November 18 is the annual International Day of Islamic Art proclaimed at the 40th session of the UNESCO General Conference in 2019.
“This Day was proclaimed in order to celebrate together this exceptional heritage, spanning fourteen centuries, which continues to renew and reinvent itself, and influence cultures around the world.”
Audrey Azoulay, Director-General of UNESCO
The term ‘Islamic art’ refers to visual arts produced in Islamic regions by a variety of artists and for diverse consumers, not necessarily by and for Muslims. Sheila Blair explains that “while some types of Islamic art, such as Quran manuscripts, mosque lamps or carved wooden minbars (pulpits), are directly concerned with the faith and practice of Islam, the majority of objects considered to be ‘Islamic art’ are called so simply because they were made in societies where Islam was the dominant religion.”
The term does not refer to a particular style or period, but covers a broad scope, encompassing the arts and architecture produced from Spain to India for fourteen centuries in diverse regions using a variety of materials and patterns.
Due to the centrality of the Quran, copying of its verses in any medium is considered an act of piety. Hence, calligraphy developed into a highly skilled art form. From the Greek kallos (beauty) and graphein (to write) calligraphy, although not unique to Islamic cultures, has been used extensively and in varied art forms and materials in Islamic civilisations. In contrast to painters, potters, and other artists, who generally remained anonymous, the calligraphers frequently signed their works and were thus well-known and highly esteemed.
Sources credit Hazrat Ali ibn Abi Talib, cousin and son-in-law of Prophet Muhammad and the first Imam of the Shia, as the developer of the Kufic script, named after the city of Kufa in Iraq where Imam Ali was residing. S.H. Nasr notes that “calligraphy, the complementary sacred art of Islam which makes manifest the Word of God as revealed in the Noble Quran, is believed by Muslims to have been originated by ‘Alī ibn Abī Tālib…” (Religious Art, Traditional Art, Sacred Art, p 179). Annemarie Schimmel notes that that Kufa was “one of the important centres for the art of writing and the political connection of Ali ibn Abi Talib with this city accentuates the generally maintained claim that Ali was the first master of calligraphy” (Calligraphy and Islamic Art).
Princes and and educated people were trained to write beautifully by leading calligraphers. “As a result, not only were examples of calligraphy produced and collected by princes, but also richly decorated pen cases, inkwells, knives for cutting pen nibs, and other accoutrements of the scribe’s studio were created for wealthy calligraphers” (Blair, Masterpieces of Islamic Architecture catalogue p 26).
Islamic art reflects the concept of tawhid, Divine Unity through a variety of forms such as the circle, the basis of complex geometrical patterns. The circle – which has no beginning and no end and thus symbolises infinity – was considered to be the perfect geometric form, from which complex patterns were developed.
Geometric patterns were combined, interlaced, and arranged in intricate combinations, thus becoming one of the most distinguishing features of Islamic art. In places of worship, where a wealth of these geometric patterns can be found, one could contemplate the infinite nature of God simply by looking at the walls or the ceilings. The un-ending repetitions also add to the concept of God’s infinity while demonstrating that “in the small, you can find the infinite” (Burckhardt).
The orderliness of the geometric patterns conveys an aura of spirituality and a sense of transcendent beauty. The centric arrangements were used in order to avoid focal points, resonating with the view that the “Absolute is not centred in a divine manifestation but whose presence is an even and persuasive force throughout Creation” (Burckhardt).
With its geographic spread and long history, Islamic art was subject to a wide range of regional and even national styles within the various periods of its development. One of the distinctive styles that developed is the arabesque – employing abstract intertwining vine, leaf, or plant motifs, often implying an infinite design with no beginning or end.
Developed in the Eastern Mediterranean regions once controlled by the Romans, the arabesque acquired its own distinctive forms in Islamic lands and became a hallmark of Islamic art produced between the tenth and the fifteenth centuries. In order to describe it, Europeans coined the word “arabesque,” literally meaning “in the Arab style,” in the fifteenth or sixteenth century when Renaissance artists began to incorporate Islamic designs in their book arts. Over the centuries the word has been applied to a wide variety of winding, twining, meandering vegetal decoration in art.
Islamic art is not confined to any specific activity, but rather embraces the whole of life. Hence, notes Nasr, the principle of Divine Origin “is integrated into the very rhythm of daily existence…” (Religious Art, Traditional Art, Sacred Art). This, cooking pots, dishes, bowls, woven fabrics, as well as mosque and palace walls incorporated reminders of the principles of the faith, binding the user or beholder to become aware of the divine.
Mysticism has played an important role in Islam. Mystics, including Sufis and other esoteric traditions, have sought to achieve oneness with God through prayer and contemplation.
In addition to reading, writing, and statesmanship, theology was studied by all educated Muslims along with ethics, science, and mathematics. The works of antiquity were translated and further developed especially during the eighth to eleventh centuries. “With the introduction and spread of the use of paper, the production of books of all sorts increased enormously … Poetry, books of fables, collected biographies, histories, and cosmographies filled the libraries of princes and scholars…” (Blair, Treasures of the Aga Khan Museum Catalogue, p 26-27).
A long tradition of preparing princes to rule was the genre of literature known as ‘mirror for princes,’ fables in which animals are the leading characters of the stories. These fables, which taught universal values, were translated into several languages and adapted to local cultures. One such collection of fables is Kalila wa Dimna, in which the moral education of princes is provided through two jackals and a host of other animals who portray “universal human strengths and weaknesses, as well as aspirations for justice and truth” (Spirit & Life Catalogue, p 138). These and other fables were a popular theme for illustrations.
(More on fables at Nimirasblog)
Visual arts flourished under the Fatimids (909-1171). Bloom states that “nothing known from that period quite prepares us for the splendid creativity that drew upon the traditions not only of Egypt but also of the entire medieval Mediterranean world” (The Origins of Fatimid Art, Archnet). Grabar notes that the arts of the Fatimids “was original and different from much of what is known elsewhere at the same time” (Fatimid Art, Precursor or Culmination, IIS).
Fatimid court art incorporated the doctrine of Imamat and esotericism (More at Nimirablog).
The arts, particularly lacquer painting, flourished under the Qajars, who ruled Persia from 1779 to 1925. The dynasty encouraged traditional arts such as calligraphy, but also embraced new media and technologies from Europe including oil painting, portraiture, and printing. The Qajar monarchs relied heavily on the visual arts to confirm their power. The first monarch Aqa Muhammad (r. 1785-97) was concerned primarily with establishing firm rule during the turbulent climate. However, his successor Fath Ali Shah (r.1797-1834), who inherited a more secure position, devoted attention to defining the dynasty’s image through embodying Persian crafts with Western influences.
Fath Ali Shah commissioned numerous life-size portraits of himself and his sons that formed the backdrop to elaborate court ceremonies. His portraits, characterised by rich dark colours, were not intended to be realistic, but rather were icons of power. Although painting in oils had been introduced in Persia after 1600, the Qajars took this art form to new heights, using the paintings to promote their international image and commercial links.
(More on visual arts of Qajars at Nimirasblog)
Flora and fauna played an important role in the art of the Mughals, who began to rule the Indian subcontinent in 1526. During their 330-year reign, the dynasty developed a reputation for their wealth, intellectual and artistic pursuits, and tolerance. As patrons of art and architecture, the Mughals built the most magnificent monuments on the Indian landscape, utilising imagery from the natural world for their decorative arts.
(More on Mughals at Nimirasbog)
The Ottomans (1299-1922) were known for their architectural, literary, and administrative achievements. They transformed religious architecture through a dynamic vocabulary of domes, semi-domes, vaults, and pencil shaped minarets, some of which are the tallest ever built. The unrestrained enthusiasm of the Ottoman rulers for ceremonial monuments, their immense financial strength as well as an inexhaustible source of ideas which flowed from the master builders, artists, and craftsmen from various religious backgrounds, all helped Ottoman art flourish.
Political turbulence led to the destruction or dispersal of much of the royal collections. However, notes Blair, “enough of the rarities of Islamic art remain to validate the historical descriptions of the magnificence of, for example, the Abbasid, Fatimid, Safavid, and Mughal courts. While medieval and early modern courts of the Islamic world are remote from present day in many ways, their treasures can still inspire wonder and fascination, much as they would have when they were first produced” (Ibid. p 27).
The Aga Khan Museum in Toronto, Canada, opened in 2014, houses over 1,000 masterpieces showcasing the arts of Muslim civilisations from the Iberian Peninsula to China. Prince Amyn Aga Khan expressed his vision for the Museum:
“..if I were looking for a single word to sum up my intention and hope for the Aga Khan Museum, it would be the word “enlightenment”. It is a word which has both cultural and spiritual significance. The history of the thought and the creations of man can perhaps be said to be a long path from one period of enlightenment to another. I would hope that this Museum will contribute to a new period of enlightenment, helping visitors from around the world to rediscover the common symbols that unite us all across the globe, across all civilisations, across time….”
Opening of Aga Khan Museum, Toronto, Canada, 12 September 2014
Treasures of the Aga Khan Museum Catalogue
Oleg Grabar, Fatimid Art, Precursor or Culmination, The Institute of Ismaili Studies
Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Religious Art, Traditional Art, Sacred Art (PDF)
Sheila Blair, “Islamic Art,” Islamic Art and Architecture ,Yale University Press, 1996
Titus Burchhardt, Art of Islam: Language and Meaning, World Wisdom, 2009
Contributed to Ismailimail by Nimira Dewji. Nimira is an invited writer at Ismailimail, although she has contributed several articles in the past (view previous articles). She also has her own blog – Nimirasblog – where she writes short articles on Ismaili history and Muslim civilisations. When not researching and writing, Nimira volunteers at a shelter for those experiencing homelessness, and at a women’s shelter. She can be reached at email@example.com.