Islamic art is a term that encompasses a variety of visual arts that began from the 7th century onwards, hailing from regions of the world with strong Islamic populations. As you can imagine, this encompasses a great deal. In this post, we’ll provide an introduction into Islamic art.
Islamic Art vs. Religious Art
One of the most interesting aspects to note about Islamic art is that it is not synonymous with religious art. Western audiences may erroneously think it similar to the paintings of Biblical scenes that can often be found in European museums. But in fact, Islamic art frequently includes secular elements as well – the name is more in reference to a region than to a religion.
Interestingly, Islamic art usually does not focus on depictions on figures. This is usually avoided, as the depiction of the human form can, to certain Muslims, be seen as a form of idolatry. Instead, Islamic art has a great focus on patterns in various forms – geometric, floral and even calligraphic. The two main forms of Islamic patterns are specifically arabesque and girih.
Arabesque patterns are curved-patterns that recreate foliage and other forms of curving tendrils. The sweeping, scrolling designs bring to mind the beauty of nature. Artists who work in this style traditionally would include a small misstep in the pattern. This was seen to be a sign of humility and an acknowledgement that only God is able to create something perfect.
Girih patterns are more angular. They are made up of interlocking geometric lines that usually take the shape of stars or other polygons. These patterns are carefully made with the help of compasses or dividers to ensure perfect symmetry. Girih patterns are often seen in tiles in Islamic buildings.
Islamic art is also quite noted for its beautiful ceramics and pottery. Historic Islamic potters developed cutting edge technology at that time. Furthermore, this allowed the creation of pieces that were truly unique and beautiful. Also, Islamic potters were among the first to develop the technique of tin-opacified glazing. The whiteness and opaqueness created by this form of glazing encouraged decoration with colour. Lustre ware was another Islamic technique, first developed in Mesopotamia in the 9th century. Lustre ware is a technique that gives the ceramics a metallic glaze, so that the ceramic maintains a striking iridescent glow.
Islamic pottery was highly sought after by European collectors. One example of this is the albarello, a type of jar used by apothecaries to store their ointments and herbs. These jars were usually highly decorated. When they were first brought to Italy by traders in the 15th century, they became very fashionable. Italian potters used these Islamic designs as inspiration and worked to create and decorate albarellos in a style of their own.
Islamic rugs, better known as Oriental rugs, are probably the Islamic art product that is most known to the rest of the world. In the Islamic world, these rugs can be seen in various forms, from floor coverings to prayer mats to even cushions. The earliest patterns of Islamic carpets were decorated with straight geometric lines, which were the simplest to do with the techniques available at that time. As techniques improved, the patterns changed to incorporate the curving arabesque loops that are now most common in Oriental rugs. Common designs usually have a central medallion-style motif called a gul, with wide, bold borders. These pieces can make a striking addition to any household. Therefore, it’s no wonder that these rugs have become famous throughout the world.
Islamic calligraphy is found in countless forms of Islamic art products – coins, tiles, metalwork, paintings and even the walls of buildings. The practice of Islamic calligraphy is tied into the Qur’an and religious practice. Writing is a central notion in Islam. In fact, it is claimed that the Prophet Mohammed once said, “The first thing God created was the pen.”
Several styles of Islamic calligraphy have arisen, but the most popular two are specifically kufic and naskh.
Kufic: This is the oldest form of the script, which focuses on angular, rigid strokes. While it is at heart a linear form of writing, floral or foliated versions have also developed over time.
Naskh: Naskh is a cursive script. Originally, it was considered informal as it lacked the discipline and elegance of the traditional kufic mode of writing. However, as Islam grew more popular, the need for a script that could be written out faster grew. The Naskh style was in fact developed to combine the ease of cursive with the neatness of a defined writing system. Soon this became the most popular style of Islamic calligraphy.
Today, examples of Islamic calligraphy in the UAE can be seen everywhere from the lobbies of modern Arabian buildings to contemporary artworks made by up-and-coming Emirati artists.
Islamic art takes many shapes and forms. The list above is a just a small selection of what the term encompasses. We hope you found this introduction to Islamic art useful. If you’d like to learn more about Islamic art and its prevalence in everyday Arabian life, our Art Tour of Dubai takes you to see insightful examples of what the forms looked like in the past and what they look like today.