At age 16, Christiane Gruber set off alone to Tunisia from high school in the United States to learn Arabic and explore the North African country. This was bold, even for a youngster who had moved across the world with a father in the Swiss diplomatic service.
Looking back a few decades later, Gruber recalls the stirrings that would lead her to become a professor at the University of Michigan and an authority on the history of Islamic art. "For me, even then, it was intellectual curiosity, aesthetic appeal and the challenge of learning a culture and tradition that were unfamiliar," she says.
Gruber now spends her summer between Istanbul, where she has an apartment "close to my research", and Geneva, where she grew up speaking French, German, Italian and English.
Only two minutes into our conversation, the energy behind her prolific output becomes apparent. This work dates back to her undergraduate thesis at Princeton University on 15th-century Mamluk metalware and a doctoral thesis at the University of Pennsylvania on the Prophet Mohammed's ascension in Islamic art and literature.
Gruber's latest project, an exhibition she co-curated at the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto, titled The Moon: A Voyage Through Time, celebrates the role of the Moon in Muslim civilisations – whether in time-keeping, faith or navigating trade routes. Gruber was brought into the project by resident curator Ulrike Al-Khamis, who wanted to mark the 50th anniversary of the Moon landings, and so the pair set about assembling and arranging exhibits into themes such as "The Moon as Wonder" and "The Moon as Beauty".
Gruber’s expertise in art history helped establish accurate contexts. “To give one example: the ‘Moon as Knowledge’ covers scientific material,” she says. “Today we wouldn’t put astronomy in the same section as astrology, but in the medieval period in Islam there was one term for both, ‘the science of the stars’.
"The goal was understanding the stars because they affected your destiny. Astronomy was a tool for the higher science of astrology," she says.
“An astrolabe was used for scientific purposes – but the instrument itself was made beautifully.”
The centrepiece of the exhibition, which was removed last week but is available to view online, is a five-metre Moon by British sculptor Luke Jerram, which children can survey through a telescope. "People are interested in the Moon, whatever their faith or age," says Gruber. "It captures almost everybody's imagination."
Perhaps this illustrates why Gruber enjoys teaching. "I've always loved sharing what I know, and empowering the younger generation, showing them how to think and not necessarily what to think."
Gruber is both a specialised scholar – she learnt Farsi and Turkish after Arabic – and ecumenical in her approach to art history. In 2016, she was an adviser on thePower and Protection: Islamic Art and the Supernatural exhibition at the Ashmolean in Oxford and editor of Islamic Architecture on the Move: Motion and Modernity. "I like to define terms in the most capacious way possible," she says.
“I don’t like limits. The mosque is probably the chief architectural manifestation of Islam. But it can be a pattern, an ornament, a word written in script, a painting, a knotted design in a carpet. For me, Islamic architecture is any structure or architectural element that makes a conscientious nod to what is conceived of as Islamic, as of Muslim-majority lands.”
This covers architecture not only in Islamic heartlands, she says, but also in Hawaii, the Americas and New Zealand. It includes the eco-mosque in Cambridge, England, where with solar panels, "the mosque becomes literally a place of enlightenment distributing energy both real and metaphorical to its community", she says.
Gruber has had two books published in the past year. The Praiseworthy One: The Prophet Mohammed in Islamic Texts and Images is her third as the sole author. She has also edited The Image Debate: Figural Representation in Islam and Across the World, which was published in June, with 13 essays and about 200 illustrations.
The Image Debate, says Gruber, narrates discussion and disagreement over representation found throughout cultures and religions across the world, not as often supposed simply within Islam, hence the book includes specialists on Byzantium, pre-Islamic Central Asia, African Islam, Indonesia, India and Judaism.
These days, the scholar retains the appreciation of Islamic art that lured her 16-year-old self. “I very much like the 12th-century [Seljuk] standing figure illustrated in my essay, which is monumental and minimalist,” Gruber says. As for her next steps, she envisages a “new field of scholarly enquiry” she’s calling “eco-Islamic art”.
“I’m writing several essays exploring visual, material, and architectural practices that come together to craft environmentally centred forms of Islamic piety. In particular, I’m looking at how landscapes, rocks, trees, water and animals enliven and embellish human life in Muslim-majority countries.”