Islam and the Arts

PHL 320
August 28, 2010

          Islamic arts are “a fusion of many different cultures, the most influential of which are Turkish, Persian, and particularly and originally Arabic,” according to authors Janetta Rebold Benton and Robert DiYanni of Arts and Culture: An Introduction to the Humanities (2008).  Before the development of Islam, historians assert there was very little art in the Arabic culture in Arabia (Benton & DiYanni, 2008).  Even though Muhammad, the Prophet who is believed to have received messages from God, warned against material things such as idols and their worship, other forms of Islamic arts developed over the centuries.     
          Though a lot of Islamic art is centered on religious themes, not all is devoted to decorating mosques or copies of the Qur’an.  Sabiha Al Khemir, a respected authority on Islamic art, is quoted in an article written by Amy Crawford where she describes Islamic art when asked about misconceptions Western societies have about this style:       
          Most people from the Western world would think that imagery is forbidden in Islam and that Islamic art is in 
          fact geometry-the arabesque. But if we look at Islamic art from the seventh century to the present day, in all 
          media- ceramics, glass, painting, metalwork- and across the world, from Syria and Iraq to China, all Islamic 
          art has figurative representation. It is not allowed in a religious space, but it is not forbidden in secular space. 
The San Diego Museum of Art has a collection of Islamic art that includes paintings, ceramics and mosaics that show imagery of people in various scenes.  Not all Islamic art in the United States is religious in nature.  The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York displays early, Medieval and later Islamic artwork.  Islamic art is unique in that it incorporates elements from different cultures as the religion spreads from one area to another.  Islamic Art produced in modern day Iran may have distinct characteristics not found in Islamic art from India.  However, there are common threads that one can see throughout the vast collection of Islamic art.
          The most common architectural Islamic buildings are mosques.  Mosques are Muslim places of worship.  However, Islam does not require Muslims to pray in a designated place; only that the worshiper is faces the city of Mecca.  By the eighth century CE, mosques began to be built by Muslim rulers throughout the Arabic world in response to the massive Christian churches that were built by the Byzantine Empire (Benton & DiYanni, 2008).  Islamic mosques typically conform to a roughly standardized floor plan.  There are certain required features that must be included in the mosque.  Rectangular in shape, the center of the mosque is an open courtyard with a fountain used for ritual purification (Benton & DiYanni, 2008).  “Columns and arches” line walkways along the outer walls and lead the visitor to a niche called the mihrab (Benton & DiYanni, 2008).    The mihrab is always placed on the wall that faces in the direction of Mecca (Benton & DiYanni, 2008).  Because of this, mosques are always built in such a way that the mihrab is on the correct wall.  The tower that is located in the corner of the mosque is called the minaret.  The muezzin is the person who climbs the tower and calls worshipers to pray (Benton & DiYanni, 2008).  The interiors of mosques, like that of the Great Hall at Córdoba (Cordova) in Spain that was begun around 784-6 CE, feature large prayer halls with towering two-story arches painted in red and white stripes (Kleiner, 2009; Benton & DiYanni, 2008).  The massive ceilings are supported by columns that create a forest like environment, without feeling closed in and still very open.  Unlike Christian churches, one will not find paintings or carvings of religious figures or scenes from the Qur’an or other sacred texts.  Instead, the interiors are decorated with sophisticated and complex geometric patterns of blue and gold tiles.  Low relief sculptures and layers of built up stucco create the decorative elements around the columns and walls (Benton & DiYanni, 2008).  The mihrab niches are usually decorated with blue and gold painted tiles.  Most famous is the mihrab from the Madrasa Imami, Isfahan in Iran.  Built around 1354 CE, the title work forms an intricate mosaic pattern of calligraphy writing and patterns that line the inside of the niche (Kleiner, 2009).  The niche’s interior has a pointed arch similar to a French Gothic arch that is pointed verses a semicircular arch.  Another notable mosque is Sinan, Mosque of Sultan Sulayman in Instanbul which has similar characteristics of the Hagia Sophia Byzantine church of the same city (Benton & DiYanni, 2008).  This mosque has a large domed center with smaller half domes circling around the perimeter.  It also has a tall minaret.  The outside displays the nature stone color with little decoration besides the details made of stone.  In contrast, the Dome of the Rock is highly decorated on its exterior with blue and gold painted tiles.  Built around 687-692 CE in Jerusalem, the Dome of the Rock is arguably the most recognizable Islamic structure in the world.  Its octagonal shape was built on the Temple Mound which is where the Temple of the Jews once stood to honor the site of Abraham’s sacrifice and where the Prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven (Fisher, 2008).  Thus, this site has religious significance to the Jewish population, Christians and Muslims.  The exterior of the Dome of the Rock displays a central dome encrusted with gold and blue and gold painted tiles with calligraphy and geometric patterns.  The interior of the dome also includes painted tiles; however, they have a more organic feel with curved lines.  The columns and arches are similar to those found in other Islamic structures.  
          The common threads found throughout Islamic architecture are the interior striped arches, painted blue and gold tiles in geometric patterns, and the decorative use of calligraphy writing.  Noticeably absent are images of religious figures as the Prophet Muhammad found idol worship to be against the teachings he received from God.  As such, Islamic artists were able to perfect other types of architectural elements that don’t replicate the natural world as other cultures had done.  The intricate detailed geometric designs used to embellish the interiors and exteriors are a testament to their ability to perfect the skill.  These elements are distinctly unique to Islamic architecture and though some elements can be found in other architectural styles, they are almost always included together in traditional Islamic structures.                       
          Since the depiction of religious figures is not allowed in religious places to ensure people do not worship idols instead of Allah, calligraphy has evolved as a prominent decorative element in Islamic art.  In the pages of the Qur’an, the text is written in calligraphy which gives the words an artistic element not as readily found in other holy books (Bentley & Ziegler, 2008).  Calligraphy is used to embellish mosques and other religious artworks.  It serves a dual purpose, the meaning of the text and its aesthetic value (Bentley & Ziegler, 2008).  Islamic calligraphy is very linear and yet has a softness and beauty that looks as though it just was written by a scribe.  The New Indian Express describes Islamic calligraphy as “ornate” and points out how the “manuscripts [illustrate] the aesthetics involved in turning writing into an art form” (2010).  Truly, Islamic artists have been able to transform the Arabic alphabet into beautiful art.  Even though human depictions are forbidden in religious settings, they are allowed in other artwork.  Matthew Mosley (2010), staff writer for the Daily Star, writes about a poster made by Sepideh Farsi for the film “Dreams of Dust” in 2003 where the artist “creates the form of a woman’s veiled body from white curlicues of text, her face peeking out of the lettering.”  Even in contemporary Islamic art, calligraphy is being used to decorate and convey meaning.
          Islamic paintings found in secular settings, boost rich bright colors of blue, yellow, orange, red and green.  Scenes within the paintings are usually shown with a combination of people and the geometric patterns typically seen in mosques.  Islamic painters, like Jami in the sixteenth century, attempted to use perspective in their paintings while incorporating patterns on the two-dimensional walls, the paintings have a recognizable style.  The “patterned two-dimensional quality of Islamic painting is similar to Chinese painting” (Benton & DiYanni, 2009).  Many Islamic paintings are found within illuminated manuscripts.   
          Illuminated manuscripts are books with colorful painted pages that compliment the text.  An example of one was painted by a Turkish painter and is known as the Sessions of the Lovers (Benton & DiYanni, 2009).  This illumination shows a Sufist group dancing in a mystical trance believing it will bring them closer to God (Allah) (Benton & DiYanni, 2009).  While the page includes the painting, it also incorporates calligraphy at the top and geometric and floral patterns within the scene.  All of which is very common in Islamic art.  What is interesting about these illuminated manuscripts is that the theme is still related to the Islamic teachings; however, they would not be displayed in a mosque so they are not in violation of any of Muhammad’s directions.     
          The Islamic arts also include contributions to philosophy, mathematics, science and scholarship.  While most people can look at Islamic painting in a museum or view the decorated titles on a mosque and see how Islam has contributed to the global body of artwork, it may not be so apparent the contributions to other areas of culture it has made.  With the written language of Arabic, Muslim scholars were able to advance their philosophical understanding (Bentley & Ziegler, 2008).   Using “terms drawn from Aristotle and Plato,” Avicenna, a Muslim doctor and philosopher, was able to “link Greek philosophy with Islamic beliefs” in the twelfth century (Benton & DiYanni, 2008).  Muslim scholars recognized the importance of the Greek philosophers and acquired vast libraries which probably helped to redistribute the ancient information to Europe after the Middles Ages (Bentley & Ziegler, 2008).  As for mathematics, the Arabic numerical system allowed for Al-Khwaizmi, a famous Muslim scholar, to develop algebra which would have been extremely difficult had he been using Roman numerals (Bentley & Ziegler, 2008).  He is known for the use of a zero in his equations (Bentley & Ziegler, 2008).  Another Muslim mathematician was Al Uglidisi who invented the decimal fraction (Bentley & Ziegler, 2008).  Not only did Islam help to develop and spread philosophy and mathematics, it also advanced sciences.  Muslim chemists discovered how to distill alcohol, even though it is forbidden in their culture (Bentley & Ziegler, 2008).  Muslim astronomers figured out how to measure a star’s altitude “above the horizon” (Bentley & Ziegler, 2008).  Muslim doctors also documented illnesses and their treatments to create medical books (Bentley & Ziegler, 2008).  The list goes on for all the scientific discoveries that are attributed to Muslim scholars.  It can be argued that it was Muhammad’s quest to “seek knowledge” that influenced Muslim scholars to study the ancient Greeks, preserve their work and build upon it (Bentley & Ziegler, 2008).     
          Islam has made great contributions to the arts.  Whether through architectural design, calligraphy, painting, philosophy, mathematics, science or scholarship, the world owes a great deal to this religion and the Prophet Muhammad who began the movement for God.  While most Westerners may not realize Muslim artists are allowed to paint people and religious events or ceremonies, they did and continue to do so.  Yes, Islamic geometric patterns are highly developed, but so are the illuminated manuscripts with brightly colors blocks of color.  The unique fusion of Turkish, Persian and Arabic styles have allowed Islamic art to easily integrate into many cultures throughout Europe, Asia, Africa and the Americas.  Its sophisticated designs, bright colors and scholarly drive have clearly made Islam highly influential on the arts.   

Author Unknown.  (2010). A foray into Islamic Art.  The New Indian Express. Retrieved from 


Bentley, J. H., Ziegler, H. F. (2008).  Traditions & Encounters: A Global Perspective on the Past (4th ed.). Boston, 
          MA: McGraw Hill.
Benton, J. R., DiYanni, R. (2008).  Arts and Culture: An Introduction to the Humanities (3rd ed.). Upper Saddle 
          Reiver, New Jersey: Pearson Prentice Hall.
Crawford, A. (2010). Q&A: Sabiha Al Khemir Islam and the West.  Smithsonian, 41(4), 104,134.  Retrieved from


Fisher, M. P.  (2008).  Living Religions. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall.
Kleiner, F. S. (2009).  Gardner’s Art Through The Ages: A Concise Global History (2nd ed.).  Boston, MA: 
          Wadsworth Cengage Learning.
Metropolitan Museum of Art. (2010). Islamic Art. Retrieved from

Mosley, M. (2010). Invocations of Islamic art.  The Daily Star. Retrieved from 

© Copyright 2010. Alyssa Burley.