Islamic Abstract Mosaic Art
Tens of thousands of individual tiles
make up the geometric Arabesque tiling
on the dome of the Tomb of Hafez in
Shiraz. These intricate mosaic patterns
are known as Girih, and can be seen
in Muslim cultures around the world.
Islamic Book Painting
Page from the Hamzanama: ‘The Spy
Zambur Brings Mahiya to Tawariq’
(c.1570) Metropolitian Museum of Art NY.
The phrase “Islamic art” is an umbrella term for post-7th century visual arts, created by Muslim and non-Muslim artists within the territories occupied by the people and cultures of Islam. It embraces art forms such as architecture, architectural decoration, ceramic art, faience mosaics, lustre-ware, relief sculpture, wood and ivory carving, friezes, drawing, painting, calligraphy, book-gilding, manuscript illumination, lacquer-painted bookbinding, textile design, metalworking, goldsmithery, gemstone carving, among others. Historically, Islamic art has developed from a wide variety of different sources. It includes elements from Greek and early Christian art which it combines with the great Middle Eastern cultures of Egypt, Byzantium, and ancient Persia, along with far eastern cultures of India and China.
Islamic Art is not the art of a particular country or a particular people. It is the art of a civilization formed by a combination of historical circumstances; the conquest of the Ancient World by the Arabs, the inforced unification of a vast territory under the banner of Islam, a territory which was in turn invaded by various groups of alien peoples. From the start, the direction of Islamic Art was largely determined by political structures which cut across geographical and sociological boundaries.
The complex nature of Islamic Art developed on the basis of Pre-Islamic traditions in the various countries conquered, and a closely integrated blend of Arab, Turkish and Persian traditions brought together in all parts of the new Muslim/Moslem Empire.
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The Turkish element in Islamic Art consists mainly of an indigenous concept of abstraction that the Turkish peoples of Central Asia applied to any culture and art form that they met with on their long journey from ‘Innermost Asia’ to Egypt. They brought an important tradition of both figurative and non-figurative design from Eastern to Western Asia, creating an unmistakable Turkish iconography. The importance of the Turkish element in Islamic culture can perhaps best be appreciated if one realizes that the larger part of the Islamic World was ruled by Turkish peoples from the 10th to the 19th century. The Art of the Islamic World owes a great deal to the rule of these Turkish Dynasties, and the influence of Turkish thought, taste and tradition on the Art of Islam in general can hardly be overestimated.
The Persian element in Islamic Art is perhaps most difficult to define; it seems to consist of a peculiarly lyrical poetical attitude, a metaphysical tendency which in the realm of emotional and religious experience leads to an extraordinary flowering of mysticism. The major schools of Muslim painting developed in Iran on the basis of Persian literature. Not only an entire iconography but also a specific imaginary, abstract-poetical in it’s realization, was created in Iran in the later part of the 14th and 15th century, that is without parallel in any other part of the Muslim/Moslem World. The same attitude that creates in the field of painting an art form of the greatest beauty but of complete fantasy and unreality enters into architecture, creating forms of decoration that seem to negate the very nature of architecture and the basic principles of weight and stress, of relief and support, fusing all elements into a unity of fantastic unreality, a floating world of imagination.
Even though these three elements of Islamic culture are at times clearly definable and separate and each contributes more or less equally to the development of Islamic Art, in most periods they are so closely interwoven and integrated that one cannot often clearly distinguish between them. All the regions of the Muslim World share a great many fundamental artistic features that draw the whole vast territory together in a super-national, super-ethnic and super-geographical unity which is paralled in the history of human culture only by the similiar domination of the Ancient World by Rome.
Of all elements in Islamic Art the most important, undoubtedly, is religion. The multitude of small empires and kingdoms that had adopted Islam felt – in spite of racial prides and jealousies – first and foremost Muslim and not Arab, Turkish or Persian. They all knew, spoke and wrote some Arabic, the language of the Koran (Qur’an). They all assembled in the Mosque the religious building that, with minor alternations, was of the same design throughout the Muslim World, and they all faced Mecca, the centre of Islam, symbolized by The Kaaba (Quabba), a pre-Muslim sanctuary adopted by Muhammad as the point towards which each Muslim should turn in prayer. In every prayer hall there was a focal or Kibla wall, which faced Mecca with a central niche, the Mihrab. All Muslims shared the basic belief in Muhammad’s message: the recognization of the all-embracing power and absolute superiority of The One God (Allah). The creed of all Muslims reads alike; “There is no god but God (Allah) and Muhammad is his Prophet.” In all Muslims of every race and country there is the same feeling of being equal in the face of Allah on the day of judgement.
The Infinite Pattern in Islamic Art
The experience of the infinite on the one hand, with the worthlessness of the transient earthly existence of man on the other is known to all Muslims and forms part of all Muslim Art. It finds different but basically related expression. The most fundamental is the creation of the infinite pattern that appears in a fully developed form very early on and is a major element of Islamic Art in all periods. The infinite continuation of a given pattern, whether abstract, semi-abstract or even partly figurative, is on the one hand the expression of a profound belief in the eternity of all true being and on the other a disregard for temporary existence. In making visible only part of a pattern that exists in its complete form only in infinity, the Islam Artist related the static, limited, seemingly definite object to infinity itself.
An Arabesque design, based on an infinite leaf-scroll pattern that, by division of elements (stem, leaf, blossom) generates new variations of the same original elements, is in itself the perfect application of the principle of Islam design and can be applied to any given surface, the cover of a small metal box or the glazed curve of a momumental dome. Both the small box and the huge dome of a Mosque are regarded in the same way, differing only in form, not in quality. With this possibility of giving equal value to everything that exists or bringing to one level of existence everything within the realm of the visual arts, a basis for a unity of style is provided that transcends the limits of period or country.
Ornamentation of Surfaces Dissolves Matter
One of the most fundamental principles of the Islamic style deriving from the same basic idea is the dissolution of matter. The idea of transformation, therefore, is of utmost importance. The ornamentation of surfaces of any kind in any medium with the infinite pattern serves the same purpose – to disguise and ‘dissolve’ the matter, whether it be momumental architecture or a small gold box. The result is a world which is not a reflection of the actual object, but that of the superimposed element that serves to transcend the momentary and limited individual appearance of a work of art drawing it into the greater and solely valid realm of infinite and continuous being.
This idea is emphasized by the way in which architectural decoration is used. Solid walls are disguised behind plaster and tile decoration, vaults and arches are covered with floral and epigraphic ornament that dissolve their structural strength and funcion and domes are filled with radiating designs of infinite patterns, bursting suns or fantastic floating canapes of multitude of mukkarnas, that banish the solidity of stone and masonary and give them a peculiarly ephemeral quality as if the crystallization of the design is their only reality.
It is perhaps in this element, which has no true parallel in the history of art, that Islamic Art joins in the religious experience of Islam and it is in this sense, that it can be called a religious art. Characteristically, very little actual, religious iconography in the ordinary sense exists in Islam.
Although a great many fundamental forms and concepts remained more or less stable and unchanged throughout Islamic Art – especially in architecture – the variety of individual forms is astonishing and can again be called exceptional. Almost every country at every period created forms of art that had no parallel in another, and the variations on a common theme, that are carried through from one period to another, are even more remarkable.
Two important elements in Islamic decorative art are: Floral Patterns and Calligraphy.
Floral Patterns in Islamic Decoration
Islamic artists habitually employed flowers and trees as decorative motifs for the embellishment of cloth, objects, personal items and buildings. Their designs were inspired by international as well as local techniques. For instance, Mughal architectural decoration was inspired by European botanical artists, as well as by traditional Persian and Indian flora. A highly ornate as well as intricate art form, floral designs were often used as the basis for “infinite pattern” type decoration, using arabesques (geometricized vegetal patterns) and covering an entire surface. The infinite rhythms conveyed by the repetition of curved lines, produces a relaxing, calming effect, which can be modified and enhanced by variations of line, colour and texture. Sometimes the ornate would be emphasized, and floral designs would be applied to tablets or panels of white marble, in the form of rows of plants finely carved in low relief, along with multi-coloured inlays of precious stones.
Calligraphy in Islamic Decoration
Apart from the naturalistic, semi-naturalistic and abstract geometrical forms used in the infinite pattern, Arabic calligraphy played a dominant role in Islamic Art and was integrated into every sort of decorative scheme – not least because it provides a link between the language of Muslims and the religion of Islam, as outlined in the Koran/Qur’an. Proverbs and complete passages from the Qur’an are still major sources for Islamic calligraphic art and decoration.
Thus, almost all Islamic buildings exhibit some type of inscription in their stone, stucco, marble or mosaic surfaces. The inscription is often, though not always, a quotation from the Qur’an. Or single words like “Allah” or “Mohammed” might be repeated many times over the entire surface of the walls. Calligraphic inscriptions are closely associated with the geometry of the building and are frequently employed as a frame around the main architectural elements such as portals and cornices. Sometimes a religious text is confined to a single panel or carved tablet (cartouche) which might be pierced thus creating a specific pattern of light.
There are two main scripts in traditional Islamic Calligraphy, the angular Kufic and the cursive Naskhi.
Kufic, the earliest form, which is alledged to have been invented at Kufa, south of Baghdad, accentuates the vertical strokes of the characters. It was used extensively during the first five centuries of Islam in architecture, for copies of the Koran (Qur’an), textiles and pottery. There are eight different types of Kufic script out of which only three are mentioned here: (a) simple Kufic; (b) foliated Kufic which appeared in Egypt during the 9th Century BCE and has the vertical strokes ending in lobed leaves or half-palmettes; (c) floriated Kufic in which floral motiffs and scrolls are added to the leaves and half-palmettes. This seems also to have been developed in Egypt during the 9th Century BCE and reached it’s highest development there under the Fatimids (969-1171).
From the 11th century onward the Naskhi script gradually replaced Kufic. Though a kind of cursive style was already known in the 7th Century BCE, the invention of Naskhi is attributed to Ibn Muqula. Ibn Muqula lived in Baghdad during the 10th century and is also responsible for the development of another type of cursive writing; the thuluth, or thulth. This closely follows Naskhi, but certain elements, like vertical strokes or horizontal lines are exaggerated.
In Iran several cursive styles were invented and developed among which taliq was important. Out of taliq developed nastaliq, which is a more beautiful, elegant and cursive form of writing. It’s inventor was Mir Ali Tabrizi, who was active in the second half of the 14th century. Nastaliq became the predominate style of Persian Calligraphy during the 15th and 16th centuries.
Another important aspect of Islamic Art, generally completely unknown, is it’s rich pictorial and iconographical tradition. The misconception that Islam was an iconaclastic or anti-image culture and that the representation of human beings or living creatures in general was prohibited, is still deeply rooted although the existence of figuative painting in Iran has been recognized now for almost half a century. There is no prohibition against the painting of pictures or the representation of living forms in Islam and there is no mention of it in the Koran (Qur’an).
Certain pronouncements attributed to the Prophet and carried in the Hadith (the collection of traditional sayings of the Prophet) have perhaps been interpreted as prohibition against artistic activity, although they are of purely religious significance. Whatever the reason, the fact remains that in practically no period of Islamic culture were figurative representation and painting suppressed, with the singular exception of the strictly religious sphere where idolatry was feared. Mosques and mausoleums are therefore without figurative representation. Elsewhere, imagery forms one of the most important elements and a multitude of other pictorial traditions were also assimilated during the long and complex history of Islamic Art.
That said, it is fair to say that other experts in Islamic art take a slightly narrower view. According to this view, because the creation of living things like humans and animals is regarded as being the role of God, Islam rightly discourages Islamic painters and sculptors from producing such figures. Although it is true that some figurative art can be seen in the Islamic world, it is mostly confined to the decoration of objects and secular buildings and the creation of miniature paintings. See also Mosaic Art.
Noted for its religious and civic architecture, such as The Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem (built by Abd al-Malik, 691) and the Great Mosque of Damascus (finished 715).
The Abbasid dynasty shifted the capital from Damascus to Baghdad – founded by al-Mansur in 762, the first major city entirely built by Muslims. The city became the new Islamic hub and symbolized the convergence of Eastern and Western art forms: Eastern inspiration from Iran, the Eurasian steppes, India and China; Western influence from Classical Antiquity and Byzantine Europe. Later, Samarra took over as the capital.
Abbasid architecture was noted for the desert Fortress of Al-Ukhaidir (c.775) 120 miles south of Baghdad, the Great Mosque of Samarra, the Mosque of Ibn Tulun in Cairo, Abu Dalaf in Iraq, the Great Mosque in Tunis, and the Great Mosque in Kairouan, Tunisia.
Other arts developed under the Abbasids included, textile silk art, wall painting and ancient pottery, notably the invention of lustre-ware (painting on the surface of the glaze with a metallic pigment or lustre). The latter technique was unique to Baghdad potters and ceramicists. Also, calligraphic decorations first began to appear on pottery during this period.
Parallel with the Abbasids in Iraq, descendants of the earlier Umayyad dynasty ruled Spain, with Cordoba becoming the second most important cultural centre of the Muslim world after Bagdad. Umayyad art and architecture in Spain was exemplified by the creation of the Great mosque of Cordoba. In particular, this region was noted for its fusion of classical Roman and Islamic architectural designs, and the general development of a Hispano-Islamic idiom in painting, relief sculpture, metal sculpture in the round, and decorative arts like ceramics.
Under the Fatimids, Egypt took the lead in the cultural life of western Islam. In the arts, this dynasty was noted for architectural structures like the al-Azhar Mosque and the al-Hakim Mosque of Cairo; ceramic art in the form of pottery decorated with figurative painting and ivory carving as well as relief sculpture and the emergence of the “infinite pattern” of abstract ornamentation. Fatimid art is particularly famous for applying designs to every kind of surface.
The struggle for power in Iran and the north of India, involving the Tahirids, Samanids, and Ghaznavids, was won by the Seljuk in the middle of the 11th century. In Islamic art, this dynasty was noted above all for its architecture and building designs, exemplified by the Masjid-i Jami in Isfahan, built by Malik Shah. Fundamental forms of architectural design are developed and permanently formulated for later periods. The most important were the court mosque and the madrasah, as well as forms for tomb towers and mausoleums. Figurative representation, along the lines of a Central Asian iconography, was also greatly expanded across the visual arts. The Seljuks also excelled at stone-carving, used in architectural ornamentation, as well as painted tiles and faience mosaics.
Despite the initial devastation caused by the Mongol armies, Islamic art of Western Asia was greatly enriched by direct contact with the culture of the Far East, represented by the Mongols. Notable works of Islamic architecture which have survived from this period include the tomb of Oljeitu (1304-17) in Soltaniyeh, and Masjid-i Jami Mosque of Taj al-din Ali Shah, in Tabriz, the Mongol capital. Also, the history of painting, miniatures and the art of the Persian book illumination was born during this era; the latter exemplified by the Manafi al-Hayawan (Usefulness of Animals) manuscript (1297), Firdusi’s Shah-nameh (Book of Kings) manuscript (c.1380) and the Jami al-tawarikh by Rashid al-Din. New techniques appeared in ceramic pottery, like the lajvardina (a variant of lustre-ware). Chinese influence is evident in all forms of visual arts. The Mongol period provided a lasting repertoire of decorative forms and ideas to the Islamic artists of the Timurid and Safavid periods in Iran, and to Ayyubid and Mamluk Syria and Egypt.
Many monumental stone works of Islamic architecture were created during this period include the Madrasah-Mausoleum of Sultan Hasan, Cairo (1356-63), the Madrasah-Mausoleum of Sultan Kalaun, Cairo (1284-5), and Kayt Bey’s Madrasah-Mausoleum (c.1460-70). Exteriors as well as interiors became richly decorated in a variety of media – plaster, relief carving, and decorative painting. Enameled glass and metalwork were also greatly developed (c.1250-1400). For example, the superb metal basin of Mamluk silver metalwork known as the “Baptistere de Saint Louis” (Syria, 1290-1310), is one of the greatest masterpieces of its type in Islamic art. Decorated on the outside with a central frieze of figures and two corresponding friezes of animals, it is also ornamented with elaborate hunting scenes on the inside. In general the Mamluk era is remembered as the golden age of medieval near Eastern Islamic culture.
The Nasrid dynasty, centred on their court in Granada, created a culture that attained a level of magnificence without parallel in Muslim Spain, recreating the glories of the first great Islamic period under Umayyad rule. Nasrid architecture led the way, exemplified by the Alhambra Palace in Granada (c.1333-91). In this building the fundamental elements of Islamic architecture and architectural design found their highest expression: for instance, the illusion of a building floating above ground. In decorative art, lustre-painting was greatly developed, as was textile weaving in gold brocade and embroidery.
Mongol rule in Iran was succeeded by that of Timur (Tamerlane) who came from south of Samarkand. Timurid architecture is exemplified by the mosques of Kernan (c.1349) and Yezd (c.1375), the Great Mosque of Samarkand (Bibi Khanum mosque) begun around 1400, the Gur-i Amir, Timur’s mausoleum in Samarkand (1405), and the Blue Mosque in Tabriz (1465). Architectural decoration employed polychrome faience to the greatest effect. In the other visual arts, Timurid painting introduced the concept of using the entire pictorial area, while illuminated manuscripts were produced in the “Imperial Timurid style”. Notable schools of Timurid painting sprang up in Shiraz, Herat and elsewhere. Herat produced a series of magnificent painted manuscripts, as well as a corresponding set of developments in the Islamic arts of calligraphy and book-binding. Stained glass art was also developed. In general, Timurid art may be seen as a refinement, even sublimation, of the basic ideals of eastern Islamic art.
With the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople, once the centre of Byzantium and the Eastern Roman Empire, the city once again became a focal point for western Islamic art and culture. Ottoman architecture is noted above all for the domed mosque. An early form was the Ulu Cami mosque, Bursa (c.1400); later Ottoman buildings by Islamic architects include: the Sulaymaniyeh Cami Mosque of Sultan Sulayman (begun 1550) and the Selimiyeh Cami mosque, Edirne (1567-74) – both designed by Sinan, the most celebrated of all Ottoman architects – the mosque of Sultan Ahmet I (known as “the Blue Mosque”) (1603-17), and the Sultan Ahmet Cami mosque (1609-16).
Advances in architectural decoration included a new style of floral polychrome designs in ceramic tilework and pottery (plus the discovery of the bright red pigment used in ceramics, known as Iznik red), while in painting, Ottoman artists developed a new canon of colour, composition and iconography. One of the most famous of Ottoman crafts was the knotted rug, which – in its use, form and decoration – embodied most of the salient elements of Muslim culture. Also, Ottoman calligraphers developed Diwani script, a new cursive style of Arabic calligraphy. Invented by Housam Roumi, it became highly popular under Suleyman I the Magnificent (152066).
In general, an important aspect of Ottoman art is its play on contrasts: between tectonic qualities and the dissolution of materials, between realistic forms with fine detail and “infinite pattern” abstraction.
In the late 16th century, the Safavid capital was established at Isfahan, in the heart of ancient Persia, where it became the centre of eastern Muslim art and culture for almost two centuries. Isfahan Safavid architecture is exemplified by the domed mosque of Shaykh Lutfullah (1603-18) and the Great Mosque of Shah Abbas (1612-20) (Masjid-i Shah). Advances in Safavid painting – including, brightly coloured stylized imagery as well as a highly realist style of figurative drawing – came predominantly from the schools of Tabriz, Herat, Bukhara and Kasvin. In the decorative arts, Safavid artists excelled in all areas of the book – like gilding, illumination, calligraphy and lacquer-painted leather bookbinding. Also in carpet-design, the Safavid period saw the replacement of Turkish abstract patterns by new floral and figurative designs. Also, advances were made in ceramic art, due in part to the influence of Chinese porcelain, during the era of Ming Dynasty Art (c.1368-1644).
Persian Safavid art is noted for its architecture, its decorative designwork (eg. knotted rugs, silk-weaving) and its figurative painting. The latter, in particular, gave rise to a richness and variety almost unparalleled in Islamic art, and led to the emergence of individual artists and the creation of personal styles.
Mughal Islamic Art in India
India fell under the rule of the Mughal emperors (Akbar, Jahangir and Shah Jahan) in the late 16th-century, giving rise to a unified Indian-Islamic culture. Mughal achievements in architecture include the domed Tomb of Humayun in Delhi (1565); the palace complex of Fatehpur Sikri (c.1575) built during the reign of Akbar; the mausoleum of Itmad al-Daula, Agra (1622-28); the great Red Fort complex near Agra (17th century) its Delhi Gate (1635) and its Pearl Mosque (1648); and the sublime Taj Mahal (1632-54), the famous tomb built by Emperor Shah Jahan to commemorate his favourite wife Mumtaz Mahal. The greatest Mughal stone masons were employed on the project. When they had finished, it is said that Jahan ordered the amputation of the chief mason’s hand to prevent replication of such exquisite work.
Influenced by Persian, Hindu painters and European painters, Mughal artists developed new forms of manuscript illumination, as exemplified by the sumptuous Dastan-i Amir Hamza (Hamza-nameh, 1575), the largest known Islamic manuscript, illustrated with full-page paintings, and Anwari’s Divan (1588).
The Mughal era of Asian art is also noted for its metalwork and goldsmithing (goldsmithery). Mughal rulers were especially fond of gold with niello and enamel decoration, silver and precious stones. This gave a considerable boost to the arts of jewellery and gemstone carving (especially of jade, jasper, and emeralds). NOTE: see also: Orientalist painting, a populist style of art which flourished in France during the 19th century.