Islamic Book Art

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Many Islamic paintings displayed in galleries were originally illustrations from bound texts produced for wealthy patrons who enjoyed examining the books in the privacy of their quarters as a form of entertainment when there were no movies or Internet. At the time most great Islamic book paintings were made few people were literate, including royals and wealthy landowners. A typical page from a manuscript featured men and women, palm trees, a desert and mosques. Some works even contain images of Muhammad and winged celestial beings Asian faces.

Making manuscript was collaborative effort involving calligraphers, painters, illustrators, illuminators and bookbinders. The person who oversaw a project was usually the head librarian, often a member of the patron’s household. The calligraphers generally did their work first, followers by the painters and illustrators and then the bookbinders, who sewed the folios and bound them in covers.

According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art : “The technical aspects of calligraphy, painting, and bookbinding are important facets of the study of Islamic art. Treatises by sixteenth-century Persian authors Qazi Ahmed and Sadiqi Beq are the major sources on the working methods of artisans in the Islamic world. Further information on the organization of manuscript workshops and the division of labor within them is recorded in court annals and payrolls. [Source: Marika Sardar, Institute of Fine Arts, New York University, Metropolitan Museum of Art \^/]

“The production of illustrated books was concentrated in royal workshops because of the large expense involved. Many rulers were connoisseurs who collected books and paintings by famous artists. Books were also financial investments, donated toward the endowment of charitable foundations, and status symbols, presented as gifts between heads of state. Workshops supported by rulers and members of their extended family produced copies of famous literary works, histories, and Qur’ans. Once a patron decided on a project, the director of the workshop saw it through to its conclusion. He laid out the pages, decided which parts of the text to illustrate, and chose scribes and artists based on the particular project.” \^/

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 ; Islamic Images ; Victoria & Albert Museum ; Museum of Islamic Art, Doha, Qatar

Making Islamic Book Art

According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art : “The first step in creating a book was to make the paper. In the Islamic world, paper was made from rags of linen and hemp, not tree pulp. The rags were cut into strips and softened in limewater, then pounded into a pulp and soaked in a vat. To form a sheet of paper, a rectangular mold was placed into the vat and then left to dry. The water seeped out and the page hardened in the mold. Decorative touches were often added to the paper: some were tinted, some were sprinkled with gold, and others were marbled. Marbled papers were created by dispensing drops of colorant onto the surface of a water bath and running combs through the drops to create a pattern; a sheet of paper was then laid on the surface of the bath to absorb the colors. After drying, the paper was prepared to receive ink and paint with the application of a starchy solution that rendered the surface smooth and nonporous. A scribe then prepared his ink (made of carbon boiled with gallnuts), made his pens, and pressed guidelines into the paper. He then copied the text, leaving spaces for illustrations where the director of the workshop had indicated. [Source: Marika Sardar, Institute of Fine Arts, New York University, Metropolitan Museum of Art \^/]

Muhammad give the hand of his daughter Fatima to Imam Ali from the e Siyer-i Nebi (a Turkish epic about the life of Muhammad, completed around 1388)

“After the text was completed, the pages passed to the painters. Most manuscripts were the work of a number of artists, each chosen to illustrate a particular scene; some artists, for instance, were known for their portraits, others for their battle scenes. A single page might also represent a collaborative effort, as junior artists were called upon to fill in backgrounds and landscapes. Before starting to paint, the artist laid out the composition with a very fine brush. Some elements might be copied from preexisting sketches by means of a device called a pounce. To create a pounce, the artist laid a piece of transparent paper or animal skin over the sketch to be copied and pricked holes into the top sheet around the outlines of the image below. To transfer the image to his new painting, he laid the pounce on top of the fresh sheet of paper and dusted it with charcoal powder from a cloth bag. \^/

“To create his pigments, the artist turned to nature. Mineral sources were gold, silver, lapis lazuli, ground cinnabar (for vermilion), orpiment (for yellow), and malachite (for green). These materials were expensive and substitutes were often used. Indigo was a common source of dark blue and azurite was used for a lighter blue. Verdigris produced green, and lead or a combination of mercury and sulfur created red. (Because a number of these materials are unstable or corrosive, the colors of many illustrated manuscripts have faded or tarnished, and some paints have eaten through the paper.) The pigment had to be suspended in a medium that allowed it to be brushed on to the page. Originally this was albumen or glue, which gave a glossy sheen to the paintings; after the sixteenth century, gum arabic, with a more matte finish, was used instead. \^/

After the paintings were completed, illuminators and gilders added flourishes to the text, such as chapter headings, colored frames, and rulings. They also created frontispieces and end pages. Finally, each sheet was burnished with a hard stone or glass. \^/

At this stage, the leaves of the book were ready to be sewn and bound. The covers were joined to a spine and a fore-edge flap that folded over the ends of the pages and tucked under the top cover. Bindings were decorated with simply tooled geometric or vegetal patterns, until the fifteenth-century Persian development of a design with a central oval medallion, pendants, and corner pieces created by the use of a mold. Half the binding was stamped and then the mold was reversed, forming a mirror image of the design in the other half. Surrounding the central medallion were arranged rich floral motifs, arabesques, and cloud bands. This style soon spread to India and Turkey. Through the sixteenth century, designs became more elaborate, with the addition of miniature figures and landscapes, and the doublures (interior covers) also came to be decorated. Patterns for these were created in cut-out leather, colored papers, and gilding. In the nineteenth century, lacquered bindings with painted designs replaced these elaborate leather works. \^/

Miniature Painting

The miniature painting was one of the most developed form of painting in the Islamic art. Most of these works came from manuscripts. They feature flat, two-dimensional surfaces, fine draftsmanship, exquisite details, and a brilliant, jewel-like pallet. Some of the details are so tiny that museums that display them often have magnifying glasses on hand so that viewers can examine details that are difficult to make out with the naked eye.

The idea behind miniature painting was not to create grand works of art for all the world to see—such as Leonardo da Vinci's Last Supper or Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel. But, rather to produce a personal work of art that one could carry with them and examine when they felt like. Muslim rulers moved around quite a bit, leading soldiers into battle and checking on the state of their kingdoms, so it made more sense for them to make small works they could carry with them as opposed to large works in a palace that was rarely visited.

The artists who created miniature paintings generally worked in a studio and painted with water-colors using single-squirrel-hair brushes. They may have also worked with lenses but no one has been able to prove it. Illustrators first outlined the compositions with the single hair brushes. Then paint was added. Pigments were prepared from plant, mineral and animal substances, such as gold, silver, lapis lazuli and mother-of-pearl, and mixed with a binding medium such as gum arabic.

Book of Kings (Shahnama)

The Book of Kings, commissioned by the Safavids king, Shah Tahmasb (1424-1576), is regarded as the greatest work of 16th century Persian art. The works of several artists, it was created over a 20 year period and given to the Ottoman court by the Shah after the death of Suleyman the Magnificent in 1566.

Some images are very violent: kings cutting an enemy in half. the hero Rustam removing a heart and liver from a demon. Other images are very serene and lyrical: a wise man presiding over a meeting between two shy lovers sitting under wildflowers and date palms. Yet others feature animals and supernatural fire-breathing beasts. "Persian artist often exercised a subtle sense of humor in their depiction of animals and even landscapes. Birds with faces appeared in trees. Rocks shaped like bodies appeared in landscapes. Boats were made of an amalgamation of human figures.”

Francesca Leoni of Princeton University wrote: “With its 50,000 rhyming couplets the Shahnama, or "Book of Kings," is one of the most voluminous epics of world literature. The poem narrates the history of the ancient kings of Iran from the mythical beginnings to the Arab conquest in 651 A.D. It was completed around 1010 A.D. by Abu'l Qasim Firdausi Tusi (935–1020), and was dedicated to the Ghaznavid ruler Mahmud of Ghazna (r. 998–1030), who had succeeded in gaining power over eastern Iran and modern-day Afghanistan by the end of the tenth century. In the eyes of the poet, this king appeared as the long-awaited ruler who could end dynastic strife and reunify the region. Thus, he seemed the ideal dedicatee for a work meant to celebrate Iran's past glory. Unfortunately, the ruler's response was not as enthusiastic and generous as expected. According to some sources, before dying, the poor and sick Firdausi voiced his disappointment for the little compensation received in a harsh satire against the sultan. [Source: Francesca Leoni, Department of Art and Archaeology, Princeton University Metropolitan Museum of Art \^/]

Folio from a Shahnama (Book of Kings) of Firdausi: Luhrasp Hears from the Returning Paladins of the Vanishing Kai Khusrau

“The history of Iran recounted in the Shahnama unfolds in fifty kingdoms, which are divided into three successive dynasties: the Pishdadiyan (1970.301.13)—the early legendary shahs, who established civilization (1970.301.2) and fought against the forces of evil (1970.301.3); the Kayanids—the principal protagonists of the enmity with Turan, the first and foremost antagonist of Iran (1970.301.36); and the Sasanians—the last glorious dynasty to rule a unified Iran before the advent of Islam (1970.301.62). The last section of the poem is considered to be the more historical one, and was occasionally referred to by medieval Islamic historiographers. Yet, the poem also revives pre-Islamic traditions, folklore, and oral literature. Kings and heroes are engaged in battles against foreign monstrous enemies (1970.301.4) and supernatural creatures (1970.301.51; 1970.301.3) that threaten their lives and the survival of their reigns. At the same time, the poem meditates on more profound human experiences and narrates the moral struggles, romantic interludes, and deaths of its many protagonists (1970.301.35). \^/

“With its interplay of lore and history (1970.301.73), the Shahnama offers models of conduct and rulership that inspired numerous generations of rulers. In addition to being a great work of literature, in fact, the poem can also be considered a successful example of "mirror for princes," a popular genre in the medieval and early modern Islamic world intended for the education and edification of rulers. The teachings and moral exempla offered by the virtuous kings and paladins of the Shahnama are among the aspects that explain its great success throughout history. \^/

“All kings who ruled Iran, both local and foreign, continued to commission the production of new copies of the epic, which were often lavishly illustrated and illuminated. By appropriating this cultural treasure and assimilating its ideas and values, many foreign rulers also used it as an ideological tool, one that allowed them to establish their legitimate succession to the kings of the past. Prestigious manuscripts such as the so-called Great Mongol Shahnama (ca. 1330), also in the Metropolitan Museum's collection, the Baysunghur Mirza Shahnama (1430), and the Shah Tahmasp Shahnama (1520–40) (see below)—sponsored, respectively, by the Ilkhanid (1256–1353), Timurid (1389–1501), and Safavid dynasties (1501–1736)—survive as evidence of this practice, and as testaments to the cultural and artistic importance of this literary masterpiece through the centuries.” \^/

Book of Kings of Shah Tahmasp

Book of Kings of Shah Tahmasp: Bahram Gur Slays the Rhino-Wolf, Folio 586, 1530-35

Francesca Leoni of Princeton University wrote: “The Shahnama of Shah Tahmasp (r. 1524–76), also known as the Shahnama-yi Shahi, is arguably the most luxuriously illustrated copy of Firdausi's epic ever produced in the history of Persian painting (1970.301.21). Its pages, with outstanding measurements for an illustrated book (approximately 48 x 32 cm), are made of fine paper enriched with large gold-sprinkled borders and lavish illuminations. Accompanying the 759 folios of text, written in superb nasta'liq script, are 258 paintings of exquisite quality and artistic originality. [Source: Francesca Leoni, Department of Art and Archaeology, Princeton University Metropolitan Museum of Art \^/]

“This project was realized at the royal atelier in Tabriz, the first capital of the Safavid dynasty (1501–1736), and involved two generations of the most renowned artists of the time. Among them were Sultan Muhammad, Mir Musavvir, and Aqa Mirak, who succeeded each other as directors of the project through the years. Scholars still disagree about the actual dates of execution of the manuscript. It was begun around the early 1520s, probably under Shah Isma'il (r. 1501–24), the founder of the dynasty, and carried out for at least another twenty years under Shah Tahmasp, the manuscript's dedicatee and principal sponsor. \^/

“The artistic importance of this manuscript cannot be overestimated. It is considered one of the highest achievements in the arts of the book for its superb calligraphy, painting, and illumination. From a pictorial point of view, it also marks the synthesis of the two most important phases of the Persian tradition—the Turkman style, which developed in Tabriz and Shiraz, and the Timurid style, associated with Herat. These two strains were absorbed into the new artistic idiom of the early Safavids. Thus, the lively treatment and bright colors of landscape (1970.301.2; 1970.301.21) and surfaces (architecture: 1970.301.13; 1970.301.35; textiles: 1970.301.2; 1970.301.51) inspired by the Turkman school, coexist with the more sober palette and balanced compositional layout (1970.301.62) of the Herat school, whose impact is particularly evident in some of the later paintings (1970.301.73). \^/

“Not long after its completion, the manuscript left Iran and was sent as a gift on the occasion of the accession of the Ottoman sultan Selim II (r. 1566–74). Contemporary Ottoman and European sources document the arrival of the Iranian embassy in Edirne on February 21, 1568, and even record the thirty-four camels bearing luxurious gifts that accompanied it. The Shahnama-yi Shahi is explicitly identified in one account as a lavish copy of the Shahnama in the name of Shah Tahmasp with 259 (sic) miniatures, and listed along with the Holy Qur'an, oriental porcelains, precious textiles, brocades, and silk carpets, also part of the gift. Until the early twentieth century, the manuscript remained in the library of the Topkapi Palace, Istanbul, where it continued to entertain generations of rulers. The inserts with commentaries and descriptions of the paintings in Ottoman Turkish, which were added sometimes around 1800, bear witness to the artistic curiosity and intellectual inspiration this work provided many centuries after its production. Today the manuscript is dispersed among private and public collections. The Metropolitan Museum has seventy-eight of the pages with paintings in its collection.”

Describing a painting of an albino prince abandoned by his father in a mountain and rescued by a dragon-bird, Paul Richards wrote in the Washington Post, “The dragon-bird is flecked with gold. Her wings are purple, green and red. A deer is in her orange beak, a leopard in her talons. All the leopard’s spots are shown, as are his claws and bleeding wounds, the white hair on his tummy, and even the small follicles from which his whiskers grow...Its golden sky is sprinkled with curios Chinese clouds. The donkeys in the foreground wear tassels on their trappings and bells around their necks. Tiny birds and bears watch in astonishment. And the mountainside is haunted: a dozen spirit faces are hidden in the crags.” The entire work is only about six inches wide.

Mantiq al–Tayr Manuscript

Mantiq zl-tair

This illustrated manuscript of Farid al-Din Attar's mystical poem Mantiq al-Tayr (Language of the Birds) is one of the most important illustrated manuscripts from Timurid Persia (1370–1507) and a highlight of the Islamic collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. This manuscript has several distinctive features. It was initiated under the Timurid court atelier in Herat and completed in the Safavid court atelier in Isfahan. It contains illustrations which are often attributed to the celebrated painter Bihzad, who served the Timurid monarch Husain Baiqara (r. 1470–1506) and a nobleman, cAlishir Nava'i (1440–1501), and is one of the few extant illustrated manuscripts of the Mantiq al-Tayr. [Source:Yumiko Kamada, Jane and Morgan Whitney Fellow, The Metropolitan Museum of Art \^/]

Yumiko Kamada of the Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: “As the colophon states, this manuscript was completed on the first day of the fifth month of the second year of the last ten years preceding 900, that is, AH 892 (April 25, 1487) and several illustrations were attached. Although four illustrations can be dated to the late 1480s, for some reason the manuscript was not completed. More than a hundred years later, at the beginning of the seventeenth century, it came into the possession of Shah Abbas (r. 1587–1629), whose artists remounted the folios and added a frontispiece and four contemporary illustrations in a new binding. Shah Abbas then presented the manuscript to the Ardabil shrine in 1608/9. \^/

Attar (ca. 1142–1220), the author of the Mantiq al-Tayr, is one of the most celebrated poets of Sufi literature and inspired the work of many later mystical poets. The story is as follows: The birds assemble to select a king so that they can live more harmoniously. Among them, the hoopoe, who was the ambassador sent by Sulaiman to the Queen of Sheba, considers the Simurgh, or a Persian mythical bird, which lives behind Mount Qaf, to be the most worthy of this title. When the other birds make excuses to avoid making a decision, the hoopoe answers each bird satisfactorily by telling anecdotes, and when they complain about the severity and harshness of the journey to Mount Qaf, the hoopoe tries to persuade them. Finally, the hoopoe succeeds in convincing the birds to undertake the journey to meet the Simurgh. The birds strive to traverse seven valleys: quest, love, gnosis, contentment, unity, wonder, and poverty. Finally, only thirty birds reach the abode of the Simurgh, and there each one sees his/her reflection in the celestial bird. Thus, thirty birds see the Simurgh as none other than themselves. In this way, they finally achieve self-annihilation. This story is an allegorical work illustrating the quest of Sufism; the birds are a metaphor for men who pursue the Sufi path of God, the hoopoe for the pir, the Simurgh for the Divine, and the birds' journey the Sufi path. \^/

One of the eight illustrations, The Conference of the Birds (63.210.11), is the only illustration that depicts the main story. The remaining seven illustrations belong to anecdotes told in the story as precepts. Recent study has revealed that this manuscript originally consisted of sixty-seven folios and had nine illustrations. Since many text pages and illustrations had been lost or damaged, Safavid artists added or replaced fifteen text folios, four illustrations, and a frontispiece in order to reconstruct the manuscript. However, an illustrated Timurid folio is still missing. It may have been supplemented at that time or removed later. \^/

Padshahnama: Shah Jahan Watching an elephant fight

While the Safavid illustrations provide straightforward pictorialization of the text, the Timurid illustrations include many motifs that await study and analysis. The latter's complex riddlelike nature is consistent with Persian poetry of the late Timurid period, which is characterized by a taste for intricacy. Rulers and influential men at the Timurid court held literary gatherings called majlis and enjoyed solving poetic riddles with rhetorical devices such as homonymic puns. The participants of a majlis may have found pleasure in deciphering the Timurid illustrations of this manuscript. \^/

At the end of the fifteenth century in Herat, many aristocrats and high officials patronized art and literature. Possessing rare and luxuriously illustrated books was one of the key pastimes of the nobility. Some had their own ateliers, but no one is known to have operated an atelier equal to that of either Husain Baiqara or cAlishir Nava'i. \^/

The quality of the illustrations and the fine calligraphy accompanying the illuminations indicate that this manuscript was produced in a leading atelier. However, the colophon suggests that its patron was not the ruler, Sultan Husain Baiqara, but rather cAlishir Nava'i, a sophisticated poet-statesman who had his own atelier, patronizing many poets, scholars, calligraphers, musicians, and painters, including the celebrated Bihzad and Mirak Naqqash. He was so impressed with Attar that he wrote the Lisan al-Tayr, in imitation of Attar's Mantiq al-Tayr. This manuscript clearly demonstrates the close connections between painting, poetry, and Sufism at the end of the fifteenth century.


One the greatest work of miniature painting is the “Padshahnama,” a 10-inch-wide book with 478 pages of text handwritten on gold flecked paper. Commissioned by the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan, the builder of the Taj Mahal, Padshahnama literally means "Chronicle of the King of the World." It is a handwritten history of the first 10 years of Shah-Jahan's reign, containing 44 paintings and two illuminations of major events such as battles. court scenes, executions and hunts. Most paintings measure 9 by 13 inches. Some are so detailed they must have taken years to paint. [Source: Paul Richards, the Washington Post, May 18, 1997]

Washington Post art critic Paul Richard wrote: "The pictures on its pages—which show elephants, walled kingdoms, dancing girls and diamonds—aren't like any pictures you've every seen. They're clearer and deeper. The little puff of dust in the upper corner of 'The capture of Orcha by imperial forces' becomes, if you peer into it, an army on the march, with cavalry and infantry and colored banners flying.If you look more closely you can see the saddle blanket on the elephant. If you peer close you can see the fringes on the saddle blanket."

Among the painting in the Padshahnama are "Prince Awrangzeb facing a maddened elephant named Sudhakar," "The delivery of presents for Prince Dara Shiko's wedding," and "Shah-Jahan honoring Prince Awrangzeb at Agra before his wedding." The "The death of Khan Jahan Lodi" shows severed heads with little specks that on close examination are flies with abdomen's full of blood. "The wedding procession of Prince Dara Shiko," is only 10-x-5 inches but contain 18 elephants, 31 horses and 282 different people."


The Hamzanama, an illustrated manuscript executed in the 16th century for the great Mughal emperor Akbar, is regarded as one the greatest masterpieces of Islamic art. Some scholars rank it with the Sistine Chapel and the Mona Lisa. The “Hamzanama” is a series of stories about Muhammad’s uncle, Hamza, illustrated with exquisite miniature paintings. Produced and made over a 14 year period starting in 1557 by a “factory” of 50 artists under the direction of the Persia-born artist Mir Sayyid Ali, it is a fine example of both Persian and Mughal art. It originally contained 1,400 paintings, of which 200 survive. [Source: Blake Gopnik, Washington Post, July 21, 2002]

from the Hamzanama: The Spy Zanbur Bringing Mahiyya to the City of Tawariq

On an exhibition of the Hamzanama at the Sackler Gallery in Washington D.C. in 2002. William Dalrymple wrote in the New York Times: ““Hamzanama,” a spectacular illustrated book commissioned by the sympathetic and notably tolerant Mughal emperor Akbar (1542-1605). To the delight of art historians, the Sackler brought together the long-dispersed pages of what is probably the most ambitious single artistic undertaking ever produced by the atelier of an Islamic court...More than anything else, it was the project that created the Mughal painting style, and in the illustrations one can see two artistic worlds — that of Hindu India and of Persianate Islamic Central Asia — fusing to create something new and distinctively Mughal. [Source: William Dalrymple, New York Times, January 6, 2008 -]

The Hamzanama contains scenes of the exploits of Hamza, a legendary Muslim hero. It is not a collection of miniature paintings intended for private reflection. The pages are huge—over two feet high—and were kept in boxes for public storytelling sessions in which a story teller read the text from the back of the pages for the illiterate emperor and his court.

The Hamzanama paintings features bold colors and are filled with figures, details and psychedelic designs that seems inspired by opium dreams. The paintings were large executed by Hindu artists overseen by Persian masters who tried to incorporate some Western ides of perspective. Different artists worked on different pages. On its pages are graphic images of beheadings and blood-drenched battlefields, leopard-spotted and elephant-tusked demons, and depictions of Hamza as he travels around the world.

See Central Asian Literature .

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated March 2024

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