History – An introduction to Islamic Art in General

In Islam, Human representation is forbidden, because it is thought it could lead to idolatry – an act duly forbidden by the Islamic Law (Syariah) and considered the worst sin a Muslim can commit. With this restriction, Muslim artists have come up with other way to express their creativity. While the art in human depiction, even if it is there in all eras of the Islamic civilization, is not improving, other fields of art emerged and flourished :  calligraphers have improved their skills and made it into a high art form, starting from the first millenia CE with their square, boxy lines of the Kufic scripts, to the curvy, stylized form of the Thultuh scripts. Woodworkers and carpenters created gorgeous creations of woodcarving, with embellishments of geometric and floral arts. Carpet and textiles makers created elegant, flamboyant designs on carpets and cloths – highly sought after and very fashionable in the Middle Age Europe nobility. Stone workers created majestic carvings on stone, immaculate details of vegetal motifs and sharp lines of geometry.

Islamic art developed and derived from many cultures and civilization – Roman, Early Christian and Byzantine, to name a few. These exchanges of aesthetic ideals are even more apparent after the Crusades waged in the 1100’s, when both of the sides travel to each other lands. And in turn, Islamic art also affects other art cultures, for example, the Gothic art, where the horseshoe arch architectural feature of the mosque of La Mezquita is used by the Christian Gothic Cathedrals.

A History of the Islamic Art

In the early days, the empire of Islamic Civilization were not as large – from the Hijaz area of Saudi Arabia to the borders of present-day Syria. During this time, Islamic Art are still in its infancy, with little influence of the other civilizations. At that time, The Roman and Byzantine Civilization were at their Golden Age. Arab traders were very much involved with these hence the Islamic art form were influenced by them.

After the death of the chief prophet of Islam, Muhammad, The Islamic Empire expanded, from the Hijaz mainland to Damascus, to Egypt and Morocco and to Andalusian Spain. By this time, the Muslim army went through many cultures and in turn affects the Muslim artists.

During the Umayyad period (661-750CE) the Islamic Empire expanded tremendously, stretching from the borders of Iran up to the Pyrenees Mountains in Europe. At this time, the Muslim civilization assimilated many art cultures into their own. Byzantine and Roman influences are the most apparent – the usage of gold coloured mosaics used in the decoration of the majestic Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem reflects the Byzantine influences, and The multiple columns of the La Mezquita echoes that of Roman and Grecian temples. Islamic calligraphy also evolved during this time, the scripts become more and more cursive from the squarish lines of the Kufic scripts. The Kufic scripts meanwhile evolved as well, becoming more decorative and more embellished.

The Abbasid Caliphate (750 – 1258 ) followed suit. It is said at this time Islamic Civilization experienced a Golden age – many classical academic works of the Greeks, Roman, Persian, Chinese, Egyptian, Indian and Byzantine were translated into Arabic, and learning was widespread back then. From the knowledge obtained, many new skills and techniques were obtained by the Muslim artists and architects. Islamic art were more apparent and more pronounced than ever before. It still assimilates other art culture, but in the same time still retains the uniqueness. By this time many Islamic architectural features were discovered and improved. The Minarets and Domes, two most prominent features of the Islamic architecture were improvised and highly stylized. The prayer halls were decorated with mosaics and tiles and multitude of pillars and arches. Muqarnas, Iwans and other prominent features of Islamic religious and civil buildings were emerging and improved upon. During the rule of the Abbasid Caliphate, together with the new knowledges, other art forms are improvized and in some cases were given an overhaul of some sort. Quranic manuscripts are no more written boxy Kufic script – It is now written in a cursive script of Nasakh and Thuluth, decorated with gold and embellished with flowery and vegetal motifs. Pottery, tile making and many more began to emerge.

At this time as well, gained from the newly translated Mathematical works of the Greeks and Romans, Muslim artist used their acquired knowledge and presents it in an art form – the geometrical art. These forms decorate and embellish all kinds of items, small or large – from the ceramics and plates to the pierced wall and balustrades to the walls of the mosques and the ceilings of the palaces.

Since then, Islamic art grew, expands and improves. In the end, Islamic Art culture have experienced and assimilated many art cultures and in the process created its own distinct, unique look.


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