Islamic art is perhaps the most accessible manifestation of a complex civilization that often seems enigmatic to outsiders. Through its brilliant use of color and its superb balance between design and form,
Islamic art creates an immediate visual impact. Its strong aesthetic appeal transcends distances in time and space, as well as differences in language, culture, and creed. Islamic art not only invites a closer look but also beckons the viewer to learn more. For an American audience a visit to the Islamic galleries of a museum such as the Los Angeles County Museum of Art can represent the first step toward penetrating the history of a religion and a culture that are often in the news but are little understood.
This website is conceived as a companion to the Islamic galleries at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Intended as a general introduction to Islamic art, it draws upon examples from the museum’s comprehensive collection, which includes works from an area extending from southern Spain to Central Asia, ranging in date from the seventh through the nineteenth century. The text is designed for readers who seek to go beyond the obvious surface beauty of Islamic art to discover the rich historical and cultural traditions from which this art emerged.
The term Islamic art may be confusing to some. It not only describes the art created specifically in the service of Islam, but it also characterizes secular art produced in lands under Islamic rule or influence, whatever the artist’s or the patron’s religious affiliation. The term suggests an art unified in style and purpose, and indeed there are certain common features that distinguish the arts of all Islamic lands. Although this is a highly dynamic art, which is often marked by strong regional characteristics as well as by significant infiuences from other cultures, it retains an overall coherence that is remarkable given its vast geographic and temporal boundaries. Of paramount concern to the development of this singular art is Islam itself, which fostered the creation of a distinctive visual culture with its own unique artistic language.
Calligraphy is the most important and pervasive element in Islamic art. It has always been considered the noblest form of art because of its association with the Qur’an, the Muslim holy book, which is written in Arabic. This preoccupation with beautiful writing extended to all arts—including secular manuscripts; inscriptions on palaces; and those applied to metalwork, pottery, stone, glass, wood, and textiles—and to non-Arabic-speaking peoples within the Islamic commonwealth whose languages—such as Persian, Turkish, and Urdu—were written in the Arabic script.
Another characteristic of Islamic art is a preference for covering surfaces with patterns composed of geometric or vegetal elements. Complex geometric designs, as well as intricate patterns of vegetal ornament (such as the arabesque), create the impression of unending repetition, which is believed by some to be an inducement to contemplate the infinite nature of God. This type of nonrepresentational decoration may have been developed to such a high degree in Islamic art because of the absence of figural imagery, at least within a religious context.
Contrary to a popular misconception, however, figural imagery is an important aspect of Islamic art. Such images occur primarily in secular and especially courtly arts and appear in a wide variety of media and in most periods and places in which Islam flourished. It is important to note, nevertheless, that representational imagery is almost invariably restricted to a private context. Figurative art is excluded from the decoration of religious monuments. This absence may be attributed to an Islamic antipathy toward anything that might be mistaken for idols or idolatry, which are explicitly forbidden by the Qur’an.
In Islamic cultures the so-called decorative arts provide the primary means of artistic expression, in contrast to Western art, in which painting and sculpture are preeminent. Illuminated manuscripts, woven textiles and carpets, inlaid metalwork, blown glass, glazed ceramics, and carved wood and stone all absorbed the creative energies of artists, becoming highly developed art forms. These works include small-scale objects of daily use, such as delicate glass beakers, as well as more monumental architectural decoration, for example, glazed tile panels from building façades. Such objects were meticulously fabricated and carefully embellished, often with rare and costly materials, suggesting that the people for whom they were made sought to surround themselves with beauty.
Royal patronage played an important role in the making of Islamic art, as it has in the arts of other cultures. The construction of mosques and other religious buildings, including their decoration and furnishings, was the responsibility of the ruler and the prerogative of high court officials. Such monuments not only provided for the spiritual needs of the Muslim community but often served educational and charitable functions as well. Royal patronage of secular art was also a standard feature of Islamic sovereignty, one that enabled the ruler to demonstrate the splendor of his court and, by extension, the superiority of his state. Evidence of courtly patronage is derived from the works of art themselves, but an equally important source of information is the extensive body of historical texts that attest to royal sponsorship of the arts almost throughout the Islamic period. These historical works also indicate that only a fraction of such court-sponsored art has survived; objects made of precious materials are particularly rare. From the fourteenth century onward, especially in eastern Islamic lands, the arts of the book provide the best documentation of courtly patronage.
Of course, not all works of Islamic art were sponsored by the court; in fact, the majority of objects and manuscripts in museum collections originated elsewhere. Such works of art—including pottery, base metalware, carpets, and textiles—have often been viewed as the products of urban, middle-class patronage. These objects nonetheless frequently refiect the same styles and make use of the same forms and techniques employed in courtly art.
Whether produced in a courtly or an urban setting or for a religious context, Islamic art is generally the work of anonymous artists. A notable exception is in the sphere of the arts of the book. The names of certain calligraphers are well known, which is not surprising given the primacy of the written word in Islam, as are those of a number of painters, most of whom were attached to a particular court. The identification of these artists has been based on signed or attributed examples of their works and on textual references. Given the great number of extant examples, comparatively few signatures are found on metalwork, pottery, carved wood and stone, and textiles. Those signatures that do occur, combined with rare evidence from contemporary textual sources, suggest that families of artists, often over several generations, specialized in a particular medium or technique.
As this discussion may suggest, Islamic art forms a large and complex subject. While there are several different means of classifying Islamic art, the text that follows adheres to the four-part chronological division used in the Islamic galleries at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. This system of classification is intended to emphasize the overall unity of Islamic art within each of the four chronological periods, while also taking into account the numerous dynasties whose successive reigns punctuate Islamic history and whose patronage had an important impact on the development of Islamic art. The early Islamic period, seventh through tenth century, covers the origins of Islam; the creation of a religious, political, and cultural commonwealth; and the formation of a new style of art. In the early medieval period, from the eleventh through the mid-thirteenth century, and the late medieval period, the mid-thirteenth through the fifteenth century, various regional powers emerged, which promoted diverse forms of cultural expression. Finally, the late Islamic period, the sixteenth through the eighteenth century, was an age of great empires, in which powerful dynastic patronage, more than ever before, helped to promote and shape artistic styles.
Early Islamic Period
Islam arose in the early seventh century under the leadership of the prophet Muhammad. (In Arabic the word Islam means "submission" [to God].) It is the youngest of the world’s three great monotheistic religions and follows in the prophetic tradition of Judaism and Christianity. In fact, Muhammad is considered by Muslims to be the last in the line of Old and New Testament prophets. He is neither a divinity nor a figure of worship, but is called simply Prophet or Messenger of God.
Muhammad (c. 570–632) was born in Mecca, in western Arabia, where he first began to receive the divine revelation and to preach a message of one god, around the year 610. According to Muslim belief, the word of God was disclosed to Muhammad through the intermediary of the archangel Gabriel, who commanded him to "Recite! In the name of thy lord." These revelations were subsequently collected and codified as the Muslim holy book, the Qur’an, which means "recitation" in Arabic, the language of the Prophet and the Qur'an.
Muhammad’s message proclaiming a new religious and social order based on allegiance to one god, Allah, was unpopular among the leaders of Mecca, whose prosperity and influence were tied to their guardianship of the Kacba, a polytheistic sanctuary and place of pilgrimage. In 622 Muhammad and his followers were compelled to leave Mecca, traveling north to the oasis town of Medina. The Prophet’s departure from Mecca is known as the hijra, or emigration; the date of this event marks the beginning of the Muslim calendar. In Medina, Muhammad continued to gather support, and within a few years Mecca, too, had submitted to Islam. Upon his return to Mecca, one of the Prophet’s first acts was to cleanse the Kacba of its idols and to rededicate the shrine to Allah.
While Islam incorporates certain ideas from Judaism and Christianity, such as their prophetic tradition, it has its own tenets and system of beliefs. There are five religious duties incumbent upon all Muslims, which are often referred to as the Five Pillars: first and foremost is the profession of faith: there is no God but Allah; Muhammad is the messenger of Allah. The second duty is prayer, five times a day: at dawn, midday, afternoon, evening, and night. The third obligation is charity to the poor in the form of an alms tax. The fourth duty is fasting from sunrise until sundown during Ramadan, the ninth month of the Muslim calendar. The fifth obligation is, if at all possible, to undertake the pilgrimage, or hajj, to Mecca and the Kacba.
The Qur’an is the cornerstone of Muslim faith, practice, and law. It provides guidelines for social welfare, family and inheritance laws, and proper behavior within the framework of a just and equitable society. The Qur’an does not forbid the creation of figural images, only the making of idols. Restrictions on figurative arts are, however, found in another body of literature known as Hadith, or "tradition." Hadith includes accounts of the sayings, deeds, and thoughts of the Prophet and is superseded in importance only by the Qur’an.
The house of the Prophet in Medina was the first communal gathering place for prayer, and it served as a prototype for the earliest mosques. In congregation the act of prayer, which is intended to create a sense of unity and cohesion, is led by a prayer leader. The first of these prayer leaders was Muhammad, who served as both spiritual leader and statesman for the earliest Muslim community. After the Prophet’s death, to commemorate the place where he had planted his lance when leading prayers, a niche known as a mihrab was introduced at Medina and, soon thereafter, to all other mosques. The mihrab serves to emphasize the qibla, or direction of prayer, which is toward Mecca. Prayer ritual consists of a series of bows and prostrations, performed facing the qibla, in conjunction with praise to God, recitations from the Qur’an, and formulas of prayer. Only the Friday midday prayer service requires attendance at the mosque; all other daily prayers may be said in private.
Following his death in 632, Muhammad was succeeded by a series of four caliphs (the word caliph comes from the Arabic khalifa, meaning successor). Under the command of these caliphs—known as the Rashidun, or Rightly Guided—Arab armies brought the new faith and administration from Arabia to the shores of the Mediterranean and eastward to Iran. To the west, they won control of Syria, Palestine, and Egypt from Byzantium. To the east, the Muslim forces attacked Iraq and Iran, the heart of the Persian empire, thereby ending the long reign of the Sasanian dynasty. cAli, the last of the Rightly Guided caliphs, was assassinated in 661. His death marks the beginning of the religious and political factionalism that gave rise to the Shicite sect. It also ushered in the rule of the first Islamic dynasty, the Umayyads.
The Umayyads shifted the focal point of political power from Arabia to Syria and launched a new wave of invasions. Their armies conquered North Africa and Spain and, to the east, penetrated Central Asia and India. The Islamic empire now extended from the Atlantic Ocean to the Indus River, with Damascus as its capital, Arabic its official language, and Islam its principal religion. Within these disparate lands, which were only gradually transformed into a relatively unified empire, a new civilization began to emerge, which would generate a new style of art.
The Umayyad dynasty was overthrown in 750, following a series of revolts, and the caliphate passed to the Abbasids, who shifted the focus of politics and culture eastward from Syria to Iraq. There, in 762, they founded Baghdad as the new capital of the Islamic state. The first three centuries of Abbasid rule are often described as a golden age in which literature, philosophy, theology, mathematics, and the natural sciences flowered, nourished by the encounter of Arab thought and culture with Greco-Roman, Byzantine, Persian, and Indian traditions. This was also a critical period for the evolution of Islamic art, one in which a distinctive style and new techniques were introduced and disseminated throughout the empire.
By the mid-ninth century Abbasid political unity had begun to crumble, and by the tenth century Abbasid authority was effectively limited to Iraq. Elsewhere in the Islamic world a series of dynasties in Egypt, North Africa, Spain, and Iran fostered the development of indigenous styles of Islamic art.
Early Medieval Period (Eleventh to Mid-Thirteenth Century)
The early medieval period is marked by another wave of invasions, but this time from within the Islamic world. New rulers, of varying ethnic backgrounds, established short-lived regional dynasties, in contrast to the preceding period, in which Arab leadership predominated and the Islamic world was united under the centralized authority of the caliph. This was a time of political change, shifting religious trends, and a great flowering of the arts.
With the deterioration of Abbasid authority, autonomous dynasties soon established themselves in the western territories. In the early tenth century the Shicite Fatimid dynasty came to power in North Africa and soon expanded its authority to Sicily and parts of Egypt. The Fatimid armies completed their conquest of Egypt in 969, and in that year Cairo was founded as the new capital, becoming an important cultural center that was to rival Baghdad. From Egypt the Fatimids extended their domain to Syria. Egypt and Syria enjoyed enormous economic prosperity under the Fatimids, through their control of the lucrative trade between India and the Mediterranean. Furthermore, this was a period of remarkable tolerance, in which members of the Christian and Jewish communities flourished alongside their Muslim counterparts.
Fatimid power effectively ended in 1169, when, in an attempt to rid themselves of the Crusaders, who were then besieging Cairo, the Fatimid rulers sought the aid of a Syrian dynasty. Not only did the Syrians succeed in driving the Crusaders from Egypt, but one of their officers overthrew the Fatimid caliphate, establishing the Ayyubid dynasty.
In deposing the Shicite Fatimid caliph, the founder of the Ayyubid dynasty, Salah al-Din (Saladin), who was of Kurdish descent, also restored Sunni, or orthodox, Islam to Egypt. He expanded his empire to include Yemen, Syria, and Iraq, embarking upon a Holy War against the Crusader states, which he defeated in 1187. Following Salah al-Din’s death, the empire was little more than a confederation of semi-autonomous principalities, each ruled by one of the Ayyubid princes. This empire nonetheless enjoyed a period of relative peace and affiuence.
Elsewhere in the west, Spain had been independently governed from the mid-eighth century by a branch of the Umayyad dynasty, under whose rule Islamic Spain witnessed a golden age. With the fall of this dynasty in 1031, Spain was divided into several minor principalities. Weakened by division, the Muslims were unable to stave off the threat of the Christian reconquest. In 1086 a confederation of Berber clans known as the Almoravids, who had risen to power in Morocco under the banner of Islamic revival and renewal, crossed over into Spain, gaining control of the Muslim south while keeping the Christians in the north at bay. About the mid-twelfth century the Almoravids were supplanted in Morocco and, shortly thereafter, in Spain by another Berber dynasty, the Almohads, who were soon forced from Spain by the inexorable Christian advance.
On the borders of the eastern Islamic world, the large-scale migration of Turkish nomads from the Central Asian steppe shifted the balance of power, and a series of Turkish dynasts soon replaced Persians as rulers of the eastern Iranian world. The first Turkish dynasty, the Ghaznavids, came to power in what is now Afghanistan. The boundaries of the Ghaznavid empire eventually extended from Khurasan in the north to the Indian subcontinent in the south. Despite their Turkish origins, the Ghaznavids spoke Persian, and their patronage helped further the development of modern Persian as a cultural language. The great Iranian national epic, the Shahnama, was completed by the poet Firdawsi at their court in Ghazni in 1010 and was dedicated to their ruler. Soon after, the Ghaznavids forfeited their Iranian provinces to another Turkish dynasty, the Saljuqs.
In the eleventh century the Saljuqs briefly ruled over a vast empire that included all of Iran, the Fertile Crescent, and most of Anatolia, or Turkey. By the end of the century, however, this empire had disintegrated into smaller kingdoms ruled by different branches of the Saljuq house. The so-called Great Saljuqs, the main branch of the dynasty, governed Iran. Like the Ghaznavids, these ethnic Turks embraced Persian culture and adopted the Persian language.
Turkish rule in Asia Minor was initiated under the Saljuqs following their victory over the Byzantine army in eastern Anatolia in 1071. This important event paved the way for the gradual introduction of Islam and Turkish culture into Anatolia. The Saljuq sultanate of Rum (that is, Byzantium) endured until the beginning of the fourteenth century, although from the mid-thirteenth century the Saljuqs served merely as governors under the Mongols.
Late Medieval Period (Mid-Thirteenth to Fifteenth Century)
The Mongol invasions of the thirteenth century, culminating in the subjugation of Baghdad in 1258 and the demise of the Abbasid caliphate, had an enormous impact on large areas of the Islamic world, which now experienced its greatest threat. These conquests were carried out under the command of Hülagü, a grandson of Genghis Khan, who assumed the title Il-Khan, meaning "lesser Khan," a subordinate of the Great (Mongol) Khan in China. The name Il-Khan (or Ilkhanid) is also used to describe the branch of the Mongol dynasty that ruled over Iraq, the Caucasus, parts of Asia Minor, and all of Iran, as far east as Central Asia. From their capital at Tabriz, in northwestern Iran, the Ilkhanids maintained contact with such disparate cultures as China and Christian Europe, thereby invigorating the Iranian world with new mercantile alliances and fresh artistic infiuences. Following the death of the last Ilkhanid ruler in 1335, their empire crumbled and was replaced by a number of local dynasties.
By the end of the fourteenth century the minor principalities that had come to power in Iran were overcome by a new wave of Central Asiatic warriors under the command of Timur (known in the West as Tamerlane). Of Turko-Mongol descent, Timur embarked upon his conquests around 1370, becoming master of his home province of Transoxiana and establishing Samarqand as his capital. Before his death in 1405, as he prepared to invade China, Timur subjugated all of Central Asia, Iran, and Iraq. His other conquests included southern Russia and the Indian subcontinent; to the west, the Timurid forces defeated the Mamluk army in Syria and that of the Ottomans at Ankara.
Under Timur’s less militarily adept successors, the Timurid territories in Iraq were slowly absorbed by two successive Turkman federations of the Qara Quyunlu (Black Sheep) and Aq Quyunlu (White Sheep) tribes. By the end of the fifteenth century only the provinces of Khurasan and Transoxiana remained, and in the last years of the dynasty these were ruled by separate branches of the Timurid family. Members of this dynasty were vigorous sponsors of Persian art and culture whose patronage culminated in the late fifteenth century with the brilliant Timurid court at Herat, in Khurasan. Although the dynasty came to an end in 1507, one member of the Timurid house survived and went on to found the Mughal dynasty in India.
Turning to the west, the Mamluk dynasty supplanted Ayyubid rule in Egypt and Syria. Under the later Ayyubids the army had been transformed into a corps whose highest offices were reserved for Turkish-speaking former military slaves, known as mamluks. By the death of the last Ayyubid ruler, his mamluks had become sufficiently powerful to raise one of their own members to the throne. In 1250 the first such mamluk was proclaimed sultan, inaugurating the period of Mamluk rule and the greatest Islamic dynasty of the late medieval period.
The Mamluks were, first and foremost, soldiers who constructed a powerful military machine formidable enough to halt the advance of the Mongols and to expel the last Crusaders, who had long occupied the Syrian coast. One of the most remarkable aspects of the Mamluks is their creation of a new, self-perpetuating ruling class composed of former military slaves, which excluded members of the indigenous population and often prevented even their own heirs from succeeding to their position and property. In part as a means of allowing their offspring to benefit from their wealth, the Mamluks built and lavishly endowed innumerable religious foundations, which were controlled by their descendants. Cairo, their capital, became an enormously rich city and a center of intellectual and artistic activity. Even today it is marked by the tall domes, lofty stone façades, and balconied minarets that characterize Mamluk architecture.
In Spain a coalition of Christian kings had forced the Berber Almohads to retreat to North Africa. All remaining Muslim lands in the south fell to the Christians, with the exception of the province of Granada, which came under the control of the Nasrids, the last Islamic dynasty in Spain. In order to preserve his kingdom, the Nasrid ruler became a vassal of the Christian king in Castile, thereby staving off the dual threat from the Christians in the north and from the Muslims in North Africa, who sought to regain Spain for Islam. Despite its ultimately untenable political situation, the kingdom of Granada survived as a great cultural center in the Muslim West for more than two and a half centuries. In 1492 Granada fell to the forces of Ferdinand and Isabella, who had united Spain under their rule, bringing to an end not only the Nasrid dynasty but more than seven hundred years of an Islamic presence on the Iberian peninsula as well.
During this period the long reign of the Saljuqs of Rum in Anatolia was coming to an end; they survived until the turn of the fourteenth century, but under Mongol suzerainty. In the fourteenth century Anatolia was apportioned into several principalities under the rule of different Turkish dynasties. Foremost among these were the Ottomans, who established themselves in the northwestern corner of Asia Minor.
Throughout the fifteenth century the Ottomans gradually consolidated their hold over Anatolia, but their crowning military achievement came in 1453, with the conquest of Constantinople and the final destruction of the Byzantine empire. The golden age of the Ottomans is considered in the Late Islamic Period section.
Late Islamic Period (Sixteenth to Eighteenth Century)
The late Islamic period was an age of empires, when the Islamic world was governed by three powerful dynasties: the Safavids in Iran; the Mughals in India; and the greatest of the late Islamic dynasties, the Ottomans, who ruled Anatolia, the Arab lands, and much of eastern Europe. Although the Ottomans already controlled all of Anatolia and parts of eastern Europe prior to 1453 and their conquest of Constantinople (thereafter Istanbul), which they made their capital, the sixteenth century was the Ottoman golden age. In 1517 the Mamluk empire fell to them, and by the middle of the sixteenth century Ottoman control extended from central Europe to the Indian Ocean. The Ottoman empire reached the peak of its military and political potency under Sulayman the Magnificent (r. 1520–66), whose armies advanced as far west as Vienna. To Sulayman’s reign also belong some of the greatest achievements of Ottoman architecture, particularly the enormous and incomparable mosques and religious foundations that he had built in Istanbul.
Ottoman power began to weaken in the century following Sulayman’s death. For the first time the Ottoman army experienced large-scale military defeat at the hands of the Europeans, whose military and economic power continued to overwhelm them in the eighteenth century. The empire was finally dismantled following Ottoman defeat in World War I, with only Anatolia remaining under Turkish rule.
In the early sixteenth century Iran was united under the rule of the Safavid dynasty, whose members traced their descent to Shaykh Safi, a Sufi who founded a dervish order at Ardabil, in northwestern Iran. In 1501 the young and charismatic Ismacil Safavi seized control of northwestern Iran from the Aq Quyunlu and was proclaimed the first Safavid Shah, in Tabriz, the new capital. Ismacil established Shicite Islam as the official religion of the Safavid state, which at the time consisted only of the province of Azerbayjan. Within a decade, however, all of Iran was under Safavid control.
The greatest of the Safavid rulers was Shah cAbbas (r. 1587–1629), who inherited a kingdom beset by political, financial, and military troubles. As part of his political and fiscal reforms, cAbbas transferred his capital to Isfahan, in southern Iran, where he built a new city adjoining the old one. cAbbas also advocated trade with Europe, to which Iran exported silk, along with carpets, textiles, and ceramics. Under cAbbas, Iran reached new heights of power, prosperity, and opulence, and although his successors failed to match his achievements, they continued his traditions for another century, until the fall of the Safavid dynasty in 1732.