Ask The Expert – Glaire Anderson

Ask The Expert – Glaire Anderson

01 May 2021

by Glaire Anderson

Senior Lecturer in Islamic Art, School of History of Art/ECA University of Edinburgh


 There is a lot of mythology around the presence of Islam in Al-Andalus. Which is the biggest myth and fallacy that continues to persist? 

Very true – it’s tough to pick just one! The notion that the most important way to understand al-Andalus is through a framework of religious identity and difference is a big one for me, and one that I’ve tried to resist in my own work, by looking at non-religious visual culture but also considering diplomacy, and family connections between the Umayyads of Córdoba and Christian Iberian rulers, such as Queen Toda of Pamplona. Many wonderful scholars have been pushing back against this idea for many years of course, and their work reveals how much more complex – and interesting! – al-Andalus was. Closely related to the overemphasis on religion as interpretive framework is the myth that al-Andalus was somehow different, even unique, when in fact it fits so well with what we see elsewhere in the medieval Islamic lands.

  • Dodds, Jerrilynn, ed. Al-Andalus: The Art of Islamic Spain. New York: Distributed by H.N. Abrams, 1992.
  • Dodds, Jerrilynn Denise. Architecture and Ideology in Early Medieval Spain. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1990.
  • Dodds, Jerrilynn Denise, Abigail Krasner Balbale, and Maria Rosa Menocal. The Arts of Intimacy: Christians, Jews, and Muslims in the Making of Castilian Culture. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008.
  • Ruggles, D. Fairchild. “Mothers of a Hybrid Dynasty: Race, Genealogy, and Acculturation in al-Andalus.” Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 34, no. 1 (2004): 65–94.


Do we have knowledge or reports of Muslims going to South America after 1492?

Great question, though one that is far beyond my area of expertise – I don’t often venture out of the 10th century! From what I gather from colleagues who do work on this topic, there is documentary evidence for Muslims in the New World in this period, but it is sparse and ambiguous because of the prohibitions and anxieties about Muslims in the period. Some may have been enslaved peoples from the Maghreb, as well as Muslims who had converted to Christianity (known as Moriscos).  There are certainly interesting connections to Islamic visual culture that historians of art and architecture have traced in South America from the colonial period from the 16th century. Perhaps the best-known are the ‘Mudejar’ ceilings that are present across the continent, but forms and techniques deriving from Islamic traditions appear in other architectural forms such as arches, or in objects such as ceramics. You can see these in monuments like the Cathedral in Tlaxcala, Mexico and the the Torre Tagle Palace in Lima, Peru. And beginning in the 19th century many Muslims migrated to Latin America and created new works of architecture that stand as visual testament to their identities as Muslims.


  • Cook, Karoline P. Forbidden Passages: Muslims and Moriscos in Colonial Spanish America. Early Modern Americas. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016.
  • Cook, Karoline P. “Navigating Identities: The Case of a Morisco Slave in Seventeenth-Century New Spain.” The Americas (Washington. 1944) 65, no. 1 (2008): 63-79.
  • Cummins, Thomas B. F., and María Judith Feliciano. “Mudejar Americano.” In A Companion to Islamic Art and Architecture, 1023–50. John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. 
  • Schreffler, Michael, “Threads of every color”: on mudéjar and cultural comparison in colonial Latin America,” And diverse are their hues: color in Islamic art and culture. Ed. Jonathan Bloom and Sheila Blair (Yale University Press, New Haven & London, 2011) p. 245-269.



I read you are interested in videogames, how can videogames successfully communicate history and education? Has it been done succesfully so far?


Yes, absolutely videogames can successfully communicate history and education. They provide a way for us to immerse ourselves in history in much the same way that we can lose ourselves in a great historical film or a book.  But video games can provide an incredible level of immersion and engagement in history. A video game puts you in the role of active participant, rather than a passive observer, and that provides an opportunity for education that goes beyond film, and even in some ways beyond what a great book can do. And while not everyone might want to read a serious history book, no matter how well-written, lots of people of all ages enjoy playing games and enjoy learning about history. This means that games – digital or analog – have the potential to bring history to much wider audiences. Video games with historical themes are very popular – if you search for ‘top 10 historical video games’ you’ll see what I mean. Some examples of successful ones are Age of Empires, Total War, Sid Meier’s Civilisation, and – though it takes a fantasy approach to history – Assassin’s Creed, with its incredible immersive architectural and urban environments (including 12th century Jerusalem and Damascus). While such games are definitely fun to play, their historical content is often outdated and even perpetuates problematic stereotypes and misinformation – all the excellent research that has been going on in academic settings hasn’t yet been successfully absorbed into these games. Yet, because video games have such potential to educate, I would argue that specialists in Islamic history and civilisation should be involved in game creation. In fact, I’m collaborating with the History & Games Lab here at the University of Edinburgh on a new game. It’s based in the 11th century Islamic Mediterranean, and we hope it will be fun of course, but that it will also introduce a broad audience to a very interesting moment of cultural encounter between Muslims and non-Muslims. 



 Given your interest in using Islamic visual culture to talk about global history more widely, could you please discuss how and what ways you approach this? As an Islamic art scholar, I have sometimes struggled to convince non-historians and non-academics of the importance of my research, which, to be fair, does come across as pretty obscure! I have heard other (non-Islamic) art historians talk about how the discipline of art history has so far failed to prove its relevance to society in contrast to other Humanities disciplines like philosophy or literature. I would be grateful for your thoughts and/or some practical guidance, as I agree with you that it’s really important to clarify our research for and communicate it to the wider non-scholarly public. 


This is a great question. We are still fighting against a general prejudice that assumes the superiority of text, but perhaps this is changing given the emphasis on visuality in the age of the internet. And especially when you’re so close to a topic it can be a challenge to make it clear to others outside the field why our work matters.  Two scholars who do this very well in our field are Kishwar Rizvi and Stephennie Mulder. I try to use unexpected connections, to pique curiosity, and to upset expectations about the medieval period. I most enjoy introducing my students to connections between the medieval Islamic lands and China/SE Asia, and with Northern Europe – especially connections with the Vikings. There have been interesting archaeological finds here in Scotland that speak to this – Samanid coins in Viking hoards, for example, that students don’t expect, but that reveal the extent and intensity of these global connections. This gives us a chance to think about cultural exchanges at a time when many people still assume that Muslim and non-Muslim societies were somehow isolated from one another, or that they engaged primarily in terms of religious conflict. While teaching our students in universities and sharing our research with fellow scholars is of course important, we should help the public find and engage with our research – they are interested, but we can do more to make our research engaging to non-specialists. I’m still working out how to do this. But it’s why I’m interested in gaming and in exploring new digital technologies that will give as many people as possible the ability to experience Islamic visual culture and history.  Overall I would say my experiences as a parent have been the most valuable for me in thinking how and why to communicate with the public.  I’ve learned a lot from my family – they are not academics, but are extremely interested in history. So the best strategy might be to bring all of one’s experiences, as a whole person – not just as an academic – to this work. I wish you good luck in bringing your research to a broad audience!