“The field of the study of Islamic art is very young. We are now at a stage where people are asking more meaningful questions [so the] field is in a very exciting phase,” says Dr. Ruba Kana’an. Kana’an recently joined the UTM faculty as an assistant professor of Islamic Art and Architecture in the Department of Visual Studies. She sat down with The Medium to discuss her journey to academia, her field as a whole, and her hopes for her students.
Kana’an originally studied architectural engineering at the University of Jordan but was always interested in archeology. “I grew up in a part of the world where you’re surrounded by historical buildings and I [was] always [curious] about who built them and why,” she says. She worked as an architect for a short while, focusing on solar energy, however, “decided that [her] passion [was] really the history of Islamic art and architecture.” Therefore, Kana’an went to England to complete a Master’s and Ph.D. degree in Islamic Art and Architecture from the University of Oxford.
Before joining UTM, Kana’an taught at the University of Oxford and worked at the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto. At the museum, she had the opportunity to work with the Ministry of Education to integrate the study of Muslim civilizations and history into the high school curriculum.
Kana’an’s research aims “to learn more about Islamic art” by examining “the combination of Islamic art, Islamic history, and Islamic law.” Her current book project focuses on “the history of [the] development of Friday mosques…their architecture, and [and] how a Friday mosque [has] fit in a city throughout the Muslim world [and] throughout history.”
Kana’an’s other project explores the “vague idea of an artist in history.” Kana’an says that she is “look[ing] at what does a pre-modern artist mean? What is their agency? What is the intellectual property? Who says what goes on what object?”
When asked about contemporary Islamic art, Kana’an emphasizes that the field is young. While “well-established museums of Islamic art focus on early Islam, the interest and focus on contemporary Islamic art is very recent.”
Kana’an says that teaching Islamic art and architecture is very different than researching in the field. “There is a big question mark. When you say ‘I’m teaching Islamic art,’ you are expected to be teaching the art and material culture of one-fifth of the world’s population.” Kana’an discusses how each course in Islamic art and architecture has to include “quite a lot of background history, geography, and religion.” Otherwise, many students in the classroom might continue to have misconceptions, or “Orientalist” ideas, such as the idea that Islamic art and architecture is the same throughout the world and has remained unchanging throughout time. She points out that there are currently only three people teaching this subject in Canada, two of which are at the University of Toronto campuses.
In terms of the courses that she is currently teaching, Kana’an mentions a few that she is particularly passionate about. FAH:395Artists and Craftsmen from the Muslim World delves into artists from the pre-modern Muslim world. “I like people to think of art as a product of living human beings with life experiences. Part of that life experience is their Muslim faith and the cultural contexts of the regions they lived in.”
Kana’an mentions that when she first arrived at UTM, she noticed that many students hailed from various ethnic minority backgrounds. “I developed a course last year on art encounters on the Silk Road. [In the course,] I bring together the experience of the Silk Road as a spatial concept that linked China and the Muslim world throughout history.” Kana’an states that having a class of students with diverse backgrounds allows everyone to learn from each other. “I developed this course because I feel it is a way for people to connect together and see that this notion of the global connection has always been there.”
Kana’an also points out the importance of preparing students for their careers post-graduation. Her fourth year seminar course, FAH495: Islamic Art and the Museum, focuses on the recent resurgence of Islamic Art in museums and gives students the opportunity to “have a product at the end of [their] project that they can include in their portfolio or [give them] something to talk about in a job interview.”
When asked about what she expects her students to learn and take away from her courses, Kana’an responds that she ardently hopes that her students will be able to “think of Muslim civilizations as similar to any other civilizations that have built within them a huge diversity of expressions [and] ideas, and not to think of Islam as something relegated to the past and [of] Muslims as people who are different or the other.”
She says that art is an opportunity to see “how Muslims dealt with issues and came up with different solutions to express their diversity.” Kana’an tries to be positive as an educator despite the fact that “the knowledge of geography of the world is very limited to the West [and] a very Eurocentric knowledge of history and geography.” She ends by saying, “I wish for my students to have a broader knowledge of the world.”