The third lecture of the Charles Wilkinson lecture series from 2013, “In Quest of Paradise: Accommodating Death in Islam” was given by Lisa Golombek, and I think was the weakest of the three lectures. I’m not sure if this was down to me not having as much context – I know more about Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia than I do about the early centuries of Islam. But it also felt a little shoehorned into the overarching them – Golombek had to start off by explaining that Muslim burials don’t contain grave goods, nor are they supposed to have decoration or external tombs. So not promising ground for a talk in a series about the art of burial!
Golombek did find two themes to talk about, however. One of these was the shrouds that the people are buried in. In high status burials these are not just plain cloths, they have a band of text which calls for prayers for the Caliph and generally names him and gives a date. And as with a lot of Islamic caligraphy this is done in a very decorative style.
The second theme was that of the mausoleum – with the Taj Mahal being the most spectacular example. Muslim graves are not supposed to be marked with structures – death is the great leveller, and everyone’s grave should be the same. However a tradition of building large and beautiful structures around graves of important people did grow up. These structures are generally constructed so that they can be thought of as canopies – with the walls open so that the grave is technically not enclosed. Golombek spends a while tracing the development of this from early not-quite-shrines at the graves of spiritually important people (like Mohammed himself) through to structures like the Taj Mahal.
As I said at the start of this post, this talk did feel a bit like it had been a struggle to fit the series theme and personally I didn’t find it as interesting as the others.