Islamic Art: Development, Meaning, Prohibitions

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Isfahan tile at the Ali Qapu Palace

Islamic art is a relatively recent term that has been used to describe artistic traditions that have flourished since the introduction of Islam and have been created by a great variety of cultures within the Muslim world, which stretches from Morocco to Indonesia. That one thing that holds it together is Islam itself and its language and iconography. There are basically two kinds of art found in the Arab and Muslim world: 1) Islamic art, traditionally found mostly in mosques; and 2) secular art. often found in the palaces and courts of sultans, emirs, kings and princes and other rulers. This is not all that different from European and Christian art which has been made mainly for churches and palaces and courts of royalty and noblemen.

There are three principal vehicles for artist expression in the Islamic world: 1) architecture; 2) the arts of the book (calligraphy, illustration, illumination and bookbinding); and 3) the arts of the object (ceramics, metalwork, glass, woodwork, textiles and ivory). [Source: Massumeh, Farhad, the Smithsonian]

Zarah Hussain wrote for the BBC: “Islamic art is often vibrant and distinctive. Unlike Christian art, Islamic art isn't restricted to religious work, but includes all the artistic traditions in Muslim culture. Its strong aesthetic appeal transcends time and space, as well as differences in language and culture. This is because of common features in all Islamic art which give it a remarkable coherence, regardless of the country or the time in which it was created. There are, however, strong regional characteristics, and influences from other cultures are also visible. [Source: Zarah Hussain, BBC, June 30, 2009 |::|]

“The essentials of Islamic art: 1) Includes all Muslim art, not just explicitly religious art; 2) Islamic art seeks to portray the meaning and essence of things, rather than just their physical form; 3) Crafts and decorative arts are regarded as having full art status; 4) Painting and sculpture are not thought of as the noblest forms of art; 5) Calligraphy is a major art-form; 6) Writing has high status in Islam; 7) Writing is a significant decoration for objects and buildings; 8) Books are a major art-form; 9) Geometry and patterns are important; and 10) People do not appear in specifically religious art. |::|

There is renewed interest in Islamic art in the West, with the 2011 opening of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s New Galleries for the Art of the Arab Lands and the 2012 opening of the Department of Islamic Art at the Louvre. Museums in the Middle East are also investing in Islamic art collections, including the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha and the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi. [Source: Katherine Boyle, Washington Post, June 7, 2013 |+|]

Websites and Resources: Islamic Art and Architecture: Islamic Arts & Architecture / ; British Museum Islamic Art Metropolitan Museum of Art ; Islamic Art Louvre Louvre ; Museum without Frontiers ; Architecture of Islam ; Images of mosques all over the world, from the Aga Khan Documentation Center at MIT ; Islamic Images ; Victoria & Albert Museum ; Museum of Islamic Art, Doha, Qatar ; CalligraphyIslamic, lots of Islamic calligraphy

Nature of Islamic Art

Islamic painting: A Man exposing himself through a hole in the fence

According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art: “The term Islamic art not only describes the art created specifically in the service of the Muslim faith (for example, a mosque and its furnishings) but also characterizes the art and architecture historically produced in the lands ruled by Muslims, produced for Muslim patrons, or created by Muslim artists. As it is not only a religion but a way of life, Islam fostered the development of a distinctive culture with its own unique artistic language that is reflected in art and architecture throughout the Muslim world. [Source: Department of Islamic Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art \^/]

“As it is not only a religion but a way of life, Islam fostered the development of a distinctive culture with its own unique artistic language that is reflected in art and architecture throughout the Muslim world. The lands newly conquered by the Muslims had their own preexisting artistic traditions and, initially at least, those artists who had worked under Byzantine or Sasanian patronage continued to work in their own indigenous styles but for Muslim patrons. The first examples of Islamic art therefore rely on earlier techniques, styles, and forms reflecting this blending of classical and Iranian decorative themes and motifs. Even religious monuments erected under Umayyad patronage that have a clearly Islamic function and meaning, such as the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, demonstrate this amalgam of Greco-Roman, Byzantine, and Sasanian elements. Only gradually, under the impact of the Muslim faith and nascent Islamic state, did a uniquely Islamic art emerge. The rule of the Umayyad caliphate (661–750) is often considered to be the formative period in Islamic art. One method of classifying Islamic art, used in the Islamic galleries at the Metropolitan Museum, is according to the dynasty reigning when the work of art was produced. This type of periodization follows the general precepts of Islamic history, which is divided into and punctuated by the rule of various dynasties, beginning with the Umayyad and Abbasid dynasties that governed a vast and unified Islamic state, and concluding with the more regional, though powerful, dynasties such as the Safavids, Ottomans, and Mughals.\^/

With its geographic spread and long history, Islamic art was inevitably subject to a wide range of regional and even national styles and influences as well as changes within the various periods of its development. It is all the more remarkable then that, even under these circumstances, Islamic art has always retained its intrinsic quality and unique identity. Just as the religion of Islam embodies a way of life and serves as a cohesive force among ethnically and culturally diverse peoples, the art produced by and for Muslim societies has basic identifying and unifying characteristics. Perhaps the most salient of these is the predilection for all-over surface decoration. The four basic components of Islamic ornament are calligraphy, vegetal patterns, geometric patterns, and figural representation.\^/

Meaning of Islamic Art

designs on the Minaret of Jam in Ghor

"Islamic art," wrote journalist Stanely Mielser in Smithsonian magazine, "tends not to strive for blatant novelty but to take familiar models and rework them with only subtle changes. Although it is not true, as many people believe, that the depiction of people and animals is forbidden in the Qur’an, much of Islamic art uses abstract patterns rather than realistic figures, and this tends to foster a mood of sameness."

Micheal Glover, art critic for the Times of London wrote that he often has difficulties with Islamic art: “It often smacks of feels as if it is principally about geometry and calligraphy” and “lacks a kind of human vitality.” Tim Stanley, curator the Middle Eastern collection a the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, told the Times of London, “What you must remember is that Islamic art is the art of a culture, not just the art of a religion.” He and other art historians have pointed out that Islamic art is not a unified art; but rather one of many times and places that includes sources as varied as Spain, Mali, China, Indonesia, Yemen, Turkey and Uzbekistan and is often extraordinarily colorful not austere.

Zarah Hussain wrote for the BBC: “Art is the mirror of a culture and its world view. The art of the Islamic world reflects its cultural values, and reveals the way Muslims view the spiritual realm and the universe. For the Muslim, reality begins with and centers on Allah. Allah is at the heart of worship and aspirations for Muslims, and is the focus of their lives. So Islamic art focuses on the spiritual representation of objects and beings, and not their physical qualities. [Source: Zarah Hussain, BBC, June 30, 2009 |::|]

“The Muslim artist does not attempt to replicate nature as it is, but tries to convey what it represents. This lets the artist, and those who experience the art, get closer to Allah. For Muslims, beauty has always been and will always be a quality of the divine. There is a hadith of the Prophet Muhammad that says: "Allah is beautiful and he loves beauty." |::|

Development of Islamic Art

According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art: “While the full formation of a distinctive Islamic artistic language took several centuries, the seeds were sown during the Prophet's time. Because it is through writing that the Qur'an is transmitted, the Arabic script was first transformed and beautified in order that it might be worthy of divine revelation. Thus, calligraphy started to gain prominence, becoming essential also to Islamic ornament. In architecture, following the hijra, Muhammad's house in Medina developed into a center for the Muslim community and became the prototype for the mosque, the Muslim sanctuary for God. The early structure, known as the hypostyle mosque, included a columned hall oriented toward Mecca and an adjacent courtyard surrounded by a colonnade. The call to prayer was given from a rooftop (later the minaret was developed for this purpose). Essential elements of the mosque were a minbar (pulpit) for the Friday sermon and a mihrab (prayer niche) set in the wall oriented toward Mecca. [Source: Maryam Ekhtiar, Julia Cohen, Department of Islamic Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art \^/]

design on the interior of the Dome of the Rock, one of the world's oldest Islamic buildings

Islamic art has traditionally been patronized by the ruling kings, caliphs and sultans. Stanley told the New York Times, “The political character of Islamic art arose because, in the absence of a priesthood, the formative role in its development fell to those who were politically powerful.”

On the influence of art outside the Muslim world, Alan Riding write in the New York Times, “After the ideas of the prophet Muhammad in A.D. 632, Islamic art inherited two distinct traditions: those of Christian Byzantium, to the west, and of the Sassanian empire, to the east. Then as the new Muslim empire swept west as far as Spain and later, east into Asia, it absorbed new influences, notably from China.”

“Most of all, though, Islamic art reflected the whims of successive regimes, and the early Umayyad and Abbasid caliphates to the later Safavid, Qajar and Ottoman dynasties. And among each of these the perceived Islamic ban on figurative art was interpreted differently...Religious art invariably respected the rules, relying on calligraphic citations from the Qur’an and abstract, often geometric, ornamentation. But secular art, which included utilitarian objects like like carpets ceramic vases, ivory caskets, glass jugs and metalwork, frequently showed flora and fauna. Some Muslim rulers even commissioned portraits of themselves. And while calligraphy remained important, it rendered poetry as well as the Qur’an.

The Silk Road was instrumental in bringing art from the Arab and Muslim world to eastern Asia and Europe and bringing art from those regions to the Arab and Muslim world. See Silk Road, China, Iran, Central Asia.

Books and Collections of Arab and Muslim Art

Most books, collections and exhibitions of Islamic art tend be grouped and organized chronologically, by dynasty or by material. After the attack on the World Trade Center in New York in September 2001 many museums in North America and Europe began highlighting Islamic art as a way of promoting understanding between Muslim world and Western world.

The Victoria and Albert Museum in London has one of the best collections of Islamic art in the world. In the mid 2000s, the 10,000-piece collection was reinstated for the first time in 50 years and a wealthy Saudi, Muhammad Jameel, paid the $9.8 million necessary to find the space and bring the collection back to where it can be seen. The display area is now called the Jameel Gallery of Islamic Art. The Smithsonian’s Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery have good Islamic art collection.

The Louvre spent $60 million on a new wing devoted most to Islamic art that opened in 2009. Christies’ held its first auction in the Middle East at the Emirates Tower Hotel in Dubai in May 2006.

One of the finest personal collection of Islamic art is in the Hawaii home of the heiress Doris Duke (1913-1980), once described as the “richest girl in the world.” Many of the 3,500 objects were acquired during a single shopping expedition to Europe, the Middle East and Asia in 1938.

Islam Art Prohibitions

Muslims believe that only God creates. Only Allah has the power to give life. Extended to art this belief infers that any artist who paints pictures of people or animals is trying to outdo Allah himself and therefore deserves some of the worst punishments on the Day of Judgment. Some Muslims believe that when an artist, who has created animate objects, faces Allah in heaven, god will ask him to breath life into his creations. When the images remain lifeless the artist will be cast into hell.

According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art: “The Islamic resistance to the representation of living beings ultimately stems from the belief that the creation of living forms is unique to God, and it is for this reason that the role of images and image makers has been controversial. The strongest statements on the subject of figural depiction are made in the Hadith (Traditions of the Prophet), where painters are challenged to "breathe life" into their creations and threatened with punishment on the Day of Judgment. [Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art \^/]

The Qur’an is less specific but condemns idolatry and uses the Arabic term musawwir ("maker of forms," or artist) as an epithet for God. Partially as a result of this religious sentiment, figures in painting were often stylized and, in some cases, the destruction of figurative artworks occurred. Iconoclasm was previously known in the Byzantine period and aniconicism was a feature of the Judaic world, thus placing the Islamic objection to figurative representations within a larger context. As ornament, however, figures were largely devoid of any larger significance and perhaps therefore posed less challenge.

Islamic Designs

Allah written in Arabic calligraphy

The four elements of Islamic decoration are: 1) calligraphy, 2) geometric designs, 3) floral and plant designs, and 4) sometimes human and animal figures. On the first three Tim Stanley, curator the Middle Eastern collection a the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, told the Times of London, “Islamic art used geometry to create a structured sense of an ordered world...Plant-like forms , grapes and the like, all these thing signify prosperity, happiness, felicity.”

Islamic art features abstract geometric designs that can be repeated over and over in seeming infinity. Many seemingly abstract geometric designs have the name of Allah and Qur’an prayers worked into them. Because of the ban on idolatry and animal and human figures, designs and decorations became highly developed and a key elements of what makes Islamic art distinct, unique and so enjoyable. Influenced by art from Persia, China and the Near East, the arabesque style of Islamic art features repetitive flowing or geometric patterns with intricate details and bold colors.

In an article on Mughal Islamic art, Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts from The Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: “Pattern—floral and geometric—is distinctive feature of court art, whether spread across a wall, on a book cover or border of an album leaf, around a dagger hilt, or on a carpet. With straight edge and compass, artists created geometric patterns of intersecting circles upon which they drew grids of equilateral triangles and squares . These in turn could be elaborated into polygons and stars. Vines, leaves, and blossoms grew out of each other in continuous curving patterns. In the Mughal period, these floral designs became more and more realistic, so that many flowers could be identified. [Source: Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts, The Art of South, and Southeast Asia, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York]

African Islamic Art

According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art: “Because of its resistance to the representation of people and animals, the nature of Islam's interaction with the visual arts in Africa was one in which Islamic forms were accommodated and adapted. Muslim clerics' literacy and esoteric powers drew scores of converts to Islam. Sub-Saharan Muslim clerics known as marabouts began fabricating amulets with Qur’anic verses, which came to displace indigenous talismans and medicinal packets. These amulets are featured in the design of many traditional African artifacts. [Source: Department of Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas. "Trade and the Spread of Islam in Africa", Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, October 2001 \^/]

amulet case

Islam also reinforced the African fondness for geometric design and the repetition of patterns in decorating the surface of textiles and crafted objects. Local weaving may have been transformed with the importation of North African weaving techniques.\^/

Islam has also often existed side by side with representational traditions such as masquerading. Such practices have often been viewed as supplemental rather than oppositional to Islam, particularly when they are seen as effective or operating outside of the central concerns of the faith. An early example of this was noted by Ibn Battuta, the Maghribi scholar who visited Mali in 1352–53 and witnessed a masquerade performance at the royal court of its Muslim king. In many areas of Africa, the coexistence of Islam with representational art forms continues today. But although Islam has influenced a wide range of artistic practices in Africa since its introduction, monumental architecture is the best-preserved legacy of its early history on the continent. Mosques are the most important architectural examples of the tremendous aesthetic diversity generated by the interaction between African peoples and Islamic faith.” \^/

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Internet Islamic History Sourcebook: ; Arab News, Jeddah; “Islam, a Short History” by Karen Armstrong; “A History of the Arab Peoples” by Albert Hourani (Faber and Faber, 1991); “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); Metropolitan Museum of Art,, National Geographic, BBC, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, The Guardian, Al Jazeera, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Library of Congress and various books and other publications.

Last updated April 2024

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