Introduction to Islamic Art
You see it in the vivid blues and golds of Jerusalem’s Dome of the Rock, the magnificent, brilliantly white marble of the Taj Mahal, and the way the sunlight filters in through the elaborate stucco arches of the Alhambra. What could these spectacular—and spectacularly different—structures possibly have in common? They all fit under the heading, Islamic art.
So, What Makes Art ‘Islamic’?
The umbrella term, ‘Islamic art’ defies simple definition and has been contested by scholars since it came into use. For one thing, the term ‘Islamic’ refers to a religion. But the art itself is not always created for religious purposes nor can it necessarily be considered a reflection of the religion. Even the word ‘art’ is problematic. In the Western lexicon, the word art tends to conjure up notions of paintings and sculptures. Islamic art tends more toward architecture and day-to-day objects such as ceramic plates, inlaid metal bowls, woven carpets, hand-blown glass lamps, illuminated manuscripts, and carved wooden boxes that, in the West, might be categorized as craft or decorative art.
Broadly speaking, Islamic art is typically thought to be art that was created by Islamic artists or artisans, created for patrons in predominantly Muslim regions, or created for a particular Muslim population. Islam has spread over vast area, from Spain to China and beyond and now accounts for about one-quarter of the world's population and the art discussed below generally covers the period from the seventh to the nineteenth centuries, roughly 1300 years.
So how can we possibly discuss a field that encompasses such a broad range of objects, eras and cultures. It’s a daunting task, certainly, but we can simplify it by recognizing the three major aspects found in Islamic art, at least one of which is found in virtually every work under this heading.
The written word has always been of central importance to the Islamic faith. Indeed, the earliest pages of the Koran glorify the pen and the writer. In the Islamic tradition the faithful do not consider the Koran merely a holy book; the Koran is believed to be the word of God. It is only fitting, then, that writing, or calligraphy, would become a prominent aspect of Islamic aesthetics and that Korans themselves would be written in a style worthy of the Almighty. Writing also became important as a mode of decoration or illustration, since human figures were generally prohibited on objects created for religious purposes (this does not mean, however, that figures do not appear in secular Islamic art).
Samanid Bowl with Kufic inscription, possibly Iran, 10th century (Brooklyn Museum)
Over the centuries, various styles of script emerged, but the earliest and simplest of these was Kufic, originating in 7th-century Kufa (in present-day Iraq). Kufic script began with simple elegant forms but evolved to include variations in the proportion between horizontal and vertical elements. Because Arabic has no vowels and the words are written without spaces between them, early scripts were often hard to read. Calligraphers gradually developed systems of diacritical marks to aid in pronunciation and decorated medallions that demarcated sentences or chapters. It was in the 10th century that Muhammad Ibn Muqla established a system for writing beautiful rounded letters using a system of proportion of squares based on the width of the pen nib. These scripts enliven Koran manuscripts, everyday objects such as ceramic and metal-ware, and on architecture, as seen below at the Qutub Minar in India.
Qutub Minar complex, 12th century, Delhi, India
The reliance on proportion in calligraphy points to significance of mathematics in Islamic culture. Scholars have historically held mathematics and science in high regard. In fact, if Islamic scholars had not translated ancient Greek texts, many would now be lost to us. It was thought that God’s creation in nature was revealed through the study of mathematics and geometry in particular. And the early Arabs believed that the creation of beautifully organized geometric patterns could bring one closer to the Divine.
Tile work on wall, 16th century, Saadian Tombs, Marrakech, Morocco
This reverence for geometry is clearly exemplified in the mosaic tile work of the Middle East and the Maghreb (areas of North Africa and Spain). Patterns often consisted of interlocking shapes radiating out from a central star shape. While visually dazzling, these designs also betray a sophisticated grasp of mathematics. In the last decade it was revealed that such complicated patterns demonstrate knowledge of principles previously thought to have been ‘discovered’ in the late 20th century. This intimate knowledge of geometric principles is at the heart of Islamic design and is manifested in creations that are orderly, balanced and beautifully harmonious.
An emphasis on geometric aesthetics does not mean that all Islamic design was rigid and linear. In the earliest Islamic art objects and structures, there is a parallel emphasis on vegetal motifs, curling vines and scalloped floral motifs that verge on the arabesque (curved, almost abstracted shapes). These scrolling designs can be seen on ceramic tiles, metalwork, and illuminated manuscripts, but are perhaps best embodied in the woven carpets that become essential for Silk Road trade.
16th century Iznik tiles from Turkey, Dome of the Rock, 7th century, Jerusalem, Israel
Such vegetal motifs appear on the walls of the Dome of the Rock, the earliest still extant Islamic building. While many of the tiles that now adorn the outside were a later Turkish addition, the original mosaics on the interior walls, as well as those of other early Islamic structures, depicted scenes of lush gardens thought to be visions of Paradise. Such scenes of green gardens and verdant vegetation would surely have captured the imagination of a desert-dwelling population (water became central to the religion for the same reason). Floral motifs remain a constant presence, appearing in numerous variations that develop into the form of the arabesque and, some might say, abstraction.
Mirador de Lindaraja, Alhambra, 14th century, Granada, Spain
Text and photography by Glenna Barlow
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