Introduction to Islamic Art

One area where the genius of the Muslim civilisation has been recognised worldwide is that of art. The artists of the Islamic world adapted their creativity to evoke their inner beliefs in a series of abstract forms, producing some amazing works of art. Rejecting the depiction of living forms, these artists progressively established a new style substantially deviating from the Roman and Byzantine art of their time. In the mind of these artists, works of art are very much connected to ways of transmitting the message of Islam rather than the material form used in other cultures. This article briefly examines the meaning and character of art in Islamic culture and explores its main decorative forms-floral, geometrical, and calligraphic. Finally, it looks at the influence of the art developed in the world of Islam on the art of other cultures, particularly that of Europe.

+ Click to read the full article
- Click to close

Rabah Saoud*

Table of contents

1. Introduction
2. Comparison with Byzantine Art
3. Sources of the Islamic Art
4. The Nature and Form in Islamic Art
5. Vegetal and Floral art
6. Geometrical Art
7. Calligraphy
8. Influence of Islamic Art in the West
9. Conclusion
10. References


Note of the editor
This article was first published in July 2004. It is edited here in HTML, with revision. © FSTC 2004-2010.


1. Introduction

The art of Islam has attracted the attention of a number of Western scholars [1] who gained good reputations because of their contributions to the study and publicising of the field. Despite this positive aspect, their work contained an element of prejudice as they repeatedly applied their Western norms and criteria to their evaluation of the art produced in Islamic history. In their views, far from contributing to the arts of its society, Islam has restricted, diminished and undervalued artistic creativity. Islam is seen as obstructive and limiting to artistic talent and its art is often judged by its incapacity to produce figures and natural and dramatic scenes. Such arguments illustrate a serious misperception of Islam and its attitude to art. The view that Islam promotes harsh and simple living and rejects sophistication and comfort is an accusation often made by orientalist academics. This false claim is rejected by both the Qur'an and the example of Prophet Muhammad. The Qur'an, for example, permits comfortable living if it does not lead the believer astray:

"Say, who is there to forbid the beauty which God has brought forth for his servants, and the good things from among the means of sustenance" (Qur'an 7:32).

This message is emphasised again in another verse:

"O you who believe! Do not deprive yourselves of the good things of life which Allah has permitted you, but do not transgress, for Allah does not love those who transgress." (Qur'an 5:87).

The authentic saying of Prophet Muhammad which was narrated by Al-Boukhari:

"Allah is beautiful and loves beauty."

This is perhaps the clearest translation of the position of Islam towards art. Beauty, in Islam, is a quality of the divine. The great scholar Al-Ghazali (1058-1128) considered it to be based on two main criteria involving the prefect proportion and the luminosity, encompassing both outer and inner parts of things, animals and humans.

The other determinant factor influencing Western scholars' views on Islamic art is connected to the Greek-influenced approach which considers the image of man as the source of artistic creativity. Thus, portraits and sculptures of man were seen as the highest work of art. According to this view, man is nature's most magnificent and most beautiful creature and should be both the start and destination of human artistic endeavour. Successful works of art are those which explore the inner depth and external physical appearance of the human body. Perhaps the highest position given to man, in this art, is when divine beings are represented in his form, or when he is represented as being created in the image of the Deity. Islamic art, however, has a radically different outlook. Here, man is seen as an instrument of divinity created by a supremely powerful Being, Allah.

2. Comparison with Byzantine Art

Byzantine art was fundamentally based on the incorporation of Christian themes into Greek humanism and naturalism. Together, these concepts symbolised and reflected divinity. Man and nature were seen as the image of the divine. This new figurative art was not seeking the aesthetic per se, as in the Greek tradition, but striving to translate concepts in Christian belief such as salvation and sacrifice.

As they do with many fields, Western scholars often relate Islamic art to Greek and Byzantine origins, claiming that the artists of the Muslim world only imitated or borrowed from these two cultures their art and reproduced it in a Muslim "dress" of Arabesque and calligraphy. Byzantine inspiration started in the early stages of the Muslim Caliphate when the Umayyad Caliphs Abd-al-Malik [2] and Al-Walid I [3] sent for Byzantine artists to decorate the Dome of the Rock (691-92) and the Great Umayyad Mosque of Damascus (705-714). Byzantine influence is seen in the iconographic themes in the Dome of the Rock, as reflected in the mosaics of crowns and jewels of that mosque, which Grabar (1973) believed were emulating Byzantine symbols of power. These decorations were symbols of holiness, power and sovereignty in Byzantine art. Pursuing this theme, he says:

"In other words, the decoration of the Dome of the Rock witnesses a conscious use by the decorators of this Islamic sanctuary of representations of symbols belonging to the subdued orto the stillactive enemies of Islam" (Grabar 1973, p. 48).

Yet, Grabar later admits that the Arabs, both before and after Islam, used to offer their precious belongings, including crowns, to the Kaabah and hang them there [4].

In relation to vegetal representations, in Grabar's view, once again the artists of Islam seem to borrow from Byzantine depictions of heaven as if they lacked any knowledge or literary description of it. He claims that Byzantine art was so complete and superior that the Muslims had to emulate it. Faced with the question of why the Muslims did not adopt figurative art, Grabar argued that they had to give it up due to the superiority of the Byzantine art which they could not compete with. He says that:

"the Umayyads could hardly in one generation acquire the sophisticated practice of imagery which characterised Byzantium. Faced with this dilemma, the Muslims tried both alternatives, but soon discarded imagery, and, as we have seen adopted the techniques of Byzantium without its formulas".

Grabar clearly disregarded the opposition of Islam to imagery, which is exemplified in a number of the Prophet Muhammad sayings (see below).

Von Grunedaum (1955) provided a more comprehensive view arguing that the lack of imagery was due to the position of man in the Islamic religion. An important aspect of Muslim theology was the prominence of the attributes separating God, the Creator, and man, his favourite creature. Man is guided by and subject to his fate and therefore cannot reach the position of God, which other religions say he can attain. The fundamental principles of art in Islamic culture are the declared truths that there is "no god but God" and "nothing is like unto Him"; His realm is neither space nor time and He is known by ninety nine attributes, including the First and the Last, and the Seen and the Unseen, and the All-Knowing:

Allah! There is no god but He, the Living, the Self-subsisting' Eternal. No slumber can seize Him nor sleep. His are all things in the heavens and on earth. Who is there that can intercede in His presence except as He permits? He knows what (appears to His creatures) before or after or behind them. Nor shall they compass aught of His knowledge except as He will. His Throne doth extend over the heavens and the earth, and He feels no fatigue in guarding and preserving them for He is the Most High, the Supreme (in glory) (Qur'an2:255).

This is perhaps the main division in the philosophy and approach towards art between the Muslims and non-Muslims. With this approach, Islamic art did not need any figurative representation of these concepts. How can he depict God if he believes that He is the Unseen and nothing is like unto Him? Any artistic expression of these, either in natural or human forms, would undermine the meanings and the essence of the Muslim faith. Consequently, artists engaged in expressing this truth in a sophisticated system of geometric, vegetal and calligraphic patterns (Al-Faruqi, 1973). Islam was the only religion that did not need figurative art and imagery to establish its concepts (Von Grunedaum, 1955).

3. Sources of Islamic Art

Like other aspects of Islamic culture, Islamic art was a result of the accumulated knowledge of local environments [5] and societies, incorporating Arabic, Persian, Mesopotamian and African traditions, in addition to Byzantine inspirations. Islam built on this knowledge and developed its own unique style, inspired by three main elements.

The Qur'an is seen as the first work of art in Islam and its chef-d'oeuvre (Al-Faruqi, 1973). The independence of some verses and the interrelation of others form extraordinary meanings as each verse takes the reader into a unique divine experience feeling its joy and happiness, terror and fearfulness, bliss and anger, and so on. The constant repetition of these experiences in the verses of the Qur'an "winds up consciousness and generates in it a momentum which launches it on a continuation or repetition and infinitum" (Al-Faruqi 1973, p.95). The final outcome of this experience makes the reader feel the presence of God as described in the verse:

"when the verses of the Beneficent are recited unto them, they fall down prostrate in adoration and tears" (Qur'an 19:58).

As a result, artists drew lessons and methods from their experience of the Qur'an, developing a new approach to art characterised by the independence and interdependence of its formative elements. The emphasis was on the presence and attributes of the divine Creator rather than on His creatures, including man. Islam sees all men equal regardless of colour or form (perfect or imperfect). The only distinction between them is made on the basis of their piety. Consequently, Islam sees the white-skinned and fair-haired ideal of man promoted by Western art as racial and misleading.

The second element comes from the Qur'anic verses which criticises poets as:

"As for the poets, the erring follow them. Have you not seen how they wander distracted in every valley? And how they say what they practice not? (Qur'an 26:224-26).

This formula regulates the approach of artists, writers and professionals. Islam only approves work from

"those who believe, do good work, and engage much in the remembrance of Allah" (Qur'an 26:227).

With this background, the artist's work was guided by this criterion and was always connected to the remembrance of God whether it was in ceramics, textile, leather or iron work or wall decoration. The ways this remembrance was expressed was, of course, many. Artists worked with many different materials, from ceramic to iron, and their artistic style took many forms, such as Arabesque designs, geometrical patterns and calligraphy.

The third decisive factor dictating the nature of art in Islamic culture is the religious rule that discourages the depiction of human or animal forms [6]. The presence of this rule is due to a concern that people would go back to the worship of idols and figures, a practice that is strongly condemned by Islam. In the early days of Islam, sculpture and imagery were seen as reminders of the despised idolatrous past. Today, the majority of Muslims still respect this rule and their attitude extends to dislike the excessive "body worship" practised in the West. The latter can be seen in the revival of Islamic dress among educated Muslim women and in their avoidance of the excessive use of make-up.

Furthermore, Islam is free from metaphysical arguments such as those relating to the trinity, the true nature of Christ, the Holy Spirit and saints hierarchy, as found in Christianity. Consequently, there was no need in the mosque for apses, transepts, crypts as well as images and sculptures of saints, angels and martyrs that played a prominent part in didactic art in Christian churches. Nevertheless, there were some instances where human and animal forms were used in Islamic art, but these were mainly found in secular private buildings of some princes and wealthy patrons. Discoveries made in the Qasre Amra palace, built by the Umayyad Caliph Al-Walid I (705-715) in the Jordanian desert, revealed large illustrations of hunting scenes, gymnastic exercises, and symbolic figures. The most important of these were illustrations depicting the main enemies of Islam, Kaisar (the Byzantine Emperor), Roderick (the Visigoth King of Spain), and Khosrow (the Emperor of Persia). There was also an illustration of the Negus, the Abyssinian king, who gave the Muslims refuge when they were being prosecuted in Mecca in the early days of Islam [7] (Creswell 1958, p.92).

In relation to the depiction of animal forms, many examples were discovered. Lions and eagles, for example, were found in illustrations of hunting scenes, and carved in sculptures and heraldic emblems. These emblems were transmitted by the Crusaders to Europe where they were widely copied.

4. The Nature and Form in Islamic Art

Islamic art differs from that of other cultures in its form and the materials it uses as well as in its subject and meaning. Philipps (1915), for example, thought that Eastern art, in general, is mainly concerned with colour, unlike that of western art, which is more interested in form. He described Eastern art as feminine, emotional, and a matter of colour, in contrast to Western art which he saw as masculine, intellectual, and based on plastic forms which disregarded colour. Of course this reflected Philipps' cultural and artistic bias. Art in Islam never lacked intellectualism even in its simplest forms.

The invitation to observe and learn is found in both revealed and hidden messages in all its forms. Bourgoin (1879), on the other hand, compared the art forms of Greek, Japanese and Islamic cultures and classified them into three categories involving animal, vegetal, and mineral respectively. In his view, Greek art emphasised proportion and plastic forms, and the characteristics of human and animal bodies. Japanese art, on the other hand, developed vegetal attributes relating to the principle of growth and the beauty of leaves and branches. However, Islamic art is characterised by an analogy between geometrical design and crystal forms of certain minerals. The main difference between it and the art of other cultures is that it concentrates on pure abstract forms as opposed to the representation of natural objects. These forms take various shapes and patterns. Prisse (1878) classified them into three types, floral, geometrical and calligraphic. Another classification was suggested by Bourgoin (1873) involving ornamental stalactites, geometrical arabesque, and other forms. For our decorative interest, we concentrate on the three forms suggested by Prisse, which appear, either alone or together, in most media, such as ceramics, pottery, stucco or textile.

image alt text

Figure 1: Detail of a floral decoration in the Dome of the Rock Mosque.

5. Vegetal and Floral art

Although, Muslim art was not, of course, developed independently of influences from nature and the environment, their representation was abstract rather than realistic, as in Western art. This is seen clearly in vegetal forms where plant branches, leaves, and flowers were woven and interlaced into and often not distinguished, from the geometrical lines around them as seen in the arabesque. The use of vegetal forms in Islamic art is also conditioned to some extent by the Islamic prohibition of the imitation of living creatures. However, this interdiction naturally decreases with the descent from human to animal to vegetable forms. Art critics describe the floral depictions and ornaments of the artists of Islam as conventional; lacking the effects of growth and the creation of life (Dobree 1920). In their opinion, the reason behind the absence of growth was due to the natural environment of the Muslim countries, where the experience of spring, the season of plant growth is fleeting. However, the religious prohibition mentioned above was behind the absence of lifelike creation in much of the Islamic floral art.

image alt text

Figure 2: Illustration of a tree in a landscape decoration in the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus.

In the Dome of the Rock and the Umayyad Mosque of Damascus, which contain the earliest examples of Islamic vegetal art, we find more realistic depictions of plants and trees, but these examples, as noted earlier, are regarded as Byzantine work for the Umayyad patrons. In contrast, the vegetal decoration in Samarra Mosque (Iraq) shows how artists, in contrast, deliberately reproduced the vine leaves and branches in an abstract form. However, by the 13th century a more realistic approach gradually gained ground in Muslim Persia and Turkey, influenced by the Chinese and the Mongols (Al-Ulfi, 1969, p.114).

The Muslims used foliage with great delicacy especially around the arches and windows. The stucco borders used in the mausoleum of the Ayyubid Sultan Qalawun, built in Cairo (Egypt) in 1284/85, consisted of buds and leaves arranged in a continuous scroll pattern. The mausoleum also contained examples of other floral illustrations set in rectangular and circular panels, a feature which became particularly popular in the 15th century (Poole, 1886). The use of this type of art extended to many ornamental objects, such as pottery, and wood and leather carving as well as coloured tiles.

6. Geometrical Art

The second element of Islamic art involves geometrical patterns. The artists used and developed geometrical art for two main reasons. The first reason is that it provided an alternative to the prohibited depiction of living creatures. Abstract geometrical forms were particularly favoured in mosques because they encourage spiritual contemplation, in contrast to portrayals of living creatures, which divert attention to the desires of creatures rather than the will of God. Thus geometry became central to the art of the Muslim World, allowing artists to free their imagination and creativity. A new form of art, based wholly on mathematical shapes and forms, such as circles, squares and triangles, emerged.

The second reason for the evolution of geometrical art was the sophistication and popularity of the science of geometry in the Muslim world. The recently discovered Topkapi Scrolls [8], dating from the 15th century, illustrate the systematic use of geometry by Muslim artists and architects (see Gülru, 1995). They also show that early Muslim craftsmen developed theoretical rules for the use of aesthetic geometry, denying the claims of some Orientalists that Islamic geometrical art was developed by accident (e.g. H. Saladin 1899).

This geometrical art is very much connected to the famous concept of the arabesque, which is defined as "ornamental work used for flat surfaces consisting of interlacing geometrical patterns of polygons, circles, and interlocked lines and curves" (Chambers Science and Technology Dictionary 1991).

image alt text

Figure 3: Floral Arabesque covering the interior of the dome of Masjid-i Shah Mosque, Isfahan (1611­1616).

The arabesque pattern is composed of many units joined and interlaced together, flowing from each other in all directions. Each unit, although it is independent and complete and can stand alone, forms part of the whole design; a note in the general rhythm of the pattern (Al-Faruqi 1973). The most common use of arabesque is decorative, consisting mainly of a two dimensional pattern, covering surfaces such as ceilings, walls, carpets, furniture, and textiles. From his study of 200 examples, Bourgoin (1879) concluded that this style of art required a considerable knowledge of practical geometry, which its practitioners must have had. In his view, the arabesque design is built up on a system of articulation and orbiculation and is ultimately capable of being reduced to one of nine simple polygonal elements. The pattern may be built up of rectilinear lines, curvilinear lines, or both combined together, producing a cusped or foliated effect. It is reported that Leonardo da Vinci found Arabesque fascinating and used to spend considerable time working out complicated patterns (Briggs, 1924, p.178).

Arabesque can also be floral, using a stalk, leaf, or flower (tawriq) as its artistic medium, or a combination of both floral and geometric patterns. The expression embodied in its interlacing pattern, cohesive movement, gravity, mass, and volume signifies infinity and produces a contemplative feeling in the spectator leading him slowly into the depth of the Divine presence (Al-Alfi 1969). Dobree (1920) explained the impact of Arabesque art as follows:

"Arabesque strives, not to concentrate the attention upon any definite object, to liven and quicken the appreciative faculties, but to diffuse them. It is centrifugal, and leads to a kind of abstract