Since Islam is not just a religion but a way of life, it managed to develop a distinctive culture with its own unique artistic language that is reflected in the art and architecture throughout the Muslim world.
While labels like Christian, Jewish and Buddhist art refer only to art created for religious purpose in a particular faith, the term “Islamic art” refers to any piece of art produced in the Islamic world, be it religious or secular.
The very first examples of Islamic art reflect a small tint of Byzantine and Persian influence in terms of styles, techniques and forms. As the Muslims liberated the world from Byzantine and Persian influence, a unique Islamic form of art emerged. The rule of the Umayyad Caliphate (661–750 CE) is considered to be the nascent period of Islamic art.
Islamic art witnessed a whole range of variations across different regions and periods in which it developed, yet it remarkably retained an intrinsic quality and unique identity. These unifying and identifying characteristics of the Islamic art are embodiments of the essence of Islam which is considered not just a religion but a way of life, serving as a cohesive force uniting its ethnically and culturally diverse followers.
This feature can be seen in The Great Masjid of Xian, China, which is one of the oldest and best preserved masjids in China. First constructed in 742 CE, the masjid’s current form dates to the fifteenth century CE, and resembles a synthesis of local traditions and global ideas.
While Islamic art does not really include representations of humans or animals (since depiction of the human form is obvious idolatry), human figures are often spotted in Islamic art pieces. However, such figurative art is seen only in private and secular entities, not masjids, etc.
Islamic art consists of four major components:
The use of calligraphic design is paramount in Islamic art. Calligraphers were regarded as having the highest status amongst all artists because this technique was associated with the transcribing of the Quran. However, the use of calligraphy was not just restricted to quoting the Quran, but also included quoting other texts, verses of poetry, praise for rulers, or to record ownership.
The use of calligraphy in Islamic art can be spotted in the East Persian pottery from the 9th to 11th centuries, which were decorated only with highly stylized inscriptions. Many prominent buildings contain large inscriptions made from tiles, sometimes with the letters raised in relief, or the background cut away. Textiles, wood ware, metal works, enameled glass and coins were all adorned with calligraphy.
Calligraphy in itself is too big a topic that commands an article of its own, so we will leave that discussion for later.
2. Geometric Patterns
While many other art forms also use geometric patterns, it were the Muslims who pioneered the use of geometry in art and design. The best known example of this is the complex star pattern, which is an 8 sided star, found in every region of the Islamic world. Patterns might be incised into walls, formed from mosaics, or built out of latticework.
Arab mathematicians were interested in geometry, and they undoubtedly influenced the evolution of geometric patterns in Islamic art.
Geometric and vegetative motifs are very popular throughout the lands where Islam was once or still is a major religion and cultural force, appearing in the private palaces of buildings such as the Alhambra (in Spain) as well as in the detailed metal work of Safavid Iran.
3. Botanical Ornaments
Like geometric patterns, the use of plant and floral motives in decorations is also common in the Islamic art. Islamic artists evolved their own abstract style of intertwining vines called “arabesque”.
Vegetal ornamentation is frequently used in the famous rugs and carpets of the Islamic world. The complex forms require great artistic skill and thus serve to demonstrate the status of the patron.
4. Figural Representations
Although prohibited by the Hadith, the interpretation of figurative art varied across the Islamic world. While the above three components were used to decorate religious art and architecture, use of figural art was restricted to secular architecture and textiles.
However, figures were typically used as ornamental additions and nothing else; an exception was made for illuminated manuscripts, in which rich miniature paintings accompanied texts. The largest commissions of illustrated books were usually classics of Persian poetry, such as the epic Shahnamah. The Mughals and Ottomans also produced lavish manuscripts of historical merit.
Portraits of rulers developed in the 16th century and soon became very popular. While Mughal portraits, normally in profile, were very finely drawn in a realist style, the portraits of the Ottomans were vigorously stylized. Album miniatures typically contained picnic scenes, portraits of individuals or animals, or idealized youthful beauties of either gender.
The study of the Islamic style of art has lagged behind in the field of art history due to many reasons: at times, art historians are biased against Islamic art, whereas at other times, the linguistic barrier comes into play, since not every Western art historian is well versed in Arabic and Persian.
Also, the art forms and objects prized in the Islamic world do not correspond to those traditionally valued by art historians and collectors in the Western world. Pieces like carpets, ceramics, metalwork, and books are types of art that Western scholars have traditionally valued less than paintings and sculptures.
However, the last few years have witnessed a rise in interest in the study of Islamic art. Hopefully, this trend will continue, and the world will truly realize the worth and beauty of Islamic art.