'Islamic Art' from Oxford Islamic Studies Online

About This Resource

This overview of major periods and genres of Islamic art provides background for Jonathan Bloom and Sheila Blair's Islamic Arts, the documentary film Islamic Art: Mirror of the Invisible World, Venetia Porter's The Art of Hajj, and D. Fairchild Ruggles' Art Spots video productions. The article is reprinted from The Grove Encyclopedia of Islamic Art and Architecture edited by Jonathan M. Bloom and Sheila S. Blair in the Oxford Islamic Studies Online.


The art made by artists or artisans whose religion was Islam, for patrons who lived in predominantly Muslim lands, or for purposes that are restricted or peculiar to a Muslim population or a Muslim setting. This article discusses the definition of “Islamic art”; the social, aesthetic and religious constraints on its form and scope; and later 20th-century objections to the traditional notion of a universal Islamic art.

I. Scope

Most of what is called Islamic art was made by Muslims for Muslims, but significant exceptions exist. In the 13th century, for example, Christian scenes appear on Syrian and northern Mesopotamian inlaid metalwork in a technique that is “Islamic” but executed for patrons who may well have been Christians, while the decoration of many medieval Hebrew books (e.g. St. Petersburg, N. Lib., MS. B192) has appropriately been called Islamic. Furthermore, under the Umayyad dynasty in Syria (r. 661–750), the Mughal dynasty in India (r.1526–1857) or in the contemporary world, non-Muslims have erected buildings, designed cities or decorated objects that were all destined for the use and enjoyment of Muslims. In short, the adjective “Islamic” when used with the noun “art” does not refer exclusively to the specific faith known as Islam, but to the complex and varied cultural settings that arose and grew when that faith was accepted by or imposed on a spectacular array of different and frequently very old artistic and cultural traditions. The term “Islamic” is, therefore, different from such terms as “Christian” or “Buddhist.” The latter deal only with a system of beliefs and pious behavior, while Islam deals with all aspects of life. The term “Islamic” is also different from such modifiers as “Gothic” or “Baroque,” as it is not restricted to a period or a style. And “Islamic” is not, as is “French” or “Chinese,” tied to a land or space with a continuous chronology of changing artistic forms. Imperfect and even misleading though it may be, the word “Islamic” is preferable to a host of older terms such as “Moorish,” “Saracenic” or “Mohammedan,” which have inappropriate or erroneous implications, or to a neologism such as Hodgson’s “Islamicate” (to refer to civilization, where “Islamic” is limited to the religion), which has not been widely accepted.

Rather than argue about terms, it is more instructive and more useful to identify the reason or reasons why those lands from Morocco to Indonesia and from Central Asia to Central Africa that became and have remained predominantly Muslim have had an artistic history different in kind from the artistic history of western Europe, the Far East and the Americas. In all the latter, regional definitions eventually symbolized by modern countries seem the most appropriate categories around which to group and describe works of art. In dealing with the Muslim world, however, the maintenance of a cultural definition implies that regional, ethnic or national characteristics have been overwhelmed or sublimated into something else. Are there intrinsic, ideological or normative aspects of Islam that radically separate its culture and therefore its art from the art and cultures of other areas? Was it the historiography by non-Muslims of the art of Muslim lands that led to an interpretation of these arts that minimizes regional and national identification? If so, is this interpretation nothing more than the expression of a temporary ideology of understanding that will be replaced by new interpretations as the world changes and new expectations and attitudes arise?

II. Constraints

There is no formal Islamic doctrine on the visual or other arts. There are, however, certain attitudes, some directly derived from the Koranic message, others evolved from historical circumstances, that became not so much rules as formal approaches, conscious or hidden intellectual and aesthetic programs, and eventually social and sensual habits carried on by successive generations of Muslims through whatever means many different Muslim societies had developed for the transmission of commonly held values and constraints. A few examples illustrate the range of these constraints.

The importance of Iconoclasm, or preferably aniconism, bears deeper consequences for Islamic art than the usual philosophical and theological ones associated with the imitation and representation of living beings. Aniconism led, for instance, to the consistent avoidance of strong visual symbols for states or for dynasties as well as to an apparent paucity of formal and consistent religious symbols. These do exist in folk arts, for example in the hand of Fatima warding off the evil eye or the word Allāh as a protective talisman used in all media and circumstances from homes to motorcycles. But in the high art of the State or of urban mosques, there are few such symbolic signs: the Mihrab, possibly lamps when located on the axis of the mosque, at times the Minaret and in some places inscriptions are the main examples. In a few cases, such as the Aqmar Mosque in Cairo (1125) or the Shah Mosque and the mosque of Shaykh Lutfallah in Isfahan, the decorative sequence of ornament and writing may also send out a religious or pious message of iconographic specificity, but there is nowhere near the visual wealth of a Christian or a Buddhist sanctuary, as most of this visual symbolism is restricted to contemporary audiences and is rarely carried from generation to generation. Even the Ottoman Empire, which after the conquest of Constantinople in 1453 was closely connected to and often inspired by Italy and ancient Rome, developed an almost fanatical avoidance of mimetic themes or of non-representational alternative symbols in both its public art and such industrial arts as ceramics and textiles. Contemporary rulers in Iran and the Indian subcontinent, the Safavids and Mughals, were less forceful in this respect, but nevertheless at their courts the visual arts did not appear with the representational brilliance that characterized the patronage of the Medici dynasty in Florence, the dukes of Burgundy or King Louis XIV of France. Whatever explanations exist for the formation of Muslim aniconism, its continuous and ubiquitous presence has, at least until the second half of the 20th century, limited or constricted the possibility of using visual means to transmit messages.

A second constraint seems, at first glance, hardly to be one. The inventiveness of the Muslim world in nearly all techniques of the so-called industrial or decorative arts, such as metalwork, ceramics or textiles, is one of the greater achievements of art there. From the 9th century luxury objects for all of Europe and much of Asia were largely manufactured in the Islamic lands. Christian saints were buried in Islamic silks (e.g. the Shroud of St. Josse;), and the exterior walls of medieval Italian churches are decorated with bacini, complete or fragmentary ceramic objects from Egypt, North Africa and Spain. The tsars and patriarchs of Muscovite Russia dressed formally in clothes made in the Muslim world (Moscow, Kremlin), and certain motifs on Chinese ceramics from the Tang period (618–907), and even earlier, derive from the Middle East. These observations lead to two unexpected conclusions. One is the emphasis on the arts that enhance all aspects of life rather than on those such as painting that tend to be ends in themselves. The other is that these arts are almost exclusively secular arts, with the corollary paradox that most of the arts (with the exception of architecture) from a culture defined by its religious identity have been devoted to the beautification of life rather than to the celebration of the divine.

There is no single explanation for this unexpected contrast, but two partly incompatible features of the traditional Muslim ethos may help in understanding it. One is implied by the explanation of Islam provided by the modern philosopher and moralist Muhammed Arkoun, who argued that the repetitive logocentrism of classical Islamic society created a discourse that excluded the experiences of love and death, out of which poetry, mysticism and prophecy could emerge. As these are precisely the major inspirations of art, those activities that were not directly affected by a restricting legal system could expand into almost boundless fantasy and might at certain times and places—as certainly happened in Iran from the 14th century (and perhaps earlier)—acquire a religious Islamic umbrella through the pantheism of mystical thought and behavior. The second feature, almost the opposite of the first, is that God’s total and exclusive power of creation limits human creation to that which is perishable and compels man to develop that which is temporary, showy but not very important. First developed by Louis Massignon in 1922, this interpretation has subsequently been refined without affecting its main argument that man’s art must be restricted to the perishable, therefore to the context of life, because the expression of the permanent presence of God is neither permitted nor possible for man to achieve.

The fact that two such largely incompatible interpretations of Islamic art can be argued derives from a third constraint: the absence, or perhaps unavailability, of contemporary written sources on the arts. There are technical manuals, a few of them published, such as the treatise by the 14th-century potter Abu῾l-Qasim. There are more abstract manuals of theoretical and applied geometry with implications for the arts, such as al-Kashi’s Miftāḥ al-ḥisāb (“Key to calculation”; 1427; St. Petersburg, Rus. N. Lib., MS. Dorn 131), although few have been studied in sufficient depth. For painting or calligraphy, there is a chronology of names, occasionally with a judgment of an individual’s work or an outline of his life, such as that by the 16th-century librarian Dust Muhammad. Nevertheless, the elements for an aesthetic theory or theories, equivalent to the very elaborate aesthetic theories developed in the Islamic lands around poetry and language, are lacking. Although such sources may exist, what has been studied so far—a small fragment from the great theologian al-Ghazali (d. 1111) or the metaphorical images of Persian poetry—is simply not comparable in depth or potential to such treatises on literature as that by al-Jurjani (d. 1078), not to speak of post-Renaissance writings in the West. Only further research will tell whether the paucity of usable written sources on Islamic aesthetics is the result of insufficient scholarship or reflects the reality of medieval centuries during which the arts remained in a unique symbiosis of craftsmen who made exciting and wondrous objects and patrons who saw beauty in pleasure and surprise. The Arabic adjective ῾ajīb (“extraordinary,” “fabulous”) is the word that most consistently reflects the type of favorable reactions generated by the arts, and the same word was also adopted in Persian and Turkish. But even this remark must be treated with caution, as the investigation of artistic terminology in the languages of Muslim lands has just begun. A better understanding of the traditional discourse of Muslim societies about themselves and their ways of life and of judgement may reveal the true range of an Islamic aesthetic system, if there ever was one.

III. Objections

Although it is possible to argue that Islamic culture provided intellectual, aesthetic and social distinctions that affected, eventually transformed and largely unified the artistic traditions found by Muslims wherever Islam appeared, the experience of the 1970s and 1980s introduced questions and issues that may challenge this traditional interpretation of a “universal” Islamic art.

The first of these issues is the realization that nearly all definitions of Islamic art and most of the studies that led to them were formulated by Western scholars. Some, such as Max van Berchem, were Orientalists in the best sense of the word: they knew languages, traveled widely, read chronicles and inscriptions, and reconstructed worlds of form and behavior that no longer exist. Others, such as Ivan Stchoukine or K. A. C. Creswell, were curators of a heritage— Persian book illustration in one case, the architecture of Cairo in the other—and were thorough, even if not very well versed in languages and culture. All of them nevertheless sought to create a genuine “history” based on the national models of 19th-century Europe. They had all emerged at a time when the Muslim world was either under the tutelage of a multi-ethnic, even if collapsing, Ottoman Empire or incorporated into European “empires,” the most important exception being Iran, which remained politically independent. It was useful and natural, if not always necessary, to emphasize the worldwide character of a mode of life and therefore of an art, because it simplified the formation of means to control it. It is not surprising that in the 1920s both the Archaeological Survey of India and the French mandatory powers in Morocco sponsored studies of geometry in the arts as typical of Muslim culture, for such studies substituted a set of abstract and generalized formulae for the complexities of local experience.

Furthermore, the original training of so many specialists as Semiticists led most historians to deal only with the early centuries of Islamic history, when the Abbasid caliphate with its capitals in Iraq extended from the Indus Valley to the Atlantic, or with the later empires, all but one of which (Safavid Iran) were multi-national and alleged some right to the inheritance of the early “universal” caliphate. Thus, the specifics of Western scholarly concern for the arts, as well as the political and ideological context in which this concern occurred, led to a denial of national identity like that surrounding the development of the study of the arts in continental Europe. The general and universal idea of an all-encompassing Islamic ideology satisfied the needs of colonial rule, and ironically it was picked up by revivalist religious establishments in the late 20th century. Whatever reasons led to this interpretation, it is a reasonable position for whoever deals with the early centuries of Islam (roughly until the mid-13th century), and it alone as a hypothesis can explain why Arabic became so important in Central Asia and Spain. These centuries can easily be divided into an early Islamic period (to c.900) and a medieval one (c.900–c.1250), both of which have significant correlations to and parallels with the medieval art of Christendom.

But the Islamic world changed in the 13th century, and the notion of universal artistic values across time and space hardly seems to explain the Alhambra and the Taj Mahal, Iznik ceramics and Iranian book painting. Scholarship changed as well. Archaeological activities increased knowledge of discrete areas and places. Independent governments and leaders demanded a national or regional aesthetic as a source of local glory and pride. The results of all these novelties still seek their analyst, but a few examples illustrate the range of the reactions. Turkey went through a phase of vertical allegiance to the Hittites rather than to the Ottomans. Egyptian architects at the turn of the 20th century built neo-Mamluk and neo-Pharaonic buildings. Sasanian and Achaemenid models determined the style of official monuments built under the Pahlavi dynasty (r. 1924–79) in Tehran. Sogdian art was seen as the precursor of Uzbek and Tajik, rather than Islamic, art in areas of Central Asia under Soviet rule, although there is some ambivalence about the issue in scholarship. The ruined Buddhist temple at Paharpur in Bengal has been identified as the first monument of an art of Bangladesh different from that of Mughal India.

The powerful novelty of modernism and Post-modernism as well as new economic possibilities led many leading European and American architects, including Louis I. Kahn (1901–74), Le Corbusier (1887–1965), Frank Lloyd Wright (1867–1959), Gordon Bunshaft (1909–90), Hans Hollein (b. 1934), Arthur Erickson (b. 1924), Robert Venturi (b. 1925), Ricardo Bofill (b. 1939) and Paul Rudolph (1918–97), to build or plan to build in the Islamic world. At the same time, international post-Cubist styles of painting appeared in every, or nearly every, art school from Rabat in Morocco to Dhaka in Bangladesh. All these factors may lead to local historiographies that will become more national or regional than universal.

The tension between cultivated memories of the distant past, an acute and often painful awareness of the immediate past and the new apparent universalism of Western technology and forms has not been resolved. It probably never will be, but it raises the question whether the notion of an Islamic art within a unified Islamic culture will be replaced by a series of national or regional definitions, in which the arts of traditional or classical Islamic times will be only an episode between many ancient traditions and a worldwide contemporaneity, which may or may not allow for individual expressions.


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"Islamic art." In The Grove Encyclopedia of Islamic Art and Architecture edited by Jonathan M. Bloom, Sheila S. Blair. Oxford Islamic Studies Online, http://www.oxfordislamicstudies.com/article/opr/t276/e430

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"Muslim Journeys | Item #266: 'Islamic Art' from Oxford Islamic Studies Online", June 20, 2024 http://bridgingcultures-muslimjourneys.org/items/show/266.


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