- Note from Founder and Director of NYU Center for Dialogues
- Changing impressions: Muslim Voices: Arts and Ideas
- The Arts of Islam in the Eyes of the West: A Historical View
- Cultural exchanges: viewing history through gifts and commerce
- Gift exchanges: Harun al-Rashid and Charlemagne
- Gift exchanges: Venice and the Ottoman Empire
- Commerce: coins, jewelry, and other goods
- Commerce: twentieth-century changes
- Creative Lives Under Changing Circumstances
- Early Muslim Society
- The Post-Mongol Muslim World
- The Early Modern Muslim World
- The Muslim World in 1900
- The Muslim World Today
- The Arts of Islam: A Brief History
- A. Poetry and Song
- B. Quranic Chant
- C. Calligraphy
- D. Belles Lettres
- E. Music and Dance
- F. Theater
- G. Painting, Sculpture, and Design
- H. Architecture
- Islamic Art Today
- Recommended Further Reading
- Poetry and Prose: Arabic
- Poetry and Prose: Persian
- Poetry and Prose: Turkish
- Poetry and Prose: Urdu
- Quranic Chant
- Music and Song
- Painting and Design
- Theater and Cinema
G. Painting, Sculpture, and Design
The debate over what makes an art “Islamic” has most frequently been framed in terms of the visual arts. The Arab–ruled societies of the first two centuries of Islam were mostly populated by non–Muslims. Arabs and early converts to Islam may well have been the foremost contributors to the literary arts and calligraphy, but most craft production and building construction was carried out by non–Muslims or, by the late ninth century, by non–Arab converts to Islam who often had skills and styles that pre–dated their conversion. Images dating to the first two centuries include mosaics of cities and trees at the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, the wall paintings of kings and female bathers preserved in desert palaces built for the Umayyad caliphs, and the depictions of royalty on coins produced before the changeover to purely calligraphic designs in the eighth century. In each case, the “Muslim” art is influenced by earlier styles and techniques.
Nevertheless, over time, certain religious beliefs can be said to have impacted the development of visual art forms. Historians commonly cite the religious bias—sometimes misinterpreted as an absolute prohibition—against representations of living beings to explain a preference for geometric and arabesque decorative motifs, particularly in the ornamentation of religious buildings. The early eighth century decision to remove the image of the caliph from all coinage and replace it with calligraphy containing his name, title, and selected Quranic quotations is cited as a case in point. However, the turning away from images of living beings was not consistent or absolute, and figurative representations had again become common by the beginning of the tenth century.
Ceramics loom large in the early history of Islamic art because they survive more abundantly than works on parchment or paper. By the ninth century, a distinctive style emerged in Iraq, Iran, and Central Asia, featuring Arabic calligraphy against a plain background. The words are often difficult to read, and non–Arab converts to Islam may not have understood the writing. Nevertheless, they bought these ornamental plates to demonstrate their adherence to the new religion. After a century or so of popularity, however, competing styles emerged, at least in Iran. Many of the new designs reproduced plant, animal, and human images characteristic of the pre–Islamic period. Men wearing the loose trousers and brocade tunics of the pre–Muslim aristocratic class are shown hunting on horseback or feasting. Both of these themes recall the images on silver plates produced under the Sasanid dynasty before the Arab conquest.24 In the eleventh century, both of these styles disappeared, but by the thirteenth century, new figurative styles showing influences arriving from China by way of the Central Asian Silk Road became common in Iran.
Nor is Iran the only place where figurative imagery persisted. Carved ivory boxes made in Egypt, Sicily, and Muslim Spain during the ninth through eleventh centuries display a wide variety of human and animal images, often set within arabesque framing patterns. Furthermore, after the Normans wrested Sicily from its Muslim rulers in the eleventh century, they employed Muslim artists to decorate their palaces with figurative images that are clearly based on Muslim models.
The technique of making paper, originally developed in China, appeared in Muslim Central Asia in the eighth century and rapidly spread throughout the Middle East and North Africa. Initially, paper was a scarce commodity produced in small sizes. 25 Although production increased over time, the small original size of individual sheets of paper contributed to the development of miniature painting, which became the paramount expression of Islamic visual art from the thirteenth century onward. Miniature painting also displays clear stylistic influences from China, for instance in the appearance of rocks, trees, and clouds, and sometimes the Asian facial features of human figures. Miniature painting was practiced in almost every Muslim society from India to Spain, but it reached its most sophisticated expression in the East, including the Mongol, Timurid, Safavid, Ottoman, and Mughal schools of painting.
Larger–scale paintings were also produced in some areas. The Chehel Sutun palace constructed in Isfahan in the seventeenth century is noted for wall paintings that show the impact of European styles. Some Muslim painters were evidently willing to experiment with figurative images from a variety of cultures. Sculpture in the round was not common in Muslim societies. However, all sorts of surfaces came to be used for painted or inscribed decorative display, including metal plates and lamps, pen cases, and book–bindings.
Across the Islamic world, while some styles of rugs and fabrics incorporated floral, animal, and human imagery, geometric designs have remained most common down to the present day. Some of these designs include traditional pre–Islamic, non–Arab patterns, while others reveal the identities of weavers or designers as members of particular tribal groups. A substantial market for imported rugs sprung up in early modern Europe. At present, there continues to be a significant Western demand for rugs of artistic quality made in Turkey, Iran, and Pakistan.
24 Richard W. Bulliet, "Pottery Styles and Social Status in Medieval Khurasan," in A. Bernard Knapp, ed., Archaeology, Annales, and Ethnohistory, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 75–82.
25 Jonathan Bloom, Paper Before Print: The History and Impact of Paper in the Islamic World, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001.