a given culture and the difficulty of interpreting it. The old scholarly categories positing a hierarchy between the center and the periphery, the local and the global, the pure and the hybrid, etc., are no longer suitable for a proper hermeneutic of this phenomenon and its products. New readings are proposed through the flourishing of new theories and theorists. However, the idea of a model or a scheme more productive than another seems to endure, as it appears in the following statement: “Recent reimaginings of the relationships between centers and peripheries…see peripheries as potentially more productive by virtue of their role as a nexus between different artistic and cultural networks and the consequent availability of potential models that may not circulate in the center” (p. 262). It is not clear whether the author approves this idea or not, but there is a need to temper the deconstructive impulse. The will to correct a past-dated vision should not entail the reversing of the old tendency into another ideologically loaded stream, in this case by promoting the “localisms”, “particularisms” and hybridisms as the most (even potentially) productive forms of cultural crafting. This remark just points out to the extreme liveliness of cultural studies and debates; the liveliness of a work in progress to which Flood’s beautiful book greatly contributes. Finally, this book not only reveals the cultural richness and significance of the pre-modern Islamic Indian world, but also, more broadly, it offers a new mode of making research in the arts of Islam in general, in consonance with the other fields dedicated to the study of visual expression.

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Valérie Gonzalez, « Flood Finbarr B., Objects of Translation, Material Culture and Medieval “Hindu-Muslim” Encounter, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 2009, 366 p. », Revue des mondes musulmans et de la Méditerranée [En ligne], 129 | juillet 2011, mis en ligne le 04 janvier 2012, consulté le 12 juin 2021. URL :

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