- 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
Students of the architectural history of Muslim lands sometimes focus on particular periods or regions, while others divide their studies by building types, tracing the separate histories of the mosque, the palace, the madrasa (college or seminary), the fortress, and the suq or bazaar. .26 Each of these building types has its own chronological and stylistic markers. Some of these histories show how a particular style spread within the Muslim world; for instance, the “Samarra” style of surface decoration, developed for a temporary caliphal capital in ninth century Iraq, was manifested soon thereafter in eastern Iranian stuccowork or Egyptian woodwork. Sometimes, these histories show an openness to distant cultural influences, such as the square North African minarets that hint at sub–Saharan forms, or the Anatolian tomb towers derived from Central Asian models. Other times, they exhibit a creative melding of pre–Islamic and Islamic forms, whether in the re–use of Roman columns in the Great Mosque of Cordoba in Spain, of stonework from Hindu temples in many Indian mosques, or in motifs from Armenian stone architecture in eastern Anatolian buildings.
Across the Islamic world, from at least the eighth century onward, mosques, minarets, and open or covered markets became the most visible markers of Islamic social life. This is particularly true in places where the disappearance of wheeled vehicles from the Middle Eastern and North African transportation system during the centuries immediately preceding the rise of Islam had given rise to labyrinthine networks of narrow streets.27 Urban space scaled to pedestrian movement, with the distribution of goods within neighborhoods performed by porters and pack animals, struck European travelers as a distinctive aspect of Islamic society from the seventeenth century onward. This gave rise in the 1960s to a scholarly debate over whether the “Islamic city” had been shaped by religious doctrine, and was negligent of the public needs of a civil society. More often than not, this theory proved not to reflect the reality of Islamic urban life, particularly when geographically peripheral regions like Indonesia and West Africa were taken into account. Moreover, some Muslim cities did incorporate large public spaces, such as the Royal Square (Maidan–e Shah) in Isfahan or the Djemaa el Fna market in Marrakesh, while others featured grand thoroughfares like the long avenue connecting the Sultan’s palace with the city walls in Istanbul. However, instances of urban planning were more likely to focus on gardens and complexes of buildings centered around mosques or palaces, rather than checkerboard street layouts or uniform building codes that had once been a feature of Roman urbanism and reemerged in Europe in recent centuries.
The infiltration of architectural forms from the West in modern times fits unevenly into this highly diverse pattern with clear influence in some situations and very little in others. For example, although European baroque forms did have an impact on a few Ottoman mosques, like the eighteenth century Nur–u Osmaniye in Istanbul, the influence of Europe is much more easily discerned in entirely new structural types, such as railroad stations, and in efforts to reconfigure urban space to accommodate modern transportation systems and concepts of what a city should be. Plans to “modernize” Muslim cities proliferated in the nineteenth century, sometimes in the form of “modern” cities being built alongside “traditional” cities, as happened in North Africa under French imperial control, and sometimes under the aegis of modernizing Muslim leaders, such as the Pahlavi dynasty in Iran, which favored broad avenues and traffic circles. Most of these plans never got off the drawing board or were not fully realized.
In the present age, the desire for historical preservation competes with the need for innovation in architectural projects throughout the Muslim world. Given the impact that built environments have on local inhabitants and visitors alike, there may today be no area of creative endeavor that is as crucial as architecture to the definition of what is or is not “Islamic.” The fact that major building projects in Muslim countries are often designed by non–Muslims from outside the Muslim world rather than by Muslim architects highlights this problem. Since 1978, the Aga Khan Awards for Architecture have focused international attention on the both the preservation of historic Islamic architecture and the importance of new design initiatives incorporating aspects of that heritage. Meanwhile, the fast–growing new cities of Saudi Arabia and the sheikhdoms of the Persian Gulf do not always place such value on architecture as an expression of Muslim heritage and aesthetics.
26 These are respectively the Arabic and Persian words for “market.”
27 For the story of this development see Richard W. Bulliet, The Camel and the Wheel, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1972.