The arts of Islam:
A celebration of history and culture
 

By guest contributor Linda Pappas Funsch

04/02/2022

Islamic art represents a body of work created and developed by skilled craftsmen who have lived and worked in Muslim territories for more than fourteen hundred years. It is a concept that defies simple definition. Islamic art reflects the creative genius of a mosaic of people of various lands, races, languages, ethnicities, and cultures over many centuries and on various continents.

Encompassing a variety of forms, including calligraphy, architecture, painting, glassware, ceramics, metalwork, textiles and carpets, Islamic art is not the art of a specific religion, time, or region but rather an expression of religious conviction, innovation, and cultural interaction that has evolved over time. Like all art, it reflects the collective experiences of its creators.

Islamic art is characterized by both originality and synthesis. Beginning with calligraphy, a uniquely Islamic art form inspired by Islam’s holy book, the Qur’an, other Islamic art forms have been influenced by the artistic creativity of ancient civilizations and well as by those with whom Muslims have interacted through conquest and trade.

Within a century of its founding in Arabia in 620 CE, Islam expanded its territorial reach with unprecedented speed, spreading across North Africa to the Atlantic Ocean in the West and across Asia into the Indus Valley and to the borders of China in the East. As Muslim dynasties expanded and consolidated their power in major urban centers, the arts of Islam evolved, driven both by faith and by cultural interaction with various societies.

During this consolidation of power, Muslims proved to be particularly adept at cultural adaptation and synthesis. Throughout the course of Islam’s remarkable expansion, artisans of successive multiethnic Islamic empires created objects of incomparable beauty, many inspired by those of earlier and contemporaneous civilizations, including the Roman and Byzantine empires, Sassanian Persia, Central Asia, and China.

Linda Pappas Funsch is the author of Oman Reborn: Balancing Tradition and Modernization
Figurative imagery

It is a common misconception that imagery is prohibited in Islamic art. While Islam, the last of the great monotheistic traditions, prohibits idolatry, revering instead the one, indivisible, and unseen God, human and animal representations are frequently depicted in multiple forms of Islamic secular art — in illuminated manuscripts, ceramics, metalwork, and textiles. Stylized geometric forms, known as arabesque, incorporating repetitive vegetal and floral designs taken from the natural world, are particularly representative of Islamic decoration and ornamentation.

The Word

Yet, it is calligraphy, the art of beautiful writing, which exemplifies the pinnacle of Islamic art. The inspiration for and, indeed, the prestige of the calligraphic art form in Islam is derived from the centrality of the Qur’an, its holy book, which Muslims believe contains the literal Word of God as revealed, in the Arabic language, to the Prophet Muhammad over the course of twenty- three years, from 610 to 632 CE.

During the early centuries of Islam, calligraphy developed rapidly as an artistic endeavor of the highest order. Guided by faith and utilizing a variety of scripts, calligraphers, both male and female, undertook to glorify God by inscribing his holy message, in Arabic, revered as the language chosen by the Almighty to deliver his final message to humankind. For the calligrapher, this was as much an exercise in individual devotion as it was a means of communication.

The introduction of paper, a Chinese invention that Muslims discovered in Central Asia in the eighth century, accelerated the transmission of both religious and secular knowledge, creating a massive industry in the manufacture of books and in the development of libraries throughout the urban centers of the Islamic world — in particular, Cairo, Baghdad, and Córdoba —centuries before their appearance in Europe.

Illumination

Calligraphy was soon followed by manuscript illumination in which the pages of Qur’anic tracts, and others, were embellished with intricate and colorful borders, painted in gold and shimmering dyes derived from precious and semi-precious stones, serving to heighten the experience of the reader.

In addition to religious texts, secular manuscripts were often enhanced by illumination. One notable example of this is the popular epic poem of Persia, the Shanameh (“Book of Kings”), a lengthy narrative of the ancient kings of Persia, from antiquity to the Muslim conquest. The combination of elegant calligraphy and hundreds of colorful paintings of exquisite quality and intricate detail serves to inspire millions of readers to this day.

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The Blue Mosque in Istanbul
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Hagia Sophia Mosque in Istanbul
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Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque in Muscat
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Calligraphy and design

Within the broad range of creative pursuits that constitutes Islamic art, calligraphy reigns supreme, transcending the medium of the book. It is used not only on the page but also in architecture and in the decorative arts.

The interior of one of the earliest surviving buildings in the Islamic world, the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, features many calligraphic inscriptions, including those from the Qur’an. Completed in 692 CE, this iconic gold-domed structure, built over a rock associated with Abraham, patriarch of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, is additionally revered by Muslims as the spot from where they believe Prophet Muhammad ascended into heaven.

In addition to building decoration, calligraphy is also integral to Islamic ceramics where, in many cases, it serves as the singular design element. Homes, palaces, and mosques often feature tile work featuring sprawling calligraphic messages frequently inspired by the words of the Qur’an. Glassmakers and metal craftsmen routinely incorporate finely etched verses into their wares in a variety of Arabic scripts.

Mosques and cultural synthesis

With prayer as a central pillar of Islam, the design and decoration of mosques, as places of gathering, worship, and learning, are fundamental to Islamic architecture. Minarets, courtyards, prayer halls, ablution fonts, minbars (pulpits) and mihrabs (niches indicating the direction of prayer toward Mecca) are standard components of mosque design.

Among the most noteworthy early masterpieces of Islamic architecture is the Great Mosque of Kairouan (aka, Mosque of Uqba). Constructed in Tunisia in 670 CE, the Great Mosque of Kairouan introduced the horseshoe arch, the hypostyle prayer hall (interior space whose roof rests on a series of pillars, representing trees), and a series of interior domes with richly embellished designs. All of these elements would be repeated not only throughout the Islamic world in European buildings as well, beginning in the twelfth century.

The Great Mosque of Damascus, Syria (early 8th century CE) is another monument to the Islamic faith tradition containing noteworthy architectural elements. Built on a site that housed a succession of religious buildings throughout history — Aramaean, Roman, and Christian — this enormous stone edifice is joined by a large courtyard whose walls are covered with remnants of intricate, detailed mosaics, executed by Byzantine craftsmen, depicting scenes of idyllic landscapes thought to resemble paradise.

Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia (center left) and Blue Mosque (right)

At the time of its construction in the sixth century, Hagia Sophia (“Holy Wisdom”) in Constantinople, today’s Istanbul, Turkey, was the biggest interior space on earth, boasting the world’s largest dome, an architectural wonder of the time. Commissioned as a basilica by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian, Hagia Sophia remained the seat of the Eastern Orthodox Patriarchate until 1453 when the city fell to the Muslim armies of Mehmet II.

Converted to a mosque after the Ottoman conquest, Hagia Sophia served as inspiration for the Blue Mosque, also known as the Sultan Ahmet Mosque. This massive undertaking, completed in 1616, was designed, ironically, by Sinan, the son of a Greek stonemason, who gained famed as the chief architect in the service of the Turkish sultan, to rival the building’s Byzantine predecessor in both size and design. Today, both magnificent structures, situated across each other in a crowded square, are a testament to the melting pot that has been Constantinople/ Istanbul throughout modern history.

For fourteen centuries, Muslim merchants and traders interacted with peoples of cultures of far-flung lands, following both land and sea routes. As Islam spread to every corner of the globe, cultural exchange and a diffusion of ideas flourished. “Islamic” buildings assumed the characteristics of local cultures, from the Great Mosque of Xi’an (742 CE) at the terminus of China’s Silk Road in the East, to the mud-brick Mosque of Djenne (Mali), deep in the heart of Africa, to the Great Mosque of Cordoba (785 CE), in the vibrant capital of Al-Andalus (Moorish Spain) in the West.

The Great Mosque of Córdoba, Spain, is a prime example of Islam’s ability to incorporate architectural elements borrowed from previous cultures. Situated in the center of the once-thriving capital of Moorish Spain, the mosque’s hypostyle prayer hall features a forest of double-storied multicolored stone horseshoe arches which are set on repurposed Roman and Visigothic columns. From the Iberian Peninsula, Moorish influences, not only in architecture, but also in scholarship, music, and cuisine, would filter across over the Pyrenees, impacting European culture in profound ways.

Palaces

Istanbul’s Topkapi Palace complex served as the administrative headquarters of the Ottoman Empire for nearly four centuries. From his luxurious palace, strategically situated on a promontory overlooking the Golden Horn where the Bosporus meets the Marmara Sea, Sultan Suleiman, also known as “The Magnificent,” (r. 1520-1566) ruled over an Empire that spanned three continents and more than twenty-five million people. The opulence of design, including tiled walls, stained glass windows, and sumptuous furnishings in the Topkapi Palace is enhanced by treasured collections of clothing, weapons, armor, miniatures, religious relics, jewels, and illuminated manuscripts.

Arguably the most iconic edifice in Islamic Spain is the Alhambra, the palace/fortress of the last Moorish rulers of Granada. The Alhambra is the oldest existing medieval palace in Europe. Covering twenty-one acres and housing up to 40,000 people in its heyday, this sprawling complex was built during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries.

The delicate architecture of its building, with slender pillars, ornamental plasterwork, and vaulted chambers, have an ethereal quality. The effect of the acres of poetry executed in exquisite calligraphic design on the walls and arcades has enchanted visitors for centuries. Integral to the design of many Islamic buildings is water. This element is everywhere evident throughout the grounds of the Alhambra where visitors delight in the reflective pools, flowing fountains, and luxurious gardens, designed to evoke images of paradise.

Tombs and mausoleums

In Iran’s holy city of Mashad sits an architectural jewel: the tomb of Imam Reza, the eighth Imam of Iran’s Shi’ite tradition who died in 818 CE. The tomb is set within a sprawling mosque complex, the third largest in the world after those in Mecca and Medina. Crowned with a gilded dome, it is dazzling during both day and nighttime. Interior and exterior surfaces are richly highlighted with decorative elements, such a colorful tiles, mirrored features, and intricately vaulted ceilings. A unique example of Iranian-Islamic architecture, the Tomb and Mosque of Imam Reza is a major site of pilgrimage attracting up to twenty million visitors each year, representing a testament to both faith and beauty.

Designated by UNESCO as “the jewel of Muslim art in India and one of the universally admired masterpieces of the world’s heritage,” the Taj Mahal in Agra, India, stands as at the apex of Islamic artistic excellence in the Indian subcontinent. Commissioned in 1632 by the Mughal Emperor, Shah Jahan, to honor his deceased wife, Mumtaz Mahal, twenty thousand artisans worked tirelessly to erect this ivory marble mausoleum that continues to rank among one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world.

The legacy of Islamic art lives on, particularly in the West, in the arches and stained glass that grace our churches, in the silks, textiles, and brocades that adorn our bodies and warm our homes, in the arabesque motifs that impart life and color to our tiles and fabrics, in the carpets we collect and admire, and even in the games we play on inlaid chess and backgammon boards. The arts of Islam represent not a “clash” but rather the harmonious interaction of civilizations worthy of celebration.

“Throughout the course of Islam’s remarkable expansion, artisans of successive multiethnic Islamic empires created objects of incomparable beauty, many inspired by those of earlier and contemporaneous civilizations, including the Roman and Byzantine empires, Sassanian Persia, Central Asia, and China”: Pappas Funsch
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