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."
Muslim calligraphers often take as their subject matter verses of the Koran. One of the largest and fanciest copies ever made of the text is the work shown on Page 45. It was copied by Ahmad al-Suhrawardi and illuminated by Muhammad ibn Abdallah between 1302 and 1308 in Baghdad. As with other elaborate manuscripts, it was made in 30 volumes so one part could be read each day of the month of Ramadan. The calligrapher, one of the most famous of his day, toiled with the illuminator for six years to produce the work. Notably, they used few lines of text per page. "[It is] a conspicuous waste of space, or showing off, by leaving lots of blank paper," says Blair. "The ink is black and carbon based, and the large, smooth paper is some of the finest ever produced."
Blair says the page was saved for the gold and the signature of the calligrapher. "It reflects a reverence for religion. . . . The writing looks flawless," Blair says. For colors, the artists have used a brilliant blue lapis ground up to make ultramarine—the most expensive pigment next to gold.
The page also represents a unique period in Islamic history, reflecting the polyglot culture of the 14th century. "There's a Mongol ruler who speaks Mongolian, his court speaks Persian, and he's commissioning a manuscript in Arabic. And at the time, the prime minister [who oversaw the production of the manuscript] was a converted Jew."
Many of the loveli-est artifacts from Islamic life that are now found behind glass cases in museums were not commissioned by royal patrons. Carefully decorated and embellished, these pots, bowls, and tiles were ordinary objects that served daily middle-class needs.
In Islamic society, locally produced ceramics never attained the high status of imported Chinese ceramics, says Tim Stanley, senior curator for the Middle East at London's Victoria and Albert Museum. But in the case of Iznik pottery, he says, the patronage of a powerful ruler influenced the art. In the late 1400s, Ottoman sultan Mehmet the Conqueror began to invest in ceramics for his court, leading to a vast improvement in the quality of pottery. In the town of Iznik, craftspeople began making earthenware that imitated Chinese porcelain. By the end of the 15th century, Iznik potters were creating white ceramic "fritware," made from finely ground pebbles and sand, which looked like porcelain. The new material led to vessels of remarkable size and refinement, and they are now considered one of the highest achievements of Islamic art.
"Ottoman artisans could produce extremely large, technically proficient objects, which were beautifully decorated in accomplished patterns," says Stanley.
In the early 16th century, potters expanded their use of colors to shades of blue, green, and purple, set off by a brilliant white ground. Later, the colors increased in clarity and expanded to include a vibrant red, obtained by using special clay, diluted and applied to the ceramics before glazing and firing.
The use of the bowl pictured at left is unknown. It has no religious significance, although people may have used it to wash before prayers or before or after meals. The plate below shows the remarkable colors created by 16th-century artisans.
By the beginning of the 18th century, the ceramics industry in Iznik was in collapse, and ceramics produced in Europe started to set artistic trends.
Perhaps nothing is more emblematic of Islamic art than the hand-knotted Orien-tal rug. Carpet-weaving in the Islamic world is practiced in all levels of society, from nomadic tents and village cottages to urban workshops and specialized ateliers. No one knows exactly when the first rug was woven, but a popular theory is that nomadic tribes of Central Asia began knotting carpets as early as the fourth century. The nomads made small rugs, which they used for floor coverings, curtains, and saddlebags. They then spread their art to Turkey, Persia, Pakistan, China, and elsewhere.
The design of a carpet can show where and when it was made. Persia and India are known for floral patterns. Geometric designs often denote Caucasian and Turkish rugs. Plants, flowers, and geometric patterns are symbolic, and rug merchants say the endless knot represents wisdom and immortality.
Walter Denny, who teaches art history and Middle Eastern studies at the University of Massachusetts, says the two prayer rugs above tell an interesting story. Each depicts a triple-arched gateway with pairs of columns, evoking the entry to paradise. Each carpet was created as an artwork and a practical object, he says, but under vastly different circumstances.
An artist in Istanbul designed the earlier carpet (left), with its hanging lamp (symbolizing God's light) and borders of sickle-shaped leaves and various flowers. The artist of the later carpet, from a village in central Turkey, created her design as she wove. She simplified the forms of the earlier carpet, followed the geometry of the loom, and used brilliant colors and a longer pile. The pile surface of each carpet was woven with tiny knots of colored wool. The earlier carpet has a finer weave; the newer rug has more intense colors, and its pile was originally thicker.
"Using the same basic design format, the artist of each carpet used color, line, geometry, and symbolism in different ways," says Denny. "Each carpet is a masterpiece of its type—with its own vision both of art and of paradise."