Islamic art is a term that covers an enormous and rich body of work. It can describe art created in the service of Islam, but unlike Christian art, it isn't always religious. It can also include secular art produced in countries under Islamic influence. The religious aspects of Islamic art emphasize mosque architecture and calligraphy, especially that found in manuscripts of the Koran.
In the West, painting and sculpture are considered the highest art forms, but in Islamic cultures the decorative arts, such as illuminated manuscripts, glazed ceramics, woven textiles, and carpets, are paramount. The best-known forms of Islamic art share characteristics such as the bold use of color. Islam forbids the painting or drawing of people or animals that appear too lifelike because it is considered akin to idol worship. So surfaces are often covered with complex geometric patterns, suggesting unending repetition and the infinite nature of God.
The mosque, or masjid, is a unique symbol of Islam—the focal point of the community's social life and the center for prayer, politics, and education. Despite its grandeur and beauty, the mosque is considered a functional, not sacred, space.
There is no required design for a mosque, but all mosques contain some common symbolic and practical elements. They include a main hall, or musallah, where the prayers are performed; a tower, or minaret, where the muezzin makes the call to prayer five times a day; an area for ritual washing before prayer; a mihrab, usually an arched niche indicating the direction of Mecca; and a minbar, or elevated pulpit.
One of the important examples of mosque architecture is the Great Mosque of Kairouan in central Tunisia, pictured at right. The second-oldest mosque in Africa, it has served as the proto-type for many others. Founded in 670 and re-built several times, the structure is also known as the Mosque of Sidi Uqba for the famous conqueror Uqba ibn Nafi, who established the Arab-Muslim capital of Ifryqia.
Nasser Rabbat, the Aga Khan professor of Islamic architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, explains why this mosque is such a significant icon of Islamic art:
"It has a unique mihrab with lustre tiles imported from Baghdad and carved marble panels inside the niche. Later North African mosques would adopt the same placement of the minaret, on an almost even axis that leads to the mihrab. The mosque has a 'hypostyle' plan, which means the prayer hall is formed in rows of vertical supports or columns. The arcade of the facade is arranged to have three axes, one in the center, and the others in the center of two sides. This is an innovation that lends the facade a certain visual equilibrium."
The mosque is also distinguished by a T-shaped prayer hall, which became a staple in the design of later North African mosques. And it was one of the first mosques to celebrate the mihrab area by adding an elaborately carved dome with windows.
What the architecture tells us, Rabbat says, "is that Islamic culture, from the sixth century, when the mosque was built, up to the 11th century, was open minded and aware. The builders of this mosque had no compunction about borrowing materials, spatial design ideas, and architects." In other words, he says, "the early Muslims were much more informed about the classical culture of the Mediterranean than we usually give them credit for."
Because of the Koranic prohibition on the realistic depiction of figures, Muslims find creative expression in the shape of words or letters. Calligraphy—writing script in an artistic way—integrates scholarship and creativity and represents unity, beauty, and power. "Calligraphy is the most important art form," says Sheila Blair, Norma Jean Calderwood professor of Islamic and Asian art at Boston College. "Other than architecture, for many Muslims, it is the only art form."
Arabic script is an alphabet of 28 sounds that uses long, but not short, vowels. The letters come from 18 different forms, distinguished only by a dot or dots placed above or below the letter. Short vowels are indicated by small diagonal and hook-shaped strokes above or below letters.
"In Islamic calligraphy, the point is not to show traces of hand movement. The writing should look infinite, immutable, and reflect the divine," says Blair. "There is no quiver of the pen, only smooth, undulating lines."