Introduction to Muslim Art and Ornaments

by Rabah Saoud Published on: 14th October 2001

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Muslim art differs from the art of other cultures in the form and material as well as in the subject and meaning. Read Dr. Saoud's facinating insight into the world of Muslim Art.

Summarised extracts from a full article:
Introduction to Muslim Art by Rabah Saoud

Muslim art differs from the art of other cultures in the form and material as well as in the subject and meaning. Philipps (1915), for example, thought that the eastern art in general is mainly concerned with colour unlike that of western art, which is interested in form. He described Eastern art as feminine, emotional and a matter of colour, while Western art as masculine, intellectual and based on plastic form disregarding colour. Of course this reflects Philipps’s cultural and artistic particularity which sees Muslim colours (and possibly themes) as feminine. Furthermore, Muslim art never lacked intellectualism even in its simplest forms. The invitation to observe and learn is found in the hidden or revealed message of all forms either geometrical, calligraphic, or floral. Meanwhile, Bourgoin (1879) compared between Greek, Japanese and Muslim arts and classified them into three categories involving animal, vegetable, and mineral respectively. In his view, Muslim art is characterised by an analogy between geometrical design and crystal forms of certain minerals. The Greeks nurtured persistence on proportion and plastic forms, and characteristics of the human and animal body. Meanwhile, the Japanese developed vegetable attributes relating to the principle of growth and the beauty of leaves and branches. In contrast, Muslim art is characterised by the concentration 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 stalactites, geometrical arabesque, and other forms. For our decorative interest we concentrate on PrisseÃ????s categorisation and which appear, either alone or combined with other types, in most of art media such as stucco, ceramics, pottery, stucco or textile.

The Nature and Forms of Muslim Art

One of the decisive factors that dictated the nature of Muslim art is the religious rule that forbids the use of human or animal forms1. In one of the authentic sayings of Prophet Mohammed (pbuh) narrated by Ibn Umar who reported that Allah’s Messenger (pbuh) as saying:

“those who paint pictures will be punished on the Day of Resurrection and it will be said to them: Breathe soul into what you have created”.

These attitudes came from the concern of going back to the worship of idols and figures, which were condemned. Furthermore, Islam is free from metaphysical arguments such as those relating to the trinity, the true nature of Christ, saints hierarchy or Holy Spirit, as found in Christianity. Consequently, there was no need for apses, transepts, crypts as well as images and sculptures of saints, angels and martyrs that played a prominent part in didactic art of Christian churches. Nevertheless, historic sources revealed that there were some instances where human and animal forms were used, but mainly in secular private buildings of some important princes and wealthy patrons. Discoveries made in the Quseir Amra palace, a famous palace built by Al-Walid in Jordan desert between 730-743, revealed large illustrations of hunting scenes, gymnastic exercises, and trades in addition to symbolic figures. The most important of these were illustrations of the main enemies of Islam; Kaisar (the Byzantine Emperor), Rodorick (the Visigoth King of Spain), Chosroes (the Emperor of Persia), and Negus (the King of Abyssinia) (Creswell, 1958, p.92). In relation to the use of animal forms, the representation of lions and eagles, for example, has been in hunting scenes, in sculptures, and particularly in heraldic emblems 2. These emblems were transmitted through the Crusaders to Europe where they were widely copied. The famous bronze griffin in the Campo Santo at Pisa, dated from the 11th century, representing a lion with the head of an eagle and wings is another example of the use of animal representation. However, in a world of art these representations remained limited.

Floral art

The use of plant forms in Muslim art to some extent is also conditioned with the prohibition of Islam for the imitation of living creatures. Naturally, this interdiction decreases with the descent from human to animal to vegetable forms. Art critics describe Muslim floral ornament and representations as conventional lacking the effect of growth and the creation of life (Dobree, 1920). In this opinion, the reason behind the absence of growth was due to natural circumstances of the Muslim land where the experience of season of plant growth (spring) is very rare. Meanwhile, religious concepts were behind the absence of life creation in much of Muslim floral art.

The earliest Muslim floral ornaments were found in the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem (figure 1) , and were mostly the work of Syrian or Coptic artists. Sasanian and Byzantine decoration had also its influence. However, Briggs (1924) thought that although Muslims first made use of indigenous local artistic talent, but later they developed their own style. Muslims used foliage with great delicacy especially round the arches and windows. The stucco borders used in the mausoleum of Sultan Qalawun (1284-1285) consisted of buds and leaves arranged in a continued scroll pattern. In other instances, floral diversion was used in combination with other elements on rectangular, curved and circular panels. This was particularly popular in the 15th century (Poole, 1886). The popularity of the floral decoration extended its use in most ornamental objects such as cases, pottery, and wood and leather carving as well as coloured tiles.

Geometrical Art

The second element in Muslim art involves geometrical patterns. Muslims used and developed geometrical art due to two main reasons. The first one corresponds to the popularity of abstract forms, which provided an alternative for the use of prohibited forms of live creatures. This was favoured, particularly in mosques, as abstract geometrical forms induce the spirit contemplation in contrast to living forms, which divert it to material world. Dobree (1920) explained the impact of geometrical 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 abstraction, a kind of self-hypnotism even, so that the devotee kneeling towards Makkah can bemuse himself in the maze of regular patterning that confronts him, and free his mind from all connection with bodily and earthly things” (quoted in Briggs, 1924, p.175).

The second factor behind the expansion of this type of art was connected to the development and popularity of the science of geometry in the Muslim world at that time. However, Saladin (1899) denied this relationship arguing that the use of aesthetic geometry (Arabesque) by early craftsmen came accidental through an instinct rather than by the rule of theory.

This art is very much connected to the famous concept of 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). However, originally it consisted of a surface ornament formed by the combination of conventional plant forms with artificial objects and geometrical lines, arranged to form an ordered composition. From his study to 200 diagrams, Bourgoin (1879) concluded that this art required a considerable knowledge of practical geometry, and these Arabesque artists must have acquired substantial knowledge in it. The Arabesque design is built up on a system of articulation and orbiculation and is ultimately capable of reduction to one of the 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 related that Lenardo Davinci found Arabesque fascinating and used to spend considerable time working out complicated Arabesque (Briggs, 1924, p.178).

It is clearly evident that much of the development and the wide acceptance of this art was due to the Muslims, although scholars still debate its origins. Like the situation with other arts, there is evidence that primitive geometrical decoration was used in early Egyptian civilisation as well as in Mesopotamia, Persia, Syria and India. The use of star patterns, for example, has been widely used by the Copts of Egypt (Gayet, 1893), but the Muslims were its all time masters.


The third decorative art developed by Muslims is calligraphy, which consists of the use of skilful lettering, sometimes combined with geometrical and natural forms. As in other forms of Muslim art, western scholars also attempted to relate Muslim calligraphy to other lettering arts. The decorative use of letters in both China and Japan seem to provide an area of interest for them. Claims of linking Muslim calligraphy to Chinese origins based on the pottery found in Cairo (Fustat) seem to be absurd. The lack of any substantiated proof is a clear evidence as the wide differences between the two languages in the way and direction they are written. The suggestion of any linkage between Muslim Calligraphy and ancient hieroglyphics is also inconceivable. It is true that the Egyptians widely used these on wall paintings, but this had no decorative purposes (Briggs, 1924, p.179).

Generally, the development of calligraphy as a decorative art was due to a number of factors. The first is related to the importance that Muslims attach to the Holy Book (Quran), which was reflected in their use of its verses in mosques. The aim was not merely decorative but also a remainder for the faithful. There are some particularly favoured chapters (surah) that are repeated all over the Muslim world and appear in most mosques. The second factor behind the appearance of the Arabic calligraphy is attached to the importance of Arabic in Islam as the use of Arabic is compulsory in prayers and is the language of the Quran and the language of Paradise. This condition highlights the contribution of non-Arab Muslims in supporting and developing the art of calligraphy. Furthermore, the Arabs have always attached a considerable importance to writing stemmed from their appreciation of literature and poetry. Finally, the superstitious power credited to some words, names and sentences as a protection against evil was also a contributing factor as these were often worn as forms of jewellery or hanged on walls.

Arabic (Muslim) calligraphy assumes two main forms. There is the Kufi, which is derived from the city of Kufa. From this city a famous school of writers emerged from those who were engaged in the transcription of the Quran. The letters of this script type have a rectangular form, which made them fit well with architectural use. The second type of calligraphy is known as Naskhi. This style of Arabic writing is older than the Kufic, yet it resembles modern characters. It is characterised by the round and cursive shape of its letters. The Naskhi calligraphy became more popular and was substantially developed by the Ottomans.

The contribution of Muslims to European Arts

In general, the diffusion of Muslim art motifs into Europe and the rest of the World was undertaken through three main ways (media). The first of these is the direct imitation through the reproduction of the same theme in the same source or media. For example, an artistic theme (or themes) in Muslim ceramics can be reproduced in other European ceramics. There are multitude of Examples of this stage of imitation. Perhaps the most admitted ones are the many instances of copying of Kufic inscriptions in Medieval and Renaissance European art. According to Christie (1922) carved inscriptions of Gothic work came from Kufic inscriptions of Ibn Tulun (879) (Cairo), first to France and then to the rest of Europe. Professor Lethaby 1904) attributed the carved wooden doors by the Master carver “Gan Fredus” in a chapel of the under porch of the Cathedral of Le Puy (France), and another carved door in the church of la Vaute Chillac near Le Puy also to Ibn Tulun Mosque. Male (1928) thought Andalusia was the source not only for the Kufic inscription which spelt Ã????Masha AllahÃ???? but also the rest of numerous Muslim motifs of this building. Such influence also appear in bands of ornaments on the retable of Westminster Abbey and some early stained glass windows. The reproduction of motifs such the eight pointed star, the multifoil arches, the stalactite, the Ottoman flower (tulip and carnation) and Alhambra geometrical and colour schemes are all but a small list of items that form an essential part of most European works of art.

The second form of transfer is through the transfer of this theme (themes) to other production types such as furniture, textile and painting and sculpture or architectural decoration. In this case we are talking about the transposition of source or media. Examples of this type are also substantial that we cannot cover in this brief. The example of Arabesque may suffice here. According to Ward (1967) the fertilisation of European ornament in the Renaissance (16th century) was at the hand of Arabesque. This was the time when decorative art became popular in Europe. Arabesque combined with Muslim geometrical patterns invaded European saloons, living rooms and public reception halls.

The third level is the most difficult to explain and consists of the inspirational stage where the motif is not copied or reproduced but progressively inspired the development of a particular style or fashion. There is an increasing evidence that Muslim art, and Arabesque in particular, was the inspiration for both the Rococo and the Baroque styles which spread in Europe between 16th and 18th century (Jairazbhoy, 1965).


The theme of Muslim art is considerably wide and this brief introduction can by no mean do it justice. We advice the reader to consult the list of references for further information. However, the paper provided a comprehensive review of the main decorative means of the Muslim art consisting of geometry, calligraphy and floral (vegetable) decorations. It has been argued that much of the artistic talent and production were conditioned as well as inspired by religious beliefs and concepts, a clear indication of the creativity of Islam as both an ideology and religion.


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