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Islamic Arts: Introduction and General Considerations

Kathleen Kupier – Britannica Educational Publishing (Islamic Art,Literature And Culture)

The vast populations of the Middle East and elsewhere that adopted the Islamic faith from the 7th century onward. These adherents of the faith have created such an immense variety of arts that it virtually defies any comprehensive definition. In this book (Islamic Art, Literature and Culture) the subject includes the arts created in pre-Islamic times by Arabs and other peoples in Asia Minor and North Africa who eventually adopted the Islamic faith. It focuses largely on literature, calligraphy, and architecture.

Representation of living beings is prohibited—not in the Quran but in the prophetic tradition of Islam. Thus, the centre of the Islamic artistic tradition lies in calligraphy, a distinguishing feature of this culture, in which the word as the medium of divine revelation plays such an important role. Representational art was found, however, in some early palaces and “at the doors of the bathhouses,”

In a 13th-century Turkish miniature, Aristotle instructs students in the use of the astrolabe, a tool for measuring astronomical altitudes. First invented in Greece, it was extensively refined by Arab astronomers.

After the 13th century a highly refined art of miniature developed, primarily in the non-Arab countries; it dwells, however, only rarely upon religious subjects. The typical expression of Muslim art is the arabesque , a style of decoration characterized by intertwining plants and abstract curvilinear motifs, both in its geometric and in its vegetabilic form—one leaf, one flower growing out of the other, without beginning and end and capable of almost innumerable variations—only gradually detected by the eye—that never lose their charm. An aversion to empty spaces distinguishes that art; neither the tile-covered walls of a mosque nor the rich imagery of a poem allows an unembellished area; and the decoration of a carpet can be extended almost without limit.

The centre of Islamic religion is the clean place for prayer, enlarged into the mosque , which comprises the community and all its needs. The essential structure is similar throughout the Muslim world. There are, of course, period and regional differences—large, wide court mosques of early times; court mosques, with big halls, of Iran and adjacent countries; central buildings with the wonderfully shaped domes of the Ottoman Empire. The implements, however, are the same: a niche ( mihrab )— pointing to Mecca—made of wood, marble, mosaic, stone, and tiles; a small pulpit for the Friday sermon; minarets, locally differently shaped but always rising like the call to prayer ( adhan ) that is uttered from their tops; the wooden carved stands for the Qur’an, which is to be written in the most perfect form; sometimes highly artistic lamps (made in Syria and proverbially mentioned all over the Muslim world); perhaps bronze candlesticks, with inlaid ornaments; and rich variations of the prayer mats. If any decoration was needed, it was the words of God, beautifully written or carved in the walls or around the domes.At first connected with the mosques and later independent of them are schools, mausoleums, rooms for the students, and cells for the religious masters.

The poetry of the Arabs consisted in the beginning of praise and satirical poems thought to be full of magic qualities. The strict rules of the outward form of the poems (monorhyme, complicated metre) even in pre-Islamic times led to a certain formalism and encouraged imitation.

Arabic Manuscript of The Thousand and One Nights dating back to the 1300s Read more: http://www.answers.com/topic/one-thousand-and-one-nights-1#ixzz1WV2b1VtJ

Goethe’s statement that the stories of The Thousand and One Nights have no goal in themselves shows his understanding of the character of Arabic belles lettres, contrasting them with the Islamic religion, which aims at “collecting and uniting people in order to achieve one high goal.” Poets, on the other hand, rove around without any ethical purpose, according to the Qur’an. For many pious Muslims, poetry was something suspect, opposed to the divine law, especially since it sang mostly of forbidden wine and of free love. The combination of music and poetry, as practiced in court circles and among the mystics, has always aroused the wrath of the lawyer divines who wielded so much authority in Islamic communities. This opposition may partly explain why Islamic poetry and fine arts took refuge in a kind of unreal world, using fixed images that could be correctly interpreted only by those who were knowledgeable in the art.

The ambiguity of Persian poetry, which oscillates between the worldly, the divine, and often the political level, is typical of Islamic writings. Especially in Iran and the countries under its cultural influence, this kind of poetry formed the most important part of literature. Epic poetry of all kinds developed exclusively outside the Arabic-speaking countries; Western readers look in vain for an epical structure in such long poems (as in the case of the prose-romances of the Arabs) and find, instead, a rather aimless representation of facts and fictions. A similar characteristic even conditions innumerable historical works in Arabic, Persian, and Turkish, which, especially in classical times, contain much valuable information, put together without being shaped into texts that allow the historian or philosopher reach a comprehensive view. The first attempt at a philosophy of history, Ibn Khaldun’s Muqaddimah (“Introduction”), in the 14th century, was rarely studied by his Arab compatriots.

The accumulation of large amounts of material, which is carefully organized up to the present, seems typical of all branches of Islamic scholarship, from theology to natural sciences. There are many minute observations and descriptions but rarely a full view of the whole process. Later, especially in the Persian, Turkish, and Indo-Muslim areas, a tendency to overstress the decorative elements of prose is evident; and the contents even of official chronicles are hidden behind a network of rhymed prose, which is difficult to disentangle.

This tendency is illustrated in all branches of Islamic art: the lack of “architectural” formation. Instead, there is a kind of carpet-like pattern; the Arabic and Persian poem is, in general, judged not as a closed unity but rather according to the perfection of its individual verses. Its main object is not to convey a deep personal feeling but to perfect to the utmost the traditional rules and inherited metaphors, to which a new image may sometimes be added; thus the personality of the poet becomes visible only through the minimal changes of expression and rhythm and the application of certain preferred metaphors, just as the personality of the miniature painter can be detected by a careful observation of details, of his way of colouring a rock or deepening the shade of a turban. The same holds true for the arabesques, which were developed according to a strict ritual to a mathematical pattern and were refined until they reached a perfection of characteristic even conditions innumerable historical works in Arabic, Persian, and Turkish, which, especially in classical times, contain much valuable information, put together without being shaped into texts that allow the historian or philosopher reach a comprehensive view. The first attempt at a philosophy of history, Ibn Khaldun’s Muqaddimah (“Introduction”), in the 14th century, was rarely studied by his Arab compatriots. The accumulation of large amounts of material, which is carefully organized up to the present, seems typical of all branches of Islamic scholarship, from theology to natural sciences. There are many minute observations and descriptions but rarely a full view of the whole process. Later, especially in the Persian, Turkish, and Indo-Muslim areas, a tendency to overstress the decorative elements of prose is evident; and the contents even of official chronicles are hidden behind a network of rhymed prose, which is difficult to disentangle. This tendency is illustrated in all branches of Islamic art: the lack of “architectural” formation. Instead, there is a kind of carpet-like pattern; the Arabic and Persian poem is, in general, judged not as a closed unity but rather according to the perfection of its individual verses. Its main object is not to convey a deep personal feeling but to perfect to the utmost the traditional rules and inherited metaphors, to which a new image may sometimes be added; thus the personality of the poet becomes visible only through the minimal changes of expression and rhythm and the application of certain preferred metaphors, just as the personality of the miniature painter can be detected by a careful observation of details, of his way of colouring a rock or deepening the shade of a turban.

The grand portal of the Büyük Karatay Medresesi, Konya, Turkey.

The same holds true for the arabesques, which were developed according to a strict ritual to a mathematical pattern and were refined until they reached a perfection of geometrical complicated figures, as in the dome of the Karatay Medrese in Konya (Turkey; 1251); it corresponds both to the most intricate lacelike Kufic inscriptions around this dome and to the poetical style of Jalal al-Din al-Rumi, who wrote in that very place and during those years. His immortal mystical poems comprise thousands of variations on the central theme of love. Although such a perfect congruency of poetry and fine arts is not frequently found, the precept about Persian art that “its wings are too heavy with beauty” can also be applied to Persian poetry. Thus, the tile work of a Persian mosque, which combines different levels of arabesque work with different styles of writing, is reminiscent of the way Persian poetry combines at least two levels of reality. And a perfect harmony is reached in some of the miniature manuscripts of Iran, Muslim India, or Ottoman Turkey, which, in their lucid colours and fine details of execution, recall both the perfection of the calligraphy that surrounds them on delicate paper and the subtlety of the stories or poems that they accompany or illustrate.

Drama in the Western sense did not develop in the Islamic countries until the 19th century; and the art of the novel is a very recent development. There was no reason for drama: in the Muslim perception Allah is the only actor who can do whatever he pleases, whose will is inscrutable. Humans are, at best, puppets on a string, behind whose movement the hand of the play master is detectable to those with insight; neither is the problem of personal guilt and absolution posed as it is in the West, nor is a catharsis, or purging of emotion, needed through drama. The atomist theory, widely accepted in Islam since the 10th century, leaves no room for a “dramatic” movement; it teaches that God creates everything anew in every moment, and what is called a “law of nature” is nothing but God’s custom, which he can interrupt whenever he pleases.

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About the Author
Kathleen Kuiper, senior editor for the Arts and World Culture, has worked at Encyclopædia Britannica since 1980. During that time, she worked on a number of editorial projects, most significantly the editing of Merriam-Webster’s Encyclopedia of Literature. She was also the project manager for Britannica’s original Women’s History spotlight (Women in American History; no longer available) and Shakespeare and the Globe (most of which can be seen in Encyclopædia Britannica’s Guide to Shakespeare).
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