Illuminating Islam

When Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow Özgen Felek taught an undergraduate course entitled “Islamic Manuscript Illumination: History, Theory and Practice” through the Department of Religious Studies last spring, she made a bold pedagogical move in bridging knowledge and practice.  Students not only imbibed a theoretical introduction to Islamic manuscripts; over the course of the quarter they produced paintings that emulated the traditional techniques and styles of Islamic art.  Since only one of Felek’s students painted professionally, the other students (all novices to visual art) felt intimidated and overwhelmed.  However, as the course progressed, class participants voluntarily stayed over the course’s prescribed hours and, upon students’ requests, Felek even agreed to meet with them during the weekends.  According to Felek, students “became addicted to this kind of painting; it was different, it was like therapy for them… They were amazed by how much they learned in ten weeks.  But more importantly, they were very happy to discover their own talents and skills that they were not aware of, and proud of what they were able to produce in such a short time.”

Members of “Islamic Manuscript Illumination” class: Cecilia Jojola, Barr Moses, Dr. Özgen Felek, Andi Harrington, and Rose Leitner.


The encouraging suggestions of Hester Gelber, Professor and Chair of Religious Studies, led Felek and her students to organize a miniature art exhibition where they could display their finished works.  Both the Abbasi Program in Islamic Studies and Religious Studies supported the budding illuminators by publicizing and archiving their exhibit.  Despite the exhibit’s ill-timing (during finals week of spring 2012), it attracted over one hundred visitors.  One of Felek’s students, Rose Leitner, will continue her study of Islamic art in Istanbul this January under the tutelage Sibel Zirek, a former student of Felek’s from Firat University (Elazig, Turkey).

Felek’s scholarship on Sufism and the Ottoman Empire brings together the disciplines of religion, history, gender studies, politics, and art.  Her primary research revolves around Sultan Murad III (d. 1595), who was also a significant art patron and connoisseur.  Currently, Felek is examining the construction and deconstruction of masculinity in the Ottoman court during the sixteenth century, which requires a close reading of illustrations and illustrated texts.  She first learned Islamic manuscript illumination at Firat University in 1989, where she eventually taught this art from 1995 to 1996.  In collaboration with Michigan-based calligrapher Nihad Dukhan, Felek has also painted depictions of the Sultan’s dreams.  As Felek explains, “I paint the Sultan’s dreams in the traditional style with very fine brushes and crushed gold leaves. I closely examine the illustrated manuscripts commissioned by the Sultan in order to stay loyal to the dress code, architecture, and artistic style of his time as much as possible in my paintings.”

Illuminated border below from a 1471 manuscript commissioned by Sultan Bayezid II


Felek’s approach to her scholarship has likewise influenced her teaching: “In my teaching, I generously use illustrations to make things, ideas, concepts…more visible for students. There are times when an illustration, a picture, a photograph, or even a simple drawing can be much more powerful and make the point clearer, more visible, and more concrete than a full-length article.”

Visitors contemplate students’ Islamic manuscript illuminations exhibited outside the Religious Studies Department on June 7, 2012.

Bio: Özgen Felek  – Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in the Religious Studies Department.  She specializes in religion, gender, and visual representations of the Ottoman Empire.  Felek holds a Ph.D. in classical Ottoman poetry from Firat University and a second Ph.D. in Near Eastern Studies from the University of Michigan.  In conjunction with her academic pursuits, she is an accomplished miniaturist and has taught courses on Islamic manuscript illumination at Firat University, the University of Michigan and Stanford University.

Featured image: “The Meeting of Beauty and Love at the Pleasure Place of Meaning,” original miniature painting in the traditional Islamic style by Özgen Felek, to accompany Beauty and Love, an 18th century Islamic romance.  6″ x 7 5/8,” gouache on paper