IIslam and Islamic art - Islam is the religion of Muslims, based upon the submission of the faithful to the will of Allah (the only God) as this was revealed in CE 610 by the angel Gabriel to the Prophet Mohammed (Arabian, 570?-632) in a cave near Mecca, in what is now Saudi Arabia. Mohammed recorded these revelations in the Koran (or Qu'ran ) — Islam's holiest book. Muslims believe that Muhammad is the last in a line of prophets that includes Moses, Abraham, and Jesus Christ. Today, one fifth of the world's population believes in Islam. The adjectival form is Islamic.

Of all the visual arts, calligraphy has been most highly regarded as a fine art by Muslims. The Arabic alphabet in various scripts, generally in combination with arabesque ornament, became the most prized decoration for architecture and other functional works, such as furniture, textiles, and vessels. Indeed, with the exception of poets and calligraphers, Muslims have never looked to artists for special insights or meanings. They have regarded the arts primarily as the decorative arts, based greatly upon the study of mathematics, and involving intricately geometric designs.

Islamic houses of worship are known in the west as mosques. Some features of a mosque are the dikka, mihrab, and minbar, and minaret (a tower).

The absence of figures is a characteristic feature of Islamic religious art. It is occasionally said that figures were banned in Islam from the start, but this is untrue. The Koran has very little to say on the subject. Muslims believe that God is unique and without associates and therefore that he cannot be represented. He is worshipped directly without intercessors, so there is no place for images of saints. Since the Koran has little in the way of narrative, there was little reason to present stories in religious art, and in time this absence of opportunity hardened into law.

Making generalizations about the visual culture of any group of people is a crude endeavor, especially with a culture as diverse as Islam's. With this thought in mind, know that this survey, as any must be, is tremendously limited in its breadth and depth.

"Islam" and "Islamism" are not the same. Islamism is a contemporary totalitarian ideology whose aim is to install autocratic, anti-Western theocracies in their otherwise secular countries. See political note.

(Some dates are given below as A.H. employing the Islamic calendar. Unless noted as A.H., however, dates noted below were calculated by employing the Christian calendar.)


Examples of Islamic art:





see thumbnail to leftMaster Suleiman (Iranian, Abbasid caliphate), Aquamanile in the Form of an Eagle, 180 A.H. / CE 796-797, bronze, silver, copper, 38 x 45 cm, Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia. An aquamanile was used for water. This one originally had a handle on its top.



Transoxonia (Kazakhstan?), Nishapur, 10th century, Science Dish, earthenware coated with black slip decoration on a white slip under a transparent glaze, Louvre. The raised rim of this plate was decorated with an elegant calligraphy an aphorism: "Science, its taste is bitter at the beginning but, at the end, sweeter than honey. Blessing." See circle and vessel.




see thumbnail to rightHypostyle Hall of the Great Mosque of Córdoba, Spain, begun 786, doubled in area in the 10th century to 585 x 410 feet, with 1,200 columns supporting horseshoe arches, patterned with colored marbles and other stones. Although it was converted into Córdoba's Roman Catholic cathedral in 1238, the building is known locally as La Mezquita — The Mosque. See an aerial view of La Mezquita, showing the Christian alterations. See aerial view and hypostyle hall.




Persia (Iran), Isphahan?, 1144-1145, signed by Yunus Ibn al-Husayn al-Asturlabi, Celestial Sphere, cast copper alloy, engraved and silver-encrusted, Louvre.





see thumbnail to leftAli ibn Muhhamad ibn Abu'l-Qasim an-naqqash (Persian / Iranian), Aquamanile in the Form of a Cow with its Calf, CE 1206, bronze, silver, height 35 cm, Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia. See aquamanile.





see thumbnail to rightSyria, mid-13th century, Tray, bronze, silver incrustation, diameter 43.1 cm, Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia.



see thumbnail to leftAnatolia (eastern Turkey), Candlestick, mid- to late 13th century, bronze, engraved and inlaid with gold and silver, Worcester Art Museum, MA.




see thumbnail to rightAttributed to Egypt or Syria, Mamluk, Mosque lamp, late 13th century (before 1285), free blown, tooled, enameled, and gilded glass, 16 15/16 x 29 15/16 x 32 5/16 inches (43 x 76 x 82 cm), Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY.




see thumbnail to leftPersia (Iran), Mihrab from the Madrasa Imami in Isfahan, 755 A.H. / c. CE 1354, mosaic of monochrome-glaze tiles on composite body set on plaster, 11 feet 3 inches x 7 feet 6 inches (343.1 x 288.7 cm), Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY. See mihrab.



Egypt, Glass Lamp, mid-14th century, glass, enamel, gilt, Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia.





see thumbnail to rightPersia (Iran), Khusraw Observes Shirin Bathing, miniature from the manuscript Khamsa by Nizami, 1431, paper, gouache, gold, 23.7 x 13.7 cm, Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia.





see thumbnail to leftTurkey, Dragon and Phoenix Carpet, beginning of the 15th century, wool, Museum for Islamic Art, Berlin. This East Asian dragon and a Phoenix motif arrived in Asia Minor with the arrival of Mongolian marauders. See textile.



see thumbnail to rightKach'atur, illustrator, and Yohannes, scribe (priests in Khizan, Byzantine Greater Armenia), The Gospels, 1455, tempera and black ink on paper, 27.5 x 18 cm (10 7/8 x 7 1/8 inches), Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, MD. This Christian book was illuminated at a time when the Timurids -- an Islamic sultanate -- were in power in this region. Christian Constantinople itself had been conquered in 1453. Although the iconography is within Christian traditions, much of the patterning and costume here reflect the taste of the Timurids. The dramatic gestures of the figures in the narrative, the background details, the serpentine, almost abstract line of the drapery folds, the pattern of the wings, and Christ walking in pants with yellow boots -- all are more closely allied to the taste of the Islamic world in which the Armenians of Khizan lived.





see thumbnail to leftPersia (Iran), Dish, 1473-1474, fritware, height 9.2 cm, diameter 35 cm, Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia.



Persia (Iran), Nishapur, Blue Plate, 885 A.H. / CE 1480-81, underglaze-painted fritware, diameter 14 3/4 inches (37.5 cm), Walters Art Gallery, Baltimore, MD.



see thumbnail to rightPersia (Iran), Gilan, Kai Khusraw Giving His Testament from the Shahnama of Firdausi, 1494, opaque watercolor on paper, calligraphy in nastaliq script with chapter heading in naskh, Worcester Art Museum, MA.






see thumbnail to leftPersia (Iran) or central Asia, Mihrab, late fifteenth or sixteenth century, glazed ceramic tile, 106 1/2 x 89 inches (270.5 x 226.1 cm), Cincinnati Art Museum, OH. See mihrab.



Turkey, Iznik, second quarter of the 16th century, Peacock Plate, silicious ceramic with under-glaze painted decoration, height 8 cm, diameter 37.5 cm, Louvre.



see thumbnail to leftPersia (Iran), Tabriz or Qasvin, Safavid dynasty, The Prophet Zakariya in the Tree, from a Falnama, c. 1550, opaque watercolor on paper; calligraphy on reverse in nastaliq script, Worcester Art Museum, MA.





see thumbnail to rightTurkey, Pile Carpet, second half of the 16th century, wool, 331 x 188 cm, Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia.




see thumbnail to leftIndia, Mughal dynasty, A Lady and a Gentleman Converse, from the Tuti-Nama, c. 1580, opaque watercolor on paper, heightened with gold; mounted on a later album page; Persian text in nastaliq script; chapter heading in kufic script, Worcester Art Museum, MA. See calligraphy and Mughal dynasty.





see thumbnail to rightRiza-i Abbasi (Persian / Iranian), A Convivial Party, 1612, paper, gouache, gold, Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia. See miniature.






see thumbnail to leftMughal Emperor Shah Jahan (Indian, reigned 1627-1658), Taj Mahal, 1630-1653, an Islamic tomb in a walled garden built for Shah Jahan's wife Mumatz Mahal [aka Arjuman Banu Begum], of bearing masonry and inlaid marble, with onion-shape domes and flanking towers, in Agra, India, seat of the Mughal Empire. Sir Banister Fletcher wrote in A History of Architecture, "The interior of the building is dimly lit through pierced marble lattices and contains a virtuoso display of carved marble. Externally the building gains an ethereal quality from its marble facings, which respond with extraordinary subtlety to changing light and weather." See Mughal dynasty and openwork.


Persia (Iran), Kashan?, 16th century, , silk, asymmetric knots, Louvre.




see thumbnail to rightPersia (Iran), Kashan?, Safavid, Kashan Carpet, second half of the 16th century, silk, pile weave, silk pile on silk foundation, 508 asymmetrical knots per square inch, 7 feet 10 inches x 5 feet 10 inches (241 x 178 cm), Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY.



see thumbnail to leftAttributed to Shaykh Muhammad (Persian / Iranian, active second half of 16th century), Weeping Man Drying His Eyes, third quarter of 16th century, ink drawing on paper, signature of Bihzad and date 892 A.H. (1486 CE) added later, Worcester Art Museum, MA.



see thumbnail to rightBursa or Istanbul, Turkey, Ottoman, Prayer Carpet, late 16th century, wool, cotton, and silk, pile weave, 288 asymmetrical knots per square inch, 68 x 50 inches (172.72 x 127 cm), Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY.



Persia (Iran), 17th century, Fragment of A Dress or Furnishing Fabric , polychrome silk and silver on a white silk core, brocaded compound weave, 59 1/2 x 20 1/2 inches (151.1 x 52.1 cm), Los Angeles County Museum of Art. See costume and fragment.







see thumbnail to leftAttributed to Damascus, Syria, Ottoman, Nur al-Din Room, period room, dated 1119 A.H. / CE 1707, wood, marble, stucco, glass, mother-of-pearl, ceramics, tile, stone, iron, color, gold, 22 feet 1/2 inches x 16 feet 8 1/2 inches x 26 feet 4 3/4 inches (671.6 x 509.2 x 804.2 cm), Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY.





see thumbnail to rightMihr Ali (Persian / Iranian), Portrait of Fath Ali Shah Seated, 1229 A.H. / CE 1813-1814, oil on canvas, Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia. See portrait.




see thumbnail to leftIbrahim El Salahi (Sudanese, 1930-), Jubba, 1990s?, British Museum, London.


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A political-lexical note:

"Islam" and "Islamism" are not the same. Islam is a religious faith now practised by over a billion Muslims. Islamism is a 20th century xenophobic and totalitarian ideology whose aim is to install autocratic, anti-Western theocracies in otherwise secular countries. To date, Islamism has created militant regimes in Iran and Sudan, and formerly in Afghanistan. In each of these cases, whether they used peaceful or violent methods, once they achieved power, Islamists have rejected democracy, opposed other theological and intellectual views, restricted rights for women and religious minorities, ruined the economies of their countries and opposed world Israel, world Jewry, and the West. There are numerous examples too of militant Islamic vandalism of non-Islamic art.

It cannot be too greatly emphasized that there is a huge difference between Islam and Islamism. The great difficulty in appreciating this distinction comes with the further observation that all Islamists are Muslims, and that a significant number of moderate Muslims have been complicit in the rise of Islamism.

This understanding does not absolve militants of any other sort, except in the right to self-defence. Thus can many tragedies result.




Also see aniconic, dikka, ethnic, flag, iconoduly, khutbah, madrasa, mathematics and art, Mughal dynasty, orientalism, philately, plaque, reliquary, qiblah, and Sri Lankan art.





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