By Nadia Cassim
Research Contributor: Sumaya Seedat
As Elisabeth Siddiqui so aptly states, “Art is the mirror of a culture and its world view” She goes on to state that in the Islamic world, this is truer than ever as Islamic art reflects the different lands, culture and people which Muslims have ruled over. Furthermore, the spiritual ethos of Islam is central to the art form. As Siddiqui explains, “for the Muslim, reality begins with and centres around God (“Allah” in Arabic), the One, the Unique, the Sovereign, the Holy, the Almighty, the All-Knowing, the Loving, the Most Merciful. All existence is subject to His will and His laws. He is the centre of conscious Muslims’ worship and aspirations, the focus of their lives”¹
This ethos finds its way into the physical expression of art in Islam in the form of painting, calligraphy, ceramics, architecture, carpets and rugs, glass work and metal work². Islamic art is more about beautification and ornamentation, then “art for art’s sake”¹. Produced from the 7th century onwards, Islamic art styles have been adapted from early Christian art, Byzantine and Roman styles as well as pre-Islamic Persian influences (Sassanian)². Thus, Islamic art is not necessarily religious art, but depictive of the time and place that Islam ruled.
A method employed in classifying Islamic art is according to the dynasty or influential power that ruled at the time the art piece was produced, which in turn had an influence on the art style. The various dynasties began with the Umayyad dynasty and the Abbasid dynasty that governed a vast Islamic state, concluding with the more powerful dynasties such as the Safavids, Ottomans and Mughals².
For instance, during the reign of Suleyman “the magnificent” or “the law maker”, the influence of Islamic art spread throughout what was then known as the Ottoman Empire (as far as Vienna, Hungary, Iraq, and important North African Ports). Suleyman’s reign thus covered large areas of Europe, Asia and Africa, thus dubbing it the Golden Age as it encapsulated an age of cultural activity, trade and economic expansion³. An example of the influence of his reign on significant Islamic architecture can be seen by the Tile Revetment in the Dome of The Rock, Jerusalem.
Arabic calligraphy is one of the most common expressions of Islamic art throughout the ages. It is not unique in terms of its employment as a method of cultural expression- others include “Chinese and Japanese calligraphy and illuminated bibles from north-west Europe including the famous Book of Kells”⁴– but it has transcended the ordinary by being more creative and versatile. It has been able to convey the deeper meaning of a script (often Quranic), with adaptability and balance. Arabic calligraphy is often drawn on mediums such as glass, ceramics, sculptures and paintings, wood and textiles.⁴
Largely influenced by the Roman and Sassanian glass-making techniques, Islamic glass found its recognition in the late 8th and early 9th century. Glass was used for purposes such as inkwells, perfume sprayers, mosque lamps and beads for jewellery. Glass was also used for medicinal purposes such as in the production of test tubes and cuppers.⁵
Islamic-influenced rugs and carpets have become famous throughout the world. They vary in size and shape and range from cushions to rugs and even bags. The Islamic prayer mat also boasts patterns of Islamic art, used in homes and mosques alike, hung on walls and draped over furniture². Under the Ottoman, Safavid and Mughal dynasties the making of carpets and rugs became more than just a domestic practice passed down from generation to generation, but rather a worldwide trade and industry. Under Shah Abbas (1587-1629) carpets were traded throughout Europe, in particular, England, France and Spain. In Ottoman Turkey, after the conquest of Egypt and Persia, carpet weaving techniques and patterns changed to accommodate new influences. Since most carpets are not dated their depiction in Flemish paintings are often used as a method of dating their presence and influence. Common patterns and colours on most Islamic rugs and carpets are floral designs, geometric shapes in hues of blue and red⁶. The significance of rugs and carpets in Islam is further emphasized by the Quran’s mention of them in Surah 88, Verses 8-20
“In the Islamic period, conquests and trade within the region and beyond resulted in technological innovations such as metallic glazing, a wide colour palette, and the imitation and adaptation of Chinese production techniques long before these innovations reached the West”⁷Ceramics from the Muslim world not only shed light on the culture and nature of society at the time, but it also gives insight into non-religious or nonspiritual art in Islam. Whilst the depiction of figures are frowned upon in Islam for fear of idol worship emerging as a result, there exist ceramics from the Muslim world with figurines alongside calligraphy and geometric designs⁷
Modern and contemporary artwork has reached new heights and expression. Whilst designs dating back from the 17th Century are being translated into modern works, many of the patterns are being reproduced using machines. There are still a lot of controversial artworks being produced by local artists worldwide, depicting the human figure or eyes in portraits². With regards to architecture, the continuous revamping on the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina and the Holy Mosque in Mecca is testimony of the ever-evolving nature of Islamic art.
⁶Marka S, 2011, Department of Islamic Art The Metropolitan Museum of Art, http://islamic-arts.org/2011/carpets-from-the-islamic-world/