The MA in Islamic Art Gains Momentum With the Sawaf Scholarship Fund

Mutaz and Rada Sawaf pledge will assist students at the School of Architecture and Design to carve careers in academia, research and design.

By Editorial Staff

Mr. Mutaz and Mrs. Rada Sawaf, flanked by President Mawad and Dean Haddad, hold up a candle holder by Iyad Naja presented to them as a token of appreciation for their continuous support.
Donors like the Sawafs keep LAU closely aligned to its mission, aware of its cultural identity, and true to its ideas, said President Mawad.
The Sawafs with President Mawad, Dean Haddad, Dr. Mawlawi, students of the MA in Islamic Art and Dr. May Farhat (far right), visiting associate professor at the School of Architecture and Design.

Having the qualifications to actively take part in preserving one’s cultural heritage is a gift. It is a unique opportunity that graduate students at the School of Architecture and Design will now enjoy thanks to the generosity of entrepreneur and Lebanon-based architect Mutaz Sawaf and his wife Rada who made it possible through an annual scholarship fund for the MA in Islamic Art.

LAU established this program initially in 2014, and it has already graduated a number of students who went on to further studies and practice all over the Arab world.

At the time, while graduate degrees in the subject were being offered in Europe and the US, few were available in the region and none in Lebanon. By providing support to master’s students to delve into research of Islamic art and architecture, the Sawafs wanted to nurture new talent who could enrich the field. The degree would also open new doors for the graduates in education, research, conservation and curation.

“Art is the essence of our foundation, and the more we invest in our young students pursuing this master’s degree, the more we will preserve our heritage,” said Mrs. Rada Sawaf at a recent ceremony celebrating the couple’s latest gift to the university. Thanks to this grant, up to six students per year will be able to enjoy full support in the master’s program. “LAU’s lifelong mission that prioritizes art and artistic expression is so much needed and corresponds so well to ours,” said Mrs. Sawaf.

The academic component of the degree, said program director Ziad Mawlawi, “was also in part a response to the proliferation of buildings and interiors in Lebanon and the Arab Gulf that purportedly uphold an Islamic design language” but fail to blend traditional Islamic design principles with contemporary building technologies. The program includes courses exploring architectural historical eras and styles, the role of calligraphy, geometry, and ornamentation in Islamic art and architecture, and various other topics.

In addition to supporting higher education, Mr. and Mrs. Sawaf have founded several non-profit organizations, such as microfinance NGO Ibdaa to assist low-income families in Lebanon, Syria, Palestine and Mauritania, and a family holding company, Al Maymouna Holding SAL that invests and manages various projects in construction, health, food, and textiles. Aside from architectural projects, Mr. Sawaf’s creative side finds expression in animation, a passion he nurtured at the Bob Godfrey studio, London, in 1975.

The ceremony held on November 23 brought together LAU officials, faculty, staff and students to thank the Sawafs, and was accompanied by an exhibition of Islamic artworks produced by students. Dean of the School of Architecture and Design Elie Haddad said the Sawafs’ contribution was “an investment in the future, a testimony to their dedication to empowering the next generation of students.”

The Sawafs belong to a small category of “serial philanthropists” who find fulfillment in giving and improving lives, added LAU President Michel E. Mawad. Their immense contribution ensures that “this treasure of our part of the world will be propagated, better understood and appreciated as a defining artistic feature of the Middle East and way beyond in the Islamic world,” he said, adding that donors like them keep LAU closely aligned to its mission, aware of its cultural identity, and true to its ideas.

Established designer and alumnus Iyad Naja (BS ’00) returned to LAU to pursue the master’s, which he said, is empowering him “with a solid foundation in the art of the region.” He credits the program for the deep understanding he has gained of the different elements of Islamic art and the artistic movements that shaped the Middle East – knowledge that has enhanced his work. At the end of the ceremony, the Sawafs were presented with an exquisite candle holder designed and crafted by Naja as a token of appreciation.

Speaking on behalf of her fellow students at the event, Yasmine Mehio expressed her gratitude to the Sawafs for the scholarship that will allow her and her peers to “set our paths going forward, through academia, research or design practices.”