In the early years of Grabar’s career as a historian, the academic world of Islamic studies, like other disciplines and branches of knowledge, was primarily influenced by typical Western academic dogmas, especially at universities in Britain, France, and America; very few historians, either Western or Oriental, were working in this field (IIS, 2018). In fact, according to al-Asad (2011), Islamic studies were often linked to Western imperialism and colonialism. However, in recent years the number of local and Eastern researchers has increased and, as Grabar remarked, in the past few decades, the majority of students focusing on the Islamic world studies has switched from mostly Western researchers to Muslim. Oleg Grabar was fascinated by all aspects of the Middle East and had extensive knowledge not only about its art and architecture, but also about its people, culture, and history (The Harvard Gazette, 2012). For much of his career, Grabar made detailed studies as he investigated the nature of Islamic art to find out what had, for centuries, generated and influenced its particular forms, architecture, traditions, and dynamics of growth (Grimes, 2011). This passion for Islamic art led him to explore the interconnections between religion and socio-historical circumstances in its development as well as the nature of and relationship between traditional and modern Islamic art.
Grabar’s enthusiasm for the forces of fourteen centuries of Islamic art, architecture, and traditions, including Arabic and Persian illustrated manuscripts and Islamic ornament, was shared by the growing community of art historians, many of whom had been mentored by him. In his studies and investigations, Grabar touched upon a wide range of architectural issues, from ancient times to contemporary architecture, on the Arabian Peninsula and explored the growing phenomenon of exploiting architecture as a means of defining societies. His numerous publications for the Aga Khan Award underscored his shrewd ability to research and analyse various cultures and different historical time frames (Hillenbrand, 2012a). As a committee member and recipient of the AKAA, he had a strong network of like-minded people who specialised in different Islamic contexts, thus providing him with direct and authentic sources for what were primarily theoretical studies (al-Asad, 2011). Grabar was regularly in contact with numerous specialists with whom he could confer and share ideas: art collectors, archaeologists, architects, planners, and conservation specialists, many of whom represented new disciplines within the burgeoning field of Islamic studies.
Grabar was fascinated by the visual culture of the Islamic world and its evolution throughout the centuries; he himself took a part in shaping the changes that resulted (al-Asad, 2011) in a paradigm shift in the field of Islamic studies. In a new scholarly interest in the Islamic world both by Western and Middle Eastern historians, Graber was a dynamic and passionate stakeholder in the promulgation of Islamic studies. He was continually involved in a variety of projects such as organising exhibitions and film making; apart from his teaching and prolific writing, he also helped edit the work of other scholars. He managed to expand the scope of the field of Islamic art and architecture far beyond its former spatial and temporal limits (Necipoglu and Leal, 2011), by focusing on both geographical and chronological evolution and diversity in relation to their social, economic, political, and cultural contexts.
Beliefs and ideologies
Grabar believed that raising the right questions was far more important than finding the right answer; in fact, his prolific body of work could be considered as journeys of intellectual discovery (Archnet, 2018). Infused by a spirit of inquiry, for Grabar, in any academic work and research, the journey mattered far more than the destination reached (Hillenbrand, 2012a). Influential and persuasive, many of Grabar’s contemporaries who had come from an architectural background had changed career paths to become architectural historians. Although most of his contemporaries paid considerable attention to the heritage of Islamic architecture, Grabar considered that the present was equally significant and particularly representative in a time of tumultuous social changes and flux (al-Asad, 2011). An expansive and generous personality, he was considered the top educator in his field. He often helped students clarify their ideas and treated them as equal intellectual peers, thus giving them the confidence and self-belief to carry on with their intellectual pursuits. His students considered themselves privileged to be mentored and taught by him; many acknowledged owing their successful careers to him. Many of his students continued their studies and worked in universities, museums, and galleries in the United States as well as other countries.
Having had a classical French education, Grabar’s works typically had a tripartite arrangement, starting with an extensive introduction, valid and well-structured supporting arguments, and a considered conclusion. Grabar was “dense in argument, but lucid and rich in examples” (The Telegraph, 2011), and had a lively analytical mind. His lectures and works were lucid and well researched, and he was known for being able to introduce an entire research project, regardless of the theme and content, in a succinct outline of captivating sentences. “He had an eagle eye for a promising, but still under-researched subject” (Hillenbrand, 2012a: 141). At the same time, he had the ability to subtly and innovatively present familiar subjects which was not at first self-evident. His creative and analytical ways of examining a problem influenced and inspired his contemporaries and students to explore a wide variety of questions and issues relevant to cultural and social histories and aesthetics. Grabar was a prolific author who continued to infuse his research with fresh ideas and new subjects, and he was labelled a Renaissance man because of his vivid, multifaceted imagination, his creative mind, and his profound interest in a wide variety of methods and subjects.
According to Necipoglu and Leal (2011), the second Aga Khan Professor and a former student of Grabar’s, he had a gift for making his subjects enjoyable and attractive to specialists and non-specialists alike; his lecture queries about the meaning and dynamics of Islamic art and architecture would arouse the curiosity and interest of his listeners. This engaging lecturing style helped to expand recognition and admiration of his expertise in the field of Islamic art to a wide variety of audiences (The Harvard Gazette, 2012). Grabar believed that teaching architecture through philosophy was a better way to tackle the subject rather than teaching it through history; he proposed that the historian, while describing architecture, should extract the common principles and ideas from national examples (Grabar, 1986). In his view, the main purpose of historical research in art for cultural and literary historians is to ask questions and examine issues. To Grabar, the actual role of the historian is to present monuments of the past, to make recommendations on how to preserve them, and to record the present events and current architectural trends (Grabar, 1983).