ISLAMIC ART

ISLAMIC ART


Isfahan tile at the Ali Qapu Palace

Islamic art is 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 |+|]

Books: The Art and Architecture of Islam, 1250-1800 by Jonathan Bloom and Sheila S. Blair (Yale University Press, 1995) is first rate book. It is insightful. well written and contains lots of good picture. Also good are Islamic Art by Jonathan Bloom and Sheila Blair (Phaidon Press, 1998) and Islamic Art and Architecture, 650–1250 by Ettinghausen, Richard, Oleg Grabar, and Marilyn Jenkins-Madina (Yale University Press, 2001).

Websites and Resources: Islamic Art, Architecture and Images: Islamic Art And Architecture spmarchitecture.com ; British Museum britishmuseum.org Islamic Art Metropolitan Museum of Art metmuseum.org/toah/hd/orna ; Islamic Art Louvre Louvre ; Museum without Frontiers museumwnf.org ; Architecture of Islam ne.jp/asahi/arc ; Images of mosques all over the world, from the Aga Khan Documentation Center at MIT dome.mit.edu ; Wikipedia article on Islamic architecture Wikipedia ; Islamic Finder islamicfinder.org/gallery/index ; Islamology Picture gallery islamology.com/gallery ; Islamic Images nooremadinah.net/IslamicImages/IslamicImages ; Islamic Images islamicacademy.org ; Qur’an Images WikiIslam wikiislam.net/wiki/Images:Quran ; Muslim Women zawaj.com/gallery-muslim-women-around-the-world-in-ramadan ; Wikipedia article on Islamic Art Wikipedia ; Calligraphy Islamic calligraphyislamic.com ; Islamic Art Art History Resources witcombe.sbc.edu Art and photography website: Arab Image Foundation: www. fai.org.lb Gulru Necipoglu is an expert on Islamic art and architecture at Harvard.

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 Artmetmuseum.org \^/]

“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 austerity...it 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 metmuseum.org \^/]


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: Grabar, Oleg. The Formation of Islamic Art. Rev. and enl. ed. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987; Hodgson, Marshall G. S. The Venture of Islam. 3 vols. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1974.\^/

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


Muhammad preaching: the men have their faces covered but not the women

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. 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. [Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art metmuseum.org \^/]

Initially Christians and Buddhists forbade images of humans and animals in their art for reasons similar to those endorsed by Muslims. Muslim prohibition of “false idols” mirrors similar prohibitions in Judaism and Old Testament Christianity. The first of the Ten Commandants reads, “Thou shall have no other gods before me,” followed by the second Commandment, “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven images”—interpreted by many as a ban on idolatry. During the Christian iconoclastic period many great works of art were destroyed. But later Christians saw the painting of religious figures as a way of glorifying God and teaching the illiterate masses about him, while Muslims continued to see it as an act of mockery. Buddhists raised the point that images of Buddha distracted Buddhists from their pursuit of nirvana. µ

A lot of good art has probably been destroyed by Islamic purists the same way the statues of Buddha were destroyed by the Taleban in Afghanistan. An issue of Time was once banned in some Muslim countries because it contained a reproduction of a woodcut of Muhammad.

Idolatry and the Ban on Images of Animals and People in Islamic Art

Any picture or an animal or a person in a mosque or work or art is seen as idolatry. But the Qur’an doesn’t explicitly ban images of animals and people as is commonly thought. It warns against the creation and worship of idols. According to the Qur’an: "Those who endure the most grievances on the Day of resurrection are those who create a likeness." Idolatry ( shirk in Arabic) is regarded as the handiwork of the devil. It is one of the worst sins and even the worship of Muhammad is sacrilegious. The only being that a Muslim is allowed to worship is Allah.


Islamic painting with the face scratched off

One of Muhammad's most important acts was expelling the Kaaba of idols. One early Arabic source wrote the Kaaba contained paintings as well as statues and that Muhammad ordered them all destroyed except a mural of Jesus and the Virgin Mary which he spared, some suggest, so as not to offend his Christian converts. Presumably Muhammad and his successors had no problems with paintings. The movement to forbid painting, some, was influenced by Jewish converts.

The Qur’an does not specifically ban images of animals and people. The ban is rooted in the belief that if someone makes an image they will worship it, a view spread by conservative Muslims after Muhammad’s death. According to the Hadiths, Ibn Abbas, an early disciple of Muhammad said, "The angels will not enter a house in which there is a picture of a dog."

Moslem scholar interpretation produced the blanket statement against all images of animals and people. Interpretations of the ban on idolatry and animal and human figures varies widely. The prophet reportedly allowed the depiction of animals on pillows, carpets and children's toys. Many Islamic cultures allowed images of animals and people to be used in non-religious buildings and works of art of created for private use. Some of the greatest works of Islamic art were miniature paintings of famous rulers, and court, hunting and battle scnes with lots of human figures found in manuscripts created for the private use of sultans and caliphs.

Sunnah on Vanities and Sundry Matters

The Sunnahs are the practices and examples drawn from the Prophet Muhammad's life. Along with the Hadiths they are the most important texts in Islam after the Qur’an. They must adhere to a strict chain of narration that ensures their authenticity, taking into account factors such as the character of people in the chain and continuity in narration. Reports that fail to meet such criteria are disregarded.

The Sunnah reads: “The angels are not with the company with which is a dog, nor with the company with which is a bell. A bell is the devil's musical instrument. The angels do not enter a house in which is a dog, nor that in which there are pictures. [Source: Charles F. Horne, ed., “The Sacred Books and Early Literature of the East”, (New York: Parke, Austin, & Lipscomb, 1917), Vol. VI: Medieval Arabia, pp. 11-32]

“Every painter is in hell fire; and God will appoint a person at the day of resurrection for every picture he shall have drawn, to punish him, and they will punish him in hell. Then if you must make pictures, make them of trees and things without souls.”

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 <*>]

“In the royal art of many cultures, colors are strong and bold. In India, surfaces both large and small—architecture, clothing, and personal art—were enriched with bright color, especially reds and brilliant blues. There was also an appreciation of the softer, subtler colors of jade. Colors in patterns were combined to create the rich floral and geometric designs found in Mughal textiles and carpets. Color in miniature painting was at first fanciful and jewel-like—blue rocks, for instance, and lavender horses—as in the Persian court style. “Muslim and Hindu patrons delighted in sumptuous polished surfaces: the glisten of gold, silver, and other metals, the reflective qualities of polished gems and stones such as jade and rock crystal, and the sheen of silks and ivory. Another favored way to enrich surfaces was the technique of inlay, in which materials such as ivory and shell were set into wood, and gold and silver into darker metal surfaces. <*>

“The same formal elements—rich geometric and vegetal patterns, rich colors, and rich materials— were applied to architecture, textiles, ceramics, metal- work, and stone, stucco, and wood carvings. No distinction existed between what is called fine art in Western cultures and the decorative arts.” <*>

Symbols and Patterns in Islamic Art


Jane Norman of the Asia Society wrote: The star was the chosen motif for many Islamic decorations. In Islamic iconography the star is a regular geometric shape that symbolizes equal radiation in all directions from a central point. All regular stars—whether they have 6, 8, 10, 12, or 16 points—are created by a division of a circle into equal parts. The center of the star is center of the circle from which it came, and its points touch the circumference of the circle. The center of a circle is an apt symbol of a religon that emphasizes one God, and symbol of the role of Mecca, the center of Islam, toward which all Muslims face in prayer. The rays of a star reach out in all directions, making the star a fitting symbol for the spread of Islam. [Source: Jane Norman, Asia Society /*\]

“Many of the patterns used in Islamic art look similar, even though they decorate different objects. Artists did not seek to express themselves, but rather, to create beautiful objects for everyone to enjoy. It takes considerable experience in analyzing Islamic patterns before discovering that seldom are two designs exactly alike. That is worrisome to Westerners because of the premium placed in the West on originality in evaluating an artist. Not so in Islam; there the artist sees himself as a humble servant of the community, using his skills and imagination to express awe of Allah, the one God, eternal and all-powerful.” /*\

Vegetal Patterns in Islamic Art

According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art: “Vegetal patterns employed alone or in combination with the other major types of ornament—calligraphy, geometric pattern, and figural representation—adorn a vast number of buildings, manuscripts, objects, and textiles, produced throughout the Islamic world. Unlike calligraphy, whose increasingly popular use as ornament in the early Islamic Arab lands represented a new development, vegetal patterns and the motifs they incorporate were drawn from existing traditions of Byzantine culture in the eastern Mediterranean and Sasanian Iran. [Source:Metropolitan Museum of Art metmuseum.org \^/]


tree made with Blue Turkish tiles

“The early centuries of the Islamic era saw the initial adoption of seminaturalistic pre-Islamic motifs and patterns, followed by widespread and highly diverse experimentation adapting these forms to suit the aesthetic interests and tastes of the new Muslim patrons. It was not until the medieval period (tenth–twelfth centuries) that a highly abstract and fully developed Islamic style emerged, featuring that most original and ubiquitous pattern often known as "arabesque." This term was coined in the early nineteenth century following Napoleon's famed expedition in Egypt, which contributed so much to the phenomenon of Orientalism in Europe and later in the United States. Arabesque simply means "in the Arab fashion" in French, and few scholars of Islamic art use it today.\^/

“With the Mongol invasion of western Asia in the thirteenth century and the establishment of a Mongol court in Iran in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, numerous Chinese motifs and patterns were adopted, though sometimes in markedly revised form. This period saw many transformations in the decorative language of Islamic art that would endure for centuries. In sixteenth-century Europe, first in Italy and then in the north, Islamic-style vegetal patterns were developed. In the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century empires of the Ottomans, Safavids, and Mughals (present-day Turkey, Iran, and India), complicated versions of established patterns were utilized, sometimes incorporating a new interest in naturalistic-looking flowers or blossoms. With the exception of the garden and its usual reference to paradise, vegetal motifs and patterns in Islamic art are largely devoid of symbolic meaning.” \^/

Books: Grabar, Oleg. The Mediation of Ornament. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992; Kühnel, Ernst. The Arabesque: Meaning and Transformation of an Ornament. Graz: Verlag für Sammler, 1977.\^/

Meaning of Geometry in Islamic Art

Jane Norman of the Asia Society wrote: “Geometric motifs were popular with Muslim artists and designers in all parts of the world, at all times, and for decorating every surface, whether walls or floors, pots or lamps, book covers or textiles. As Islam spread from nation to nation and region to region, artists combined their penchant for geometry with pre-existing traditions, creating a new and distinctive Islamic art. This art expressed the logic and order inherent in the Islamic vision of the universe. [Source: Jane Norman, Asia Society /*\]

“Although the shapes and structures are based on the geometry of Euclid and other Greek mathematicians, Islamic artists used them to create visual statements about religious ideas. One explanation of this practice was that Mohammad had warned against the worship of idols; this prohibition was understood as a commandment against representation of human or animal forms. Geometric forms were an acceptable substitute for the proscribed forms. /*\

“An even more important reason is that geometric systems and Islamic religious values, though expressed in different forms, say similar things about universal values. In Islamic art, infinitely repeating patterns represent the unchanging laws of God. Muslims are expected to observe strict rules of behavior exactly as they were orginally set forth by Mohammad in the seventh century. These rules are known as the "Pillars of Faith": 1) pronouncing the creed (chanting an affirmation of the existence of one God and that God is Allah); 2) praying, in a precisely defined ritual of words and motions, five times a day; 3) giving alms; 4) fasting during the month of Ramadan (time varies according to lunar calendar); 5) making, during a lifetime, at least one pilgramage to Mecca. /*\


from Islamic Spain

“The strict rules for construction of geometric patterns provide a visual analogy to religious rules of behavior. The geometric patterns used in Islamic art are aggressively two-dimensional. Artists did not want to represent the three-dimensional physical world. They preferred to create an art that represents an ideal, spiritual truth. Ideals are better represented as two-dimensional than three-dimensional.” /*\

Islamic art features abstract geometric designs that can be repeated over and over in seeming infinity. Zarah Hussain wrote for the BBC: The “use of geometry is thought to reflect the language of the universe and help the believer to reflect on life and the greatness of creation. So how is geometry seen to be spiritual? 1) Because circles have no end they are infinite - and so they remind Muslims that Allah is infinite. 2) Complex geometric designs create the impression of unending repetition, and this also helps a person get an idea of the infinite nature of Allah. 3) The repeating patterns also demonstrate that in the small you can find the infinite ... a single element of the pattern implies the infinite total. “The use of patterns is part of the way that Islamic art represents nature and objects by their spiritual qualities, not their physical and material qualities. The repeated geometric patterns often make use of plant motifs, and these are called arabesques. Stylised arabic lettering is also common. [Source: Zarah Hussain, BBC, June 30, 2009 |::|]

According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art: “While geometric ornamentation may have reached a pinnacle in the Islamic world, the sources for both the shapes and the intricate patterns already existed in late antiquity among the Greeks, Romans, and Sasanians in Iran. [Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art metmuseum.org \^/]

“Geometric patterns make up one of the three nonfigural types of decoration in Islamic art, which also include calligraphy and vegetal patterns. Whether isolated or used in combination with nonfigural ornamentation or figural representation, geometric patterns are popularly associated with Islamic art, largely due to their aniconic quality. These abstract designs not only adorn the surfaces of monumental Islamic architecture but also function as the major decorative element on a vast array of objects of all types. While geometric ornamentation may have reached a pinnacle in the Islamic world, the sources for both the shapes and the intricate patterns already existed in late antiquity among the Greeks, Romans, and Sasanians in Iran. Islamic artists appropriated key elements from the classical tradition, then complicated and elaborated upon them in order to invent a new form of decoration that stressed the importance of unity and order. The significant intellectual contributions of Islamic mathematicians, astronomers, and scientists were essential to the creation of this unique new style.\^/


from Bukhara, Uzbekistan

“Consisting of, or generated from, such simple forms as the circle and the square, geometric patterns were combined, duplicated, interlaced, and arranged in intricate combinations, thus becoming one of the most distinguishing features of Islamic art. However, these complex patterns seem to embody a refusal to adhere strictly to the rules of geometry. As a matter of fact, geometric ornamentation in Islamic art suggests a remarkable amount of freedom; in its repetition and complexity, it offers the possibility of infinite growth and can accommodate the incorporation of other types of ornamentation as well. In terms of their abstractness, repetitive motifs, and symmetry, geometric patterns have much in common with the so-called arabesque style seen in many vegetal designs. Calligraphic ornamentation also appears in conjunction with geometric patterns.\^/

“The four basic shapes, or "repeat units," from which the more complicated patterns are constructed are: circles and interlaced circles; squares or four-sided polygons; the ubiquitous star pattern, ultimately derived from squares and triangles inscribed in a circle; and multisided polygons. It is clear, however, that the complex patterns found on many objects include a number of different shapes and arrangements, allowing them to fit into more than one category.”\^/

Books: Grabar, Oleg. The Mediation of Ornament. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992; Necipoglu, Gülru.The Topkapi Scroll: Geometry and Ornament in Islamic Architecture. Santa Monica, Calif.: Getty Center, 1998

Figural Representation in Islamic Art

According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art: “With the spread of Islam outward from the Arabian Peninsula in the seventh century, the figurative artistic traditions of the newly conquered lands profoundly influenced the development of Islamic art. Ornamentation in Islamic art came to include figural representations in its decorative vocabulary, drawn from a variety of sources. Although the often cited opposition in Islam to the depiction of human and animal forms holds true for religious art and architecture, in the secular sphere, such representations have flourished in nearly all Islamic cultures. [Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art metmuseum.org \^/]

As with other forms of Islamic ornamentation, artists freely adapted and stylized basic human and animal forms, giving rise to a great variety of figural-based designs. Figural motifs are found on the surface decoration of objects or architecture, as part of the woven or applied patterns of textiles, and, most rarely, in sculptural form. In some cases, decorative images are closely related to the narrative painting tradition, where text illustrations provided sources for ornamental themes and motifs. As for manuscript illustration, miniature paintings were integral parts of these works of art as visual aids to the text, therefore no restrictions were imposed. A further category of fantastic figures, from which ornamental patterns were generated, also existed. Some fantastic motifs, such as harpies (female-headed birds) and griffins (winged felines), were drawn from pre-Islamic mythological sources, whereas others were created through the visual manipulation of figural forms by artists.\^/

Books: Allen, Terry. "Aniconism and Figural Representation in Islamic Art." In his Five Essays on Islamic Art, pp. 17–37. Sebastopol, Calif.: Solipsist Press, 1988; Grabar, Oleg. The Formation of Islamic Art. Rev. and enl. ed. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987.\^/

Images of People and Animals in Islamic Art


Sassanid prince Anoshazad in the Shahnameh

The artwork from pre-Islamic civilizations were mostly idols and pieces with beautiful flowing script. Despite the restrictions on idolatry images of animals were common in Muslim courts. Some of the first caliphs had frescoes of dogs painted in their homes and pleasure boats made in the shape of lions. Caliph Muqtadir (908-932) had a tree made from silver and gold, decorated with precious stones shaped like fruit and animals, built in his palace. Caliph Mustansir (1035-1094) had a ceremonial tent decorated with all the world's known animals that took 150 workmen nine years to finish.µ

Muslims in the Ottoman and Persian Empires in the 15th and 16th centuries produced a wonderful collection of art representing episodes from Muhammad’s life complete with images of Muhammad, angels, animals and ordinary people.

Ottoman sultans commissioned portraits of themselves and illustrated records of historical events and battles. Titian painted a portrait of Süleyman the Magnificent and Gentile Bellini painted Muhammad II. The public however did not know about these works of art. It was rationalized that it wasn't necessarily a sin to possess these works of art, it was only a sin to display them ostentatiously. This same reasoning was used to justify gambling, drinking, the making of eunuchs and womanizing (also against Muslim law) in private.µ

The sultans and caliphs kept their images small under the understanding that images of living things were harmless if they did not cast a shadow. One of the most unusual world of art that did not fit this description was a three foot incense burner shaped like three legged helmet-headed monster that the Seljuk prince who owned it could "bring to life" whenever he wanted.

Human and animal figures are more likely yo be seen in secular art than religious art and sometimes use as a criteria to distinguish them.

Sexy Human Images in Islamic Art

In 2007, an exhibit called Spirit & Life at the Ismaili Center in South Kensington, London highlighted not only the human form but the human form in erotic Islamic art. Much of the art was from the personal collection of the Aga Khan’s uncle, Prince Sadruddin.

Describing a Mughal painting create in 1646 called Lovers in a Landscape Michael Glover, art critic for the Times of London, wrote:“Two lovers are leaning into each other. There is wine and a wine glass. The woman is repeatedly burning her lover’s arm. Physical love may well be a metaphor for man’s love of the Almighty, but there is no denying that this painting depicts passionate physical love.

Describing a worked painted by the Mughal artist between 1618 and 1620 Glover wrote: “A miniature of a bent old man...shows him seemingly as a pilgrim communicating with a flower, which peers back at him...It has naturalism, lots of volume and shading.”

Bonfire of the Vanities and Photography


"Lovers in a Landscape"

The expression "bonfire of the vanities" refers to the destruction of images and idols by Muslims in the 7th century. After converting to Islam, the new Muslim's not only tore down pictures of people and animals in their homes and places of worship, they also removed figures from their saddles and dishes. Jewish converts to Islam reinforced this conviction with their belief in Second Commandment which forbids the worship of idols.µ

Photography is immune from declaration because it was invented long after the Qur’an was written. "When photography appeared in the nineteenth century," says historian Daniel Boorstein, "it offered a new challenge to the mullah's theological gymnastics." Muslims who wished to be photographed said that the photographs were made by Allah with his creation the sun. Despite this photographs are still frowned upon in much of the Muslim world because, like paintings, they are "creations" of human forms which only Allah is allowed to make. Some Muslims also believe that photographs are immodest and they steal a person's soul.µ

In modern times Muslim scholars have said it is alright for medical schools to use books with anatomical pictures of people and police to use to "Wanted Posters" to apprehend criminals. Even the Taliban allowed passport photographs.

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: sourcebooks.fordham.edu “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “ Arab News, Jeddah; Islam, a Short History by Karen Armstrong; A History of the Arab Peoples by Albert Hourani (Faber and Faber, 1991); Encyclopedia of the World Cultures edited by David Levinson (G.K. Hall & Company, New York, 1994). 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, BBC, Al Jazeera, Times of London, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2018

This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been authorized by the copyright owner. Such material is made available in an effort to advance understanding of country or topic discussed in the article. This constitutes 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. If you are the copyright owner and would like this content removed from factsanddetails.com, please contact me.