At the beginning of the twenty-first century Islam is the world’s fastest growing religion. It has spread beyond the traditional heartland of Islam in North Africa, the Near East, and west Asia to southeast Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. Muslims comprise nearly one-quarter of the world’s population; the largest Muslim populations are in southeast Asia, and there are sizable Muslim communities in Europe and North America. The term Islamic art is therefore becoming increasingly unwieldy, and in current usage concerning modern art, the adjective “Islamic” is often restricted to purely religious expressions such as calligraphy.
The idea of an Islamic art is a distinctly modern notion, developed not by the culture itself but by art historians in Europe and America trying to understand a relatively unfamiliar world and to place the arts created there into the newly developing field of art history. In light of the nationalism that developed during the early twentieth century, some scholars, particularly those in the Islamic lands, questioned the use of the term, opting instead for nationalistic names, speaking of, say, Turkish or Persian art. But these terms are also misleading, for Islam has traditionally been a multiethnic and multicultural society, and it is impossible to distinguish the contribution of, for example, Persian-speaking artists in what is today Turkey.
Other scholars, particularly in the late twentieth century, have questioned the term Islamic art as too general, since it refers neither to the art of a specific era nor to that of a particular place or people. Instead, they opt for regional or dynastic categories such as Maghribi (i.e., North African) or Mamluk (i.e., Egyptian and Syrian, thirteenth to sixteenth centuries) art. While these terms can be useful, they overlook the common features that run through much of the art created in the traditional lands of Islam and fragment the picture, particularly for those who are unfamiliar with this area and its rich cultural traditions. Without slighting the differences among the arts created in different regions in different periods, this entry focuses on the common features that run through many of the arts created within the broad rubric of Islamic art: the distinct hierarchy of forms and the themes of decoration.
Apart from architecture, the arts produced in the Islamic lands follow a different formal hierarchy than that of Western art, where painting and sculpture are the two most important forms and are used to make religious images for worship. These forms play a relatively minor role in Islamic art, where instead the major forms of artistic expression are the arts of the book, textiles, ceramics, woodwork, metalwares, and glass. In Western art, these are often called the “minor,” “decorative,” or “portable” arts, but such labels are pejorative, implying that these forms are secondary, less meaningful and less permanent than the more important, stable, and therefore “noble” arts of painting and sculpture. To use such terms is to view the world of art from the vantage point of the West, and one of the significant features of Islamic art is that it introduces the viewer to different ways of looking at art.
Bookmaking: Of all the arts created in the Islamic lands, the most revered was the art of the book, probably because of the veneration accorded to writing the revealed word of God. Calligraphers were deemed the most important type of artist and paid the most for their work. They penned many fine manuscripts, but the fanciest were exquisite copies of the Qur’an. Those made for use in a congregational mosque were large, multivolume sets, often divided into either seven or thirty parts so that the entire text could be read over the course of a week or a month. Personal copies of the Qur’an were generally smaller, but they, too, often had fine penmanship. The great reverence for writing spilled over into the production of other texts, particularly in Iran, India, and Turkey, and it was one of the reasons that printing with movable type only began to be adopted in the Islamic lands in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
Most fine manuscripts made in the Islamic lands also had fine decoration. In early times the calligrapher seems to have also been responsible for the illumination, which was usually added after the writing. For example, the famous scribe known as Ibn al-Bawwab (his nickname literally means “son of a doorman”) did both the writing and the decoration in a fine but small copy of the Qur’an made at Baghdad between 1000 and 1001. In early times calligraphers may have prepared all their own materials, but from the fourteenth century onward, the crafts became increasingly specialized, and we know of distinct calligraphers, illuminators, and binders. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, they were joined by a host of other specialists, ranging from draftsmen to gold beaters, gold sprinklers, rubricators (those who drew the lines), and the like. All worked together in a team to produce some of the most sublime books ever created in which all the elements were carefully harmonized in a unified and balanced whole.
Textiles: A second major art form popular in the traditional Islamic lands is textiles. They were the most important economically and have often been likened to the heavy industries of modern times. The four main fibers used were wool, cotton, linen, and silk, but the making of fine textiles lay not only in producing the fibers, but even more in the expense of procuring the dyes, the mordants to fix the colors, the materials for the looms, and the transport of both fibers and finished goods. It is often hard for modern viewers to appreciate these textiles, since few have survived from medieval times intact. Most were literally worn to shreds, and, unlike in other cultures, only a handful were preserved as grave goods since Muslims traditionally wrap the body in a plain white sheet for burial. Nevertheless in their own times, these textiles were immensely valuable not only in the Muslim lands but also across the globe: Medieval Europeans commonly used imported Islamic textiles to wrap the bones of their saints, and hence, paradoxically, most medieval Islamic textiles have been preserved in Christian contexts.
Textiles were also important for the history of art. Until large sheets of paper to make patterns and cartoons became readily available in the fourteenth century, motifs and designs were often disseminated through the medium of textiles. Textiles are readily portable—they can be folded and carried on an animal’s back without fear of breaking—and were transported over vast distances between Spain and Central Asia. The mechanical nature of weaving on a loom also encouraged the production of multiples and the use of symmetrical, repeating, and geometric designs that are characteristic of much Islamic art.
Of all textiles, the one most identified with the traditional Islamic lands is the knotted carpet. Indeed the traditional heartland of Islam is often dubbed “the rug belt.” Technically the knotted carpet consists of a textile in which additional threads, usually wool or silk, are knotted into a woven substratum to form a furry surface. The origins of the technique are obscure and controversial, with different ethnic groups claiming precedence. Carpet weaving was already practiced for a millennium before the advent of Islam and may well have been developed by nomads to take advantage of the materials at hand, namely the wool produced by the sheep they herded. Nomads typically used portable looms, which could be dismantled and carried on horseback when the camp moved, to weave small carpets with a limited repertory of geometric designs that were generated from the technique of weaving itself.
In the fourteenth century this individual or family craft was transformed into a cottage or village industry. Carpets became larger and were made in multiples, with some groups available for export. They were expensive items used by the rich and powerful as status symbols. Depictions of enthroned rulers ranging from Mongol manuscripts of the Persian national epic to Italian panel paintings of the Madonna and Child prominently display Islamic knotted carpets beneath the throne, testifying to their international status.
Carpet-weaving was transformed again in the sixteenth century into a national industry. Rulers of the Safavid and Ottoman dynasties set up state workshops with room-sized looms that required teams of weavers to produce carpets measuring over twenty feet across. Unlike the carpet-weaving of nomads, which could be put down or picked up at will, these large-scale enterprises required vast amounts of materials prepared and purchased before work began to insure a uniform product. Designers prepared paper patterns with elaborate floral designs that could only be executed successfully with hundreds of knots per square inch. Some designs even emulated the design of traditional Persian gardens, with depictions of water channels filled with fish, ducks, and geese crossing and dividing rectangular parterres planted with cypresses, fruit trees, and flowers. When the carpet was spread on the floor, the person sitting on it would have been surrounded by a verdant refreshing garden.
Metals, Ceramics, and Glasswares: Other common art- forms created in the Muslim lands comprise metalwares, ceramics, and glasswares. These techniques have been dubbed the “arts of fire” as they are based on the use of fire to transform minerals extracted from the earth into works of art. The discovery of fire to transform humble materials into utensils was one of the hallmarks of the rise of civilization in West Asia, and the manufacture of shimmering metalwares, ceramics, and glass continued to be characteristic of the Islamic lands until modern times. Iron and copper alloys were crafted into weapons, tools, and utensils, while silver and gold were made into jewelry and coins. Ceramics were used for storage, cooking, and serving food, and glass was used for lighting, keeping and serving foods, and storing perfumes and medicines. Unlike the Christian lands, where vessels of silver and gold were used in church liturgy, Islam required no such luxury objects in the mosque, and the finest bowls, plates, and pitchers are merely expensive versions of objects used in daily life.
Base metal, ceramic, and glass shapes were also made in such rare and costly materials as gold and silver, rock crystal, jade, and ivory. The pious disapproved of using gold vessels, and many items of precious metal were melted down for coin in times of need. A rare silver box made for the Spanish Umayyad heir-apparent Abu Walid Hisham in 976 is the same shape and dimensions as an ivory example made for the Spanish Umayyad chamberlain £Abd al-Malik in Spain between 1004 and 1005. The metal box even copies the details of the ivory box, including the strap over the top, which is hammered from the same sheet of silver as the rest of the lid. The strap is useless on the silver box, but imitates the metal strap that would have held the lid in place on a wooden or ivory box.
Another case of similar vessels in different media is the series of small jugs made for the Timurid rulers of Central Asia in the fifteenth century. Some gold ones are illustrated in contemporary manuscripts, and examples survive in several materials, including jade, metal, and ceramic. The jugs, which measure about 6 inches (15 centimeters) high, have a globular body and short cylindrical neck with a handle shaped like a dragon. The shape derives from Chinese porcelains. The inscriptions on the Timurid examples make it clear that they were wine jugs, and the various materials correspond to the rank of the patron. Jade, technically a type of white nephrite, became available after the Timurids seized the jade mines in Khotan in Chinese Turkestan. The use of jade was reserved for rulers, as it was not only rare and expensive but also thought to counteract poison. Timurid rulers and their courtiers also commissioned similar jugs made of brass, sometimes inlaid with gold and silver, but some anonymous examples were probably made for sale on the open market as were the cheaper ceramic ones.
Unlike other artistic traditions, particularly the Chinese, where form alone can be considered sufficient to turn an object into a work of art, much Islamic art is highly decorated. Surfaces were elaborately adorned using a wide variety of techniques and motifs. While different styles of decoration were popular at different times and places, several themes of decoration occur everywhere. These include figural decoration, flowers, geometry, color, and writing.
Figural Imagery: Many people believe that images of people are forbidden in Islam. The Qur’an forbids idolatry, but it has little to say on the subject of figural representation, which was apparently not a subject of great importance in Arabia during the late sixth and early seventh centuries. Furthermore, Muslims have little need to depict images in their religious art. For Muslims, God is unique, without associate; therefore He cannot be represented, except by His word, the Qur’an. Muslims worship God directly without intercessors, so they have no need for images of saints, as Christians do. The prophet Muhammad was human, not divine, so Muslims do not worship him as Christians worship Jesus. Furthermore, the Qur’an is not a continuous narrative. Thus, Muslims do not need religious images to proselytize in the way that Christians use depictions of Christ or stories from the Bible to teach their faith.
Over time this lack of images hardened into law, and the absence of figures, technically known as aniconism, became a characteristic feature of Islamic religious art. Thus, mosques, mosque furnishings such as minbars (pulpits) and mihrabs (recesses in the wall facing Mecca), and other types of religious buildings such as madrasas do not usually contain pictures of people. But there is no reason that Muslims cannot depict people in other places and settings. Thus palaces could, and indeed often did, have images of people, particularly servants, guards, and other members of a ruler’s retinue. Similarly, bathhouses were often decorated with bathers, sometimes nude, and other scenes of relaxation and pleasure. These types of secular building were often more architecturally inventive than religious structures, which tended to follow traditional lines. But secular structures have not survived as well as mosques and religious structures, which were continuously venerated and maintained, and so the historical record is spotty, and many of the best-known secular buildings to survive in the Islamic lands are those that have long been abandoned. Archaeological excavation and restoration of such sites as the bathhouse at Qusayr Amra, built in the Jordanian desert by the Umayyads in the early eighth century, and Samarra in Iraq, the sprawling capital built by the Abbasids upstream from Baghdad in the mid-ninth century, show that already in early Islamic times bathhouses and palaces were decorated with pictures of people engaging in activities inappropriate in religious situations.
Similarly, copies of the Qur’an do not have pictures of people, but many nonreligious books made in the Islamic lands do. These range from scientific treatises to histories, chronicles, and literary works, both prose and poetry. Sometimes, illustrations were needed to explain the text, as in copies of al-Sufi’s treatise on the fixed stars, al-Kawakib al- thabita. They show that the classical tradition of depicting the constellations as humans and animals was continued in Islamic times. Sometimes, however, illustrations were added even when the text did not demand them. One of the most frequently illustrated texts to survive from medieval Islamic times is al-Hariri’s Maqamat (Seances or Sessions). Eleven illustrated copies produced before 1350 have survived, and the number suggests that there were once many more. This work recounts the picaresque adventures of the cunning merchant Abu Zayd as he travels throughout the Muslim world, hoodwinking his rivals. The success of the text, which became very popular among the educated bourgeoisie of the Arab lands, depended on its verbal pyrotechnics, with triple puns, subtle allusions, and complex rhymes. The illustrations emphasize a different aspect of the text—the protagonist’s adventures in faraway lands—and provide rare glimpses of daily life in medieval times, including scenes of villages, markets, and libraries.
The tradition of figural imagery was particularly strong in the Persian world, which had a long history of figural representation stretching back to pre-Islamic times, and the illustrated books made there and in the nearby Persian-speaking lands such as India from the fourteenth century onward have some of the most stunning illustrations ever painted. Virtually all of them include people and animals, both real and imaginary. A few even include images of the prophet Muhammad, but these are not meant as religious icons but to illustrate historical or literary texts.
Since figural imagery was unnecessary in Islamic religious art, other themes of decoration became more important. Many of them had been subsidiary elements in the arts of pre- Islamic times. In Byzantine art, for example, depictions of people had been set off, framed, or linked by vegetal designs (that is, stylized fruits, flowers, and trees) and geometric elements (shapes and patterns). In Islamic times, these subsidiary elements were transformed into major artistic themes. At first artists used recognizable elements, such as trees or plants, as in the mosaics used in the Great Mosque of Damascus erected by the Umayyad caliph al-Walid in the early eighth century. With the growing reluctance to depict figures, such specific and realistic representations were replaced by more stylized, abstracted, and geometricized motifs.
Geometry: Such an abstract style was already popular by the ninth century and is found on carved plaster and woodwork made from North Africa to Central Asia. The extraordinary range of this style suggests a common origin in the Abbasid capitals of Iraq, and German excavations at the site of Samarra in the early twentieth century uncovered many examples in molded and carved stucco. The most distinct type uses a slanted, or beveled, cut, which allowed the plaster slab to be released quickly from the mold. In the beveled style, motifs are abstracted and geometricized and the distinction between foreground and background is blurred.
This type of design based on natural forms such as stems, tendrils, and leaves rearranged to form infinite geometric patterns became a hallmark of Islamic art produced between the tenth century and the fifteenth. To describe it, Europeans coined the word “arabesque,” literally meaning “in the Arab style,” in the fifteenth or sixteenth century when Renaissance artists incorporated Islamic designs in book ornament and decorative bookbindings. Over the centuries the word has been applied to a wide variety of winding, twining vegetal decoration in art and meandering themes in music.
The nineteenth-century Viennese art historian Alois Riegl laid out the principal features of the arabesque in Islamic art. In it, the tendrils of the vegetation do not branch off from a single continuous stem, as they do in nature, but rather grow unnaturally from one another to form a geometric pattern. He pointed out that the arabesque also has infinite correspondence, meaning that the design can be extended indefinitely in any direction. The structure of the arabesque gives the viewer sufficient information to extend the design in his or her imagination.
The popularity of the arabesque was due no doubt to its adaptability, for it was appropriate to virtually all situations and media, from paper to woodwork and ivory. It was used on the illuminated pages that were added to decorate the beginning and end of fine manuscripts, particularly copies of the Qur’an. These decorated pages became increasingly elaborate and are often called carpet pages. The largest and finest were produced in Egypt and Syria during the period of rule by the Mamluks (r. 1250-1517). The frontispieces in these grand manuscripts of the Qur’an (some measure a whopping 30 inches, or 75 cm, high) are decorated with elaborate geometric designs of polygons radiating from central star shapes.
From the fourteenth century the arabesque was gradually displaced by more naturalistic designs of chrysanthemum, peony, and lotus flowers, motifs adopted from Chinese art during the period of Mongol rule in Iran. This floral style was disseminated westward to the Ottomans, rulers of the eastern Mediterranean region after 1453 from their capital at Istanbul. Artists working at the court of the longest-reigning and most powerful of the Ottoman sultans, Suleyman (r. 1620-1666), developed a distinct floral style with composite flowers and slender, tapering leaves with serrated edges. Designers working in the court studio drew up patterns in this style, which craftsmen then executed in various media, ranging from ceramics to textiles.
The pervasiveness of geometric designs throughout Islamic art has been traced to the importance of textiles, and Golombek coined the phrase “the draped universe of Islam.” The production of fibers and dyes formed the mainstay of the medieval Islamic economy. In addition to clothing, textiles were the main furnishings of dwellings and even, in the form of tents, the dwellings themselves. The central role of textiles is underscored by the Ka’aba in Mecca, which Muslims believe is the house that Ibrahim (Abraham) erected for God and which is the central shrine of Islam, a cubic stone building that has been veiled in cloth coverings since the dawn of the faith. The structure of weaving favors angular designs based on the intertwining of warp and weft, and interlaced designs, found even in writing, may be another example of the textile mentality that permeated Islamic society.
Color: Another theme that runs through much Islamic art is the exuberant use of color. Bright and vivid colors are found not only in illustrated manuscripts, but also in media where they might not be expected. For example, metalworkers in the Islamic lands developed the technique of inlay, in which a vessel made of one metal (typically bronze or brass) is inlaid with another (typically, silver, copper, or gold). Designs were further set off in a bituminous black that absorbs light, in contrast to the surrounding metallic surfaces that reflect it. In this way, metal workers could decorate their wares with elaborate scenes that resembled paintings or work out enormous inscriptions that seem to glow from the object and set off the patron’s name or Qur’anic text in lights, as it were.
Woodworkers achieved similar effects by combining ivory or bone with ebony, teak, and other precious woods. The most expensive pieces of woodwork were mosque furnishings such as maqsuras (screens to enclose an area in front of the mihrab), minbars (pulpits), and Qur’an stands. The designs on these pieces were usually geometric, with elaborate interlacing and strapwork patterns. Perhaps the most stunning is the stupendous minbar made in 1137 at Cordoba for the Almoravid mosque in Marrakesh, which has thousands of individual panels meticulously carved in a variety of rare and exotic woods with arabesque designs. These panels were fitted flawlessly into a complex geometric scheme, so that the decoration can be equally appreciated from near and far away.
Islamic ceramics are also notable for their wonderful colors. Potters constantly invented new and different techniques of over- and underglaze painting. Their finest effort was the development of the luster technique, in which vessels and tiles were painted with metallic oxides and then fired in a reducing atmosphere so that the oxygen burned away, leaving the shimmering metal on the surface. The technique may have been invented by glassmakers in Egypt and Syria in the eighth century, but soon passed to potters, who developed its full potential, first in ninth-century Iraq, then in Fatimid (969-1171), Egypt, and finally in Iran. Luster potters working there in the city of Kashan in the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries also developed the overglaze-painted technique known as minai or enameling, in which several colors and gold are painted on top of already-glazed wares, which are then fired a second time at a relatively low temperature. Luster and minai ceramics represent the most expensive kind of pottery made in medieval times, for they required costly materials, special kilns, and extra fuel for a second firing. The techniques may well have been kept secret, and, to judge from signed works and treatises, the craft tradition passed down through certain families.
The decorative combination of blue and white, so often identified with Chinese porcelains, derived from the Islamic lands where potters invented the technique of painting in cobalt under a transparent glaze. The technique, developed by the same Kashan potters working in Iran in the early thirteenth century, was then exported to China where it appears on blue-and-white porcelains made in the fourteenth century. Indeed, potters in the Islamic lands were constantly in competition with their colleagues in China, and ideas bounced back and forth from culture to culture. Thus, Kashan potters probably adopted an artificial or stone-paste body to imitate the hard body of porcelain, made by the Chinese with kaolin, an element not available in Iran and other Muslim lands.
Various explanations have been proposed for this lavish use of color throughout much of Islamic art. Some scholars trace it to the drab and dusty landscape that pervades the heartland of Islam. (The word khaki, for example, derives from the Persian word meaning dusty or dust-colored.) This explanation is insufficient, however, as people from other desert or steppe regions do not necessarily value color as highly as Muslims do. Other scholars see the extensive use of color as evoking Paradise, described in the Qur’an as a rich and verdant place where men recline on silken pillows. Muslims, particularly mystics, often elaborated the symbolic values of color, but these values were often contradictory and meaningful only in specific geographical or chronological contexts. Black, for example, was adopted by the Abbasids as their standard, and their rivals, the Fatimids, adopted white. The auspicious or heavenly associations may have been outweighed by practical considerations, since copper oxide, a ubiquitous coloring agent, produces a green color in a lead glaze and a turquoise blue color in an alkaline one.
Writing: Of all the themes that run through Islamic art, the most important is writing. Islam, perhaps more than any other religion, values writing, and inscriptions permeate Islamic art more than any other artistic tradition. The value of the word is due to the sanctity of the revelation, and from earliest Islamic times virtually all types of Islamic art were decorated with writing, even when the medium makes it difficult to add an inscription. Sometimes writing supplements an image, but often writing is the sole type of decoration.
The texts inscribed on works of Islamic art range in subject matter. Some contain verses from the Qur’an, Traditions of the Prophet (called hadith in Arabic), and other religious texts. Others are short pious phrases recalling God’s power and omnipotence (dominion belongs to God) or invoking the name of the Prophet, his family, and other significant religious figures such as the Four Orthodox caliphs who succeeded Muhammad as leaders of the Muslim community in the early seventh century. Probably the most common type of text inscribed on works of Islamic art comprises benedictions and good wishes, which can range from a single word (the most common is baraka, blessing) to long phrases with rhyming pairs of nouns and adjectives.
These inscriptions, particularly on expensive pieces, sometimes contain historical information, including the name of the patron, the date, the place the object was made, and even the name of the artist. Art historians always look for this type of information since it helps to localize a work of art, but it is important for other reasons as well. Historical information also implies that the work of art was a specific commission, made for a particular individual at a specific moment or to commemorate a specific event. The historical information also tells us in which direction to view a work of art, since this information is usually included at the end of the text. Signatures allow us to establish the biographies of artists, a type of person not generally recorded in histories and chronicles, and thereby fill out the artistic record.
Many different styles of script were used to decorate works of Islamic art. Historical information was often written in a more legible rounded hand, because the patron or artist wanted his name to be clear. In contrast, aphorisms and pious phrases were often written in a more stylized angular script. Some might have been intended as puzzles designed to amuse or even tease the user. For example, a group of slip-covered earthenware vessels made in northeastern Iran and Central Asia in the ninth and tenth centuries (when the area was under the domination of the Samanid dynasty) is inscribed with aphorisms in Arabic such as “Knowledge is bitter to the taste at first, but sweeter than honey in the end” or “He who is content with his own opinion runs into danger.” These aphorisms are written in brown or black against the cream slip in an extremely complex script in which the letters are stretched out or distorted and the strokes braided and intertwined. The texts are very difficult to read, and somewhat like a modern cryptic puzzle; decipherment was part of the enjoyment they engendered.
In other cases the difficulty in deciphering the inscriptions on a work of Islamic art may have been due to the artist’s illiteracy. The person who drew up the inscription was not necessarily the same person who executed it on the work of art, and some artists may not have been literate, particularly those of lower status who worked with cheaper materials in repetitive forms. A group of overglaze-painted earthenware vessels made in the Abbasid lands in the ninth century is often decorated in the center with a few lines of text containing blessings and the name of the potter. The texts are formulaic and often unreadable, with words cut off, and the inscriptions show that the pieces were not a specific commission but made for sale on the open market. Nevertheless, they are eloquent testimony for a world in which writing and written sentiments were appreciated at all levels of society.
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