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This superbly illuminated page originally formed the right half of a double-page opening to a section of a Qur’an. It combines the three main Islamic types of nonfigural decoration: calligraphy, vegetal patterns, and geometric patterns. The vegetal patterns here are the classical scrolls utilized as the background to the calligraphy, within the compartments of the geometric interlace, and in the text frame and margin medallion. Two ground colors are used to introduce additional patterning.
With the spread of Islam outward from the Arabian Peninsula in the seventh century, the figurative artistic traditions of the newly conquered lands profoundly influenced the development of Islamic art. Ornamentation in Islamic art came to include figural representations in its decorative vocabulary, drawn from a variety of sources. Although the often cited opposition in Islam to the depiction of human and animal forms holds true for religious art and architecture, in the secular sphere, such representations have flourished in nearly all Islamic cultures.
The Islamic resistance to the representation of living beings ultimately stems from the belief that the creation of living forms is unique to God, and it is for this reason that the role of images and image makers has been controversial.
The term Islamic art not only describes the art created specifically in the service of the Muslim faith (for example, a mosque and its furnishings) but also characterizes the art and architecture historically produced in the lands ruled by Muslims, produced for Muslim patrons, or created by Muslim artists. As it is not only a religion but a way of life, Islam fostered the development of a distinctive culture with its own unique artistic language that is reflected in art and architecture throughout the Muslim world.
With its geographic spread and long history, Islamic art was inevitably subject to a wide range of regional and even national styles and influences as well as changes within the various periods of its development. It is all the more remarkable then that, even under these circumstances, Islamic art has always retained its intrinsic quality and unique identity. Just as the religion of Islam embodies a way of life and serves as a cohesive force among ethnically and culturally diverse peoples, the art produced by and for Muslim societies has basic identifying and unifying characteristics. Perhaps the most salient of these is the predilection for all-over surface decoration. The four basic components of Islamic ornament are calligraphy, vegetal patterns, geometric patterns, and figural representation.
Department of Islamic Art,
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Leaf from a Qur'an, 1302–8; Ilkhanid Ira (Baghdad)Ink, gold, and colors on paper
Plate, 14th century; Mamluk
Syria or EgyptGlass, free-blown, tooled,
enameled, and gilded
Diam. 8 1/2 in. (21.6 cm)Edward C. Moore Collection,
Bequest of Edward C. Moore,
The spectacular enameled
objects produced by Egyptian
and Syrian glassmakers in the
Ayyubid and Mamluk periods, especially from the mid-thirteenth to the late fourteenth century, are unsurpassed. Flat dishes, such as this fourteenth-century example, were rather uncommon. Its geometric decoration unfolds on two levels, the most immediate represented by the combination of the five tangential circles, drawn in a continuous looping line, that dominate the composition. The second and subtler level is found within the four outer circles, where a complex star pattern was created. The pleasant chromatic contrast of blue, white, and red enamels, and gilding emphasizes the basic elements of both the geometric and the vegetal motifs in this complex design.
Container in the shape of a
horse and rider, 12th–13th century
Iran Composite body, underglaze-painted
This figurine represents the
relatively rare sculptural tradition
within Islamic art. Although the
function of this and other such
Seljuq equestrian figures is not
entirely known, they appear to portray a significant personage.
Dish, last quarter of 16th century; Ottoman Iznik, Turkey The animals on this dish, some more recognizable than others, may derive from representations on Seljuq metalwork. The central design is, in effect, a painted menagerie, an approach not often attempted by Iznik potters before around 1570. Another group of animals pursue one another on the rim of the dish. The bold effect of the bright green ground is heightened by the potter's decision to leave the cavetto blank, in essence providing breathing room for the composition.
Vegetal patterns employed alone or in combination with the other major types of ornament—calligraphy, geometric pattern, and figural representation—adorn a vast number of buildings, manuscripts, objects, and textiles, produced throughout the Islamic world. Unlike calligraphy, whose increasingly popular use as ornament in the early Islamic Arab lands represented a new development, vegetal patterns and the motifs they incorporate were drawn from existing traditions of Byzantine culture in the eastern Mediterranean and Sasanian Iran.
While many religions have made use of figural images to convey their core convictions, Islam has instead used the shapes and sizes of words or letters. Because Islamic leaders saw in figural arts a possible implication of idolatry, Islam's early theocracy looked to the artistry of calligraphy for religious expression. In Islamic and Arabic cultures, calligraphy became highly respected as an art -- the art of writing. The development of Arabic calligraphy did not follow a linear movement. A number of various forms appeared simultaneously, especially at auspicious times of intense creative activities within the field of writing.
There are numerous form of script that have developed over the ages. Each influenced by many factors from the region to the artist.
Omar Ibn al-Khattab, one of the disciples of the Prophet Muhammad, urged the Caliph Abu Bakr to put the Holy Qur'an in writing. (Circa 632)
Reaching near levels of perfection, the cursive scripts, especially Thuluth, continued to evolve very distinctive and elegant ornamental versions. The beauty of these new versions of Thuluth set them in a position to compete with Kufic script within the field of epigraphy. Moreover, the scripts were, and still are, used in copying the Holy Qur'an, as well as in secular manuscripts.
Whether isolated or used in combination with nonfigural ornamentation or figural representation, geometric patterns are popularly associated with Islamic art, largely due to their aniconic quality. These abstract designs not only adorn the surfaces of monumental Islamic architecture but also function as the major decorative element on a vast array of objects of all types. The four basic shapes, or "repeat units," from which the more complicated patterns are constructed are: circles and interlaced circles; squares or four-sided polygons; the ubiquitous star pattern, ultimately derived from squares and triangles inscribed in a circle; and multisided polygons. It is clear, however, that the complex patterns found on many objects include a number of different shapes and arrangements, allowing them to fit into more than one category.
ca. 1650; MughalThis fragmentary carpet represents the highest level of Indian production, what might be called imperial grade. Northern India, Kashmir or LahorePashmina wool and silk; pile weave, pashmina wool pile on silk foundation, 1,023 asymmetrical knots per square inch
second half of 16th century; OttomanOttoman textiles illustrate the taste of the period for splendid floral silks, used for garments and furnishings. Turkey, Bursa or IstanbulSilk and metal thread; a compound weave (satin and twill)
Jali screen (one of a pair), second
half of 16th century; MughalProbably from Fatehpur Sikri, IndiaCarved red sandstone
H. 73 1/4 in. (186 cm), W. 51 3/16 in.
Jalis (pierced screens) were used
extensively in Indian architecture as
windows, room dividers, and railings
around thrones, platforms, terraces,
and balconies. Installed in outer
walls, they were ideal for cutting
down glare while permitting air to
circulate. During the day, the reflection of their patterns moving across the floor would double the pleasure of their intricate geometry.
Six Calligraphy Styles
9th century; AbbasidIraq Carved WoodThese doors illustrate one variety of the so-called beveled style—a symmetrical abstract floral motif—and were probably originally painted and highlighted with gilding. The doors are said to have been found at Takrit, but probably came from Samarra’.
second half of 8th
century; AbbasidEgypt Fig wood and bone / Possibly from the side of a cenotaph (a monument erected in honor of a person whose remains are elsewhere. The geometric motif may derive from the Roman mosaic and the carved bone plaques in the central section bear vine scrolls with a purely classical lineage.
With the exception of the garden and its usual reference to paradise, vegetal motifs and patterns in Islamic art are largely devoid of symbolic meaning.