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The contribution of the Muslim World to a wide range of arts, sciences and academic disciplines is often overlooked or taken for granted. This site provides a glimpse of the rich cultural heritage within the Muslim World and the significant role that Muslims have played in the advancement of knowledge. The site aims to unveil the creativity of Islamic art and architecture. It traces the historical development of Islamic regions and dynasties, highlighting their diversity of artistic expression from the inception of the faith until the present.

The site is still in its infancy and is a work in progress. We started working on this during the first week of March, 2011 and had our first post published on 8th March. With time and help from our visitors and volunteers who are passionate about the subject, we aim to make this site the central hub of information for Islamic Heritage, its Arts and Architecture.

If you have any articles/photographs that you want to share with us or if you would like to contribute to this site, please write to us through our Feedback Form.

This site is managed and administered by F.A. Bhatti. In case you would like to report a copyright violation or  find a content which you feel is inappropriate for this site, please write to him directly at [email protected]

What is Islamic Art?

By Jonathan Bloom and Sheila S. Blair.

The term “Islamic art” is insufficient and misleading —until one considers the alternatives. While some types of Islamic art, such as Qur’an manuscripts, mosque lamps or carved wooden minbars (pulpits), are directly concerned with the faith and practice of Islam, the majority of objects considered to be “Islamic art” are called so simply because they were made in societies where Islam was the dominant religion. A few, like the Freer Gallery’s famous canteen decorated with scenes of the life of Christ and saints, were clearly made in a Muslim context (in that case, 13th-century Syria) for use by non-Muslims, while others, such as the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, were probably made for Muslims by non-Muslims, because few craftsmen in Jerusalem had converted to Islam by the end of the seventh century, when it was built. In many cases, we simply don’t know the craftsmen’s faith, because the vast majority of objects are unsigned and many communities were religiously diverse. In medieval Cairo, for example, Muslims, Christians and Jews lived and worked side by side. Their taste in art was similar, but not exactly the same. Sometimes the language of the inscription gives us a clue about the identity of a patron, and sometimes the nature of the decoration is informative, but other times, we just don’t know. In short, “Islamic art” encompasses much more than religious art for Islam.

For most Muslims, the highest form of visual art—and for some, the only spiritually meaningful one—is calligraphy, the art of beautiful writing. Calligraphy gained its preeminence from the Qur’an, God’s revelation to the Prophet Muhammad in the seventh century of our era. Delivered orally in Arabic and received aurally, its verses were written in the Arabic script, first by the Prophet’s associates and later by professional scribes who tried to give reverent physical form to the immutable beauty of God’s word. Over the centuries, calligraphers developed many scripts and styles, but all Islamic cultures continue to accord great importance to beautiful writing, principally and primarily of Qur’anic scripture, but also of other literary genres. This great appreciation of writing has permeated all forms of Islamic visual culture, and thus calligraphy can be found on everything from mosques, schools and palaces to humble bowls, beakers and dishes. Sentiments expressed range from verses from the Qur’an and blessings upon the owner of the object to quotations from popular poetry. The choice of text depended on the function of the object: Qur’anic texts are appropriate only on things used in the practice of the faith, whereas poetry might appear on jugs and dishes used in daily life.

Islamic art has been produced over 14 centuries from the shores of the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea, from the steppes of Central Asia to the savannas of Africa, in lands where people spoke a myriad of languages but shared a common belief in the tenets of Islam and a common—if sometimes limited—knowledge of Arabic, the language of the Qur’an. The resources available to the artists, and the pre-existing cultural traditions, all differed so widely from one part of this vast region to another that no single style or technique or medium prevailed. For example, whereas wood was relatively common in Morocco and also in Anatolia, it was rare in Egypt, so craftsmen there developed special techniques—like the mashrabiyyah, or spool work grilles, made of hundreds of small pieces of turned wood—to make the most of a scarce resource. Good stone for building was available around the Mediterranean and also in India, but not in Iraq, Iran and Central Asia, where builders developed extraordinary ways of constructing and decorating with mud and clay, whether used raw as pisé and plaster or baked into bricks and gleaming tiles. So how should the interested person approach Islamic art, especially when he or she is most likely to encounter it in a museum gallery, far removed from its original contexts and installed, uprooted, under gleaming spotlights? 
Museum labels, despite their good intent, often tell us everything except what we most want to know. Many of the dynastic tags so beloved of curators—from Umayyad, Fatimid, Ghaznavid, Timurid and Safavid to Mamluk and Ottoman—are helpful if you want to use art to illustrate history, but their unfamiliarity (not to mention their variant spellings) often tends to confuse the visitor. Instead, we suggest that the curious viewer temporarily ignore the label and confront the object directly with practical questions: What is it? What is it made of? Where did the materials come from, and how were they transformed into their present state? Who—and how many people—made it? How long did it take to make? What is the decoration? Is it complete, or are we seeing only a part of something bigger? Is it unique, or were many other pieces made just like it? Does it say something? (Here the label can be useful in translating an inscription, if it has one.) For whom was it made? How did he or she use it? How was it preserved, and how and when did it arrive at this particular museum? Why did the curator put it here, next to the other objects in the case? How are the cases arranged? What messages is the gallery installation trying to convey?

What is Islamic Art? text from  A Global Guide to Islamic Art, January/February 2009 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.

 

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