Islam and Art
Context: Muhamed (Mahomet, Mohammed, Muhammad) 570-632 (see Stokstad page 348 The Life of the Prophet Muhammad)
Islam - to submit or surrender
Koran Qur'an - recitation
The Qur'an (literally, Reading, or Recitation) is regarded as the Word, or Speech, of God delivered to Muhammad by the angel Gabriel. Divided into 114 surahs (chapters) of unequal length, it is the fundamental source of Islamic teaching. The surahs revealed at Mecca during the earliest part of Muhammad's career are concerned with ethical and spiritual teachings and the Day of Judgment. The surahs revealed at Medina at a later period in the career of the Prophet are concerned with social legislation and the politico-moral principles for constituting and ordering the community. Sunnah ("a well-trodden path") was used by pre-Islamic Arabs to denote their tribal or common law; in Islam it came to mean the example of the Prophet; i.e., his words and deeds as recorded in compilations known as Hadith.

Pillars of Islam,
Arabic ARKAN AL-ISLAM, the five duties incumbent on every Muslim:

  • shahadah, the Muslim profession of faith;
  • salat, or ritual prayer, performed in a prescribed manner five times each day;
  • zakat, the alms tax levied to benefit the poor and the needy;
  • sawm, fasting during the month of Ramadan; and
  • hajj, the major pilgrimage to Mecca.

  • Page from Koran in Kufic Script
    probably 9th C
    ink, pigments, and gold on vellum
    Form:  This manuscript page, made on animal skin, marks the evolution of Muslim calligraphy.  There are no images in earlier Islamic manuscripts.  The lack of imagery is referred to aniconic (without icons).  The letters and words however are extremely ornamental and curvilinear and echo the forms of the decorative round medallions and shapes done in gold leaf.  This kind of interlocking complex ornamentation is referred to by European art historians as an arabesque.  Some of the letter forms have been deliberately distorted or stylized in order to become more decorative.  Important names and concepts are highlighted and ornamented with gold leaf.

    Iconography:  One might assume that since Islamic manuscript writing is aniconic or devoid of representational images, that it lacks iconography but this is not so.  The decorative qualities of how things are written, called calligraphy (calos- beautiful graphy- to write) is symbolic in and of itself.  The beauty and care in which the letters, words, and decorative forms are written is symbolic of the beauty of the meaning of the words and phrases.

    Context:  Islam, like Christianity and Judaism (the second commandment for those two faiths) has an aniconic tradition.   In Christianity and Judaism the second commandment forbids the representation of animals or humans but this is not actually true for Islamic art.   It is often mistakenly thought to be true because there are no images of humans in the Koran or in mosque decorations.  The reason for this lack is that there are no holy figures written about in the Koran and god could not be represented; but it is known that there are representations of Mohammed, although not many, and it is known that early Islamic art forms do depict human figures although sometimes they are interwoven with the calligraphy; later they become clearer and more focal.

    Islamic artists or calligraphers, developed the decorative forms of calligraphy in order to decorate and honor the words of their sacred text but chose to take the commandment quite literally.  Gardner states that,
    the practice of calligraphy was itself a holy task and one requiring long and ardouous training.  The scribe must be a person of exceptional spiritual refinement: an ancient Arabic proverb proclaims, "purity of writing is purity of soul."
    Since Islam shares in many of the ideas expressed in the Old Testament, one of the concepts they share with Jews and Christian is the second commandment which forbids the creation of graven images.  Early Jews and Christians took this commandment quite literally and did not create any such sculptures or images.  The rational was that image making could lead to idolatry.  It is not until Jews interact with the Romans and Persians that they decide to introduce images into their work.  Some Jewish groups felt that the word graven indicated a ban on sculptural images but both graphic ones.  Christians were split over this decision but came on a comprise in which images were useful because they instructed.

    The term Kufic that you will see on many early examples of Islamic calligraphy actually describes the region from where the script was first developed which was a city called Kufia or Kufa in Persia.  Stokstad discusses the evolution of later different script styles on page 352.

    Mohammed Ali (calligrapher)Indian , active 18th century
    A page of calligraphy from the Lady Coote Album, circa 1780
    Black and red inks, transparent and opaque watercolor, and 
    gold paint on paper mounted to an album page with elaborately 
    ornamented borders in ink,transparent and opaque watercolor 
    and gold paint
    44.6 x 61.5 cm (album page); 23.5 x 42.8 cm 
    (sheets (three)) inches
    Gift of Mr. and Mrs. John D. MacDonald and 
    Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts purchase
    Form:  This manuscript page, made on paper rather than animal skin, marks the evolution of Muslim calligraphy into using organic and floral themes.  As in the earlier manuscript there are no images of people however there are images of flowers and leaf like forms.  These border designs are also complimented by geometric borders that frame and compliment the script contained by the borders.  Even between the lines of script are arabesque forms.  The central plan contains a later style of script called cursive while the two flanking panels contain the traditional Kufic style.

    Iconography:  This manuscript is not completely aniconic or devoid of representational images.  The floral designs and geometry used in this page are symbolic of the beauty of the words they ornament.  It is also possible to interpret the use of geometric designs as part of the orderly and logical ideas the Koran contains.

    Context:  This manuscript is from India and its existence demonstrates the expansion and power of the religion to become an international phenomena in the same way that Judaism and Christianity are.

    Some of the ideas expressed in the decorative motifs and calligraphy are quite unintentional.  Islam is a religion that has its roots in the Arabic merchants of the East.  These merchants, were often very well educated in order to deal with their large international client base.  Some of the skills a successful merchant might have mastered were, math, geometry and measurement, languages, reading, and even philosophy and an awareness of other cultures' ideas.

    The literacy of Islam is quite literally in the idea that these words must be read directly in Arabic and not translated or altered in any way.  The mathematic skill and the idea of geometry is visible in the decorative motifs of these manuscripts.

    Bowl with Kufic Inscription
    approximately 14" diameter
    Earthenware with slip decoration 
    Samarqand style c 10th Century
    DeYoung Museum, San Francisco
    Form: The glaze on this vessel is white with black Kufic text.  The earthenware and its quality mimic the white kaolin of Chinese pottery but are not as thin or glasslike in quality. 

    Iconography:  This plate is inscribed with a proverb that would relate to the ideas expressed in the Koran: "Take the middle road in your affairs: indeed, it is a salvation.  Don't ride a too gentle mount or a too obstinate one." (translated by C. Branch)  The decoration of this plate with a proverb is meant as a symbol of how erudite or learned the owner might have been but it also serves to educate and indoctrinate the user of the plate.

    Context:  Samarqand is one of the cities along the Silk Road and the influence of Chinese goods is clearly expressed in the emulation of the Chinese white kaolin pottery style.

    Muhammad and his Companions Traveling 
    to the Fair copy of the Siya-i Nabi 
    (Life of the Prophet) of al-Zarir 
    (14th C) c1594 10"x 15"
    Form:  This manuscript marks yet another phase in Islamic manuscript decoration.  Here we see the calligraphy of earlier manuscripts but now with an illusionistic scene.  The scene depicts several men on camel back traveling through a stylized landscape.  The trees plants and people are rendered in a cartoonish and stylized manner.  The plants on the hill behind them are placed in evenly spaced intervals. 

    The picture plane is fairly flat although some illusion of space is suggested by the stylized mountains and small trees behind them.  The artist has attempted to create space through overlapping and size scale shifts from foreground to background.  The smaller scale of the trees is an indication of size scale relationships that happen optically.

    Iconography:  Stokstad provides a detailed account of the iconography of this image and the life of Muhammad on page 348, however, it is important to not that depictions of Muhammad always have their faces covered in an effort to deter the veneration of such images.

    Context:  Images that depict naturalistic scenes such as this one and portraits of important people, such as Muhammad's family here, is probably due to the interaction of Hindu and Indian culture with Islam during the Mughal period.  In India, there was a tradition in which important men were depicted in an iconic fashion in manuscripts.  This depiction, referred to as musawwir, is an attempt to make a didactic image of examples of good men to emulate.

    Form:  Mosque architecture seems to vary in overall shape from mosque to mosque, however, there three important places that are important.  The overall space is a wide open space that provides a clear unobstructed area that all who come in may worship in.  The qibla wall which contains the mihrab and orients the worshippers towards Mecca.

    Iconography:  The wide open space of the mosque is very egalitarian and non-hierarchical.  All who enter the space are pretty much the same before god and so the space did not originally contain a central spot in which to deliver a sermon from a pulpit.  The open construction of many mosques includes a sahn, which is a courtyard that often contains a fountain where pilgrims may stop and freshen up and sometimes stay the night in which is also a very democratic and charitable symbol.

    Context:  Mosques are thought to have been descended from secular (every day) architecture.  The first mosque was Muhammad's home.


    Qibla's Mihrab from Madrasa Imami, Iran c1354
    11'x7' glazed and painted ceramic
    Now in the Metropolitan Museum, NYC

    "The mosque is the house of every pious person."

    Form:  This tiled niche was originally located in the Qibla wall.  Around the exterior of the niche runs text from the Koran in cursive calligraphy.  Moving into the design in the thin border are geometric patterns made of ovals and diamond forms.  The inner patterns are comprised of interlocking patterns of arabesque forms created from organic leaf and flower designs and geometric forms.  At the very center is an inscription that contains both Kufic and cursive script.

    Iconography:  The over all iconography of the mihrab is still debated.  Stokstad points out that it might be a case of emulation on the part of the Islamic designers of Torah niches in Jewish temples or apse like designs from Roman and Christian buildings.  Some have have suggested that it is just an object used for orientation in the structure.

    The aniconic tradition in Islam accounts for the extensive use of calligraphy in this mihrab.  The outer lines of text called “muhaqqaq” and inner Arabic text called Kufic.  In the center of the Mihrab is an inscription of Allah’s name.  The book also states that the center inscriptions translate into “The mosque is the house of every pious person” (Stokstad 356). The Arabic script outlining the Mihrab is script taken from the Koran describing the various responsibilities and obligations of Islamic believers and telling of the rewards awaiting the builders of the Mihrab in heaven. The Kufic writing defines the Five Pillars of Islam.  The narrow margin of the Mihrab is adorned with geometric displays like diamond shapes and as well as ovals. The Mihrab also exhibits floral and leaf ornamentations.

    Inscriptions: (In Arabic; on outer border): Qur'an, ch. IX, v. 18-22; (on border of niche and rectangle at back of niche): "Said [the Prophet] on him be blessing and peace: . . . witness that there is no god save Allah and that Muhammad is his Apostle and the Blessed Imam, and in legal almsgiving, and in the pilgrimage, and in the fast of Ramadan, and he said, on him be blessing and peace"; (at back): "The Prophet, peace be upon him, said, 'The Mosque is the dwelling place of the pious.' "

    Context: (Also see Stokstad 356.)
    The most important element in any mosque is the mihrab, the niche that indicates the direction of Mecca. Because it functions as the focal point in prayer ritual, its decoration was executed with great skill and devotion. This example from the Madrasa Imami in Isfahan, founded in A.H. 755/A.D. 1354, is composed of a mosaic of small glazed tiles fitted together to form various geometric and floral patterns and inscriptions. The inscriptional frieze in muhaqqaq script containing sura IX:14–22 from the Qur'an runs from the bottom right to the bottom left; a second inscription, in kufic script, with sayings of the Prophet, borders the pointed arch of the niche; and a third inscription, in cursive, is set in a frame at the center of the niche. The bottom of the niche, just below the central inscription, and a substantial part of the beginning and end of the main inscription were restored by skillful potters in Isfahan in the mid-1920s.

    Inscriptions: (In Arabic; on outer border): Qur'an, ch. IX, v. 18-22; (on border of niche and rectangle at back of niche): "Said [the Prophet] on him be blessing and peace: . . . witness that there is no god save Allah and that Muhammad is his Apostle and the Blessed Imam, and in legal almsgiving, and in the pilgrimage, and in the fast of Ramadan, and he said, on him be blessing and peace"; (at back): "The Prophet, peace be upon him, said, 'The Mosque is the dwelling place of the pious.' "


    Cordoba Mosque 8-11th C 
    Please see Stokstad for a good description 


    17th Century Prayer Rug
    Context:  In addition to the tradition and occupation of the Arabic and Islamic merchant class, there are two important elements which have influenced the creation of what Stokstad refers to as the "portable arts."  The shahadah, the Muslim profession of faith; salat, or ritual prayer, performed in a prescribed manner five times each day and hajj, the major pilgrimage to Mecca.

    Merchants and pilgrims both had an obligation to make shahadah and in order to do so, one must stop, kneel, face Mecca, and touch one's forehead to the ground in respect.  This position can be extremely uncomfortable on the knees and forehead.  In addition to this, pilgrims and traveling merchants both needed a comfortable place to spend the night on.  Rugs like this fulfilled that purpose and the need gave rise to beautiful and sumptuous rugs that became luxury items for trade. 

    Form:  Please make sure you read page 364 in Stokstad, Carpet Making.
    The technology and creation of a carpet like this is covered in Stokstad but the ornamentation is also very important.  The ornamentation of this rug falls in line with Islamic aniconic belief systems and the ornamentation that resulted from it with its vegetal and geometric patterns.  This rug also in addition to these forms exhibits an architectural setting complete with a lamp or an incense burner hanging between the arches.

    Iconography:  The architectural forms in this rug depart slightly from the aniconic tradition in that they actually represent an illusionistic form which may symbolize a mosque or a home.  The rug itself then becomes, through the images on it, a facsimile mosque or home for the traveler.


    Dome of the Rock, Jerusalem Israel 687-691 CE

    Context: The following in blue is quoted exactly from the Britannica Encyclopedia 
    Dome of the Rock, Jerusalem Israel 687-691 CE 
    Arabic QUBBAT AS-SAKHRAH, also called MOSQUE OF OMAR, shrine in Jerusalem that is the oldest extant Islamic monument. The rock over which the shrine was built is sacred to both Muslims and Jews. The Prophet Muhammad, founder of Islam, is traditionally believed to have ascended into heaven from the site. In Jewish tradition, it is here that Abraham, the progenitor and first patriarch of the Hebrew people, is said to have prepared to sacrifice his son Isaac. The Dome and Al-Aqsa Mosque are both located on the Temple Mount, the site of Solomon's Temple and its successors.

    The Dome of the Rock was built between AD 685 and 691 by the caliph 'Abd al-Malik ibn Marwan, not as a mosque for public worship but rather as a mashhad, a shrine for pilgrims. It is virtually the first monumental building in Islamic history and is of considerable aesthetic and architectural importance; it is rich with mosaic, faience, and marble, much of which was added several centuries after its completion. Basically octagonal, the Dome of the Rock is more typically Roman or Byzantine than Islamic. A wooden dome--approximately 60 feet (18 m) in diameter and mounted on an elevated drum--rises above a circle of 16 piers and columns. Surrounding this circle is an octagonal arcade of 24 piers and columns. The outer walls repeat this octagon, each of the eight sides being approximately 60 feet (18 m) wide and 36 feet (11 m) high. Both the dome and the exterior walls contain many windows. 

    Christians and Muslims in the European Middle Ages believed the Dome itself to be the Temple of Solomon (Templum Domini). The Knights Templars were quartered there in the Crusades, and Templar churches in Europe imitated its plan.

    Brittanica Encyclopedia

    Form:  The exterior of this monument is decorated in a very similar manner to the Qibla's Mihrab from Madrasa Imami.  It uses a combination of organic, geometric and script forms for ornamentation.  The builders used a combination of technologies to construct this, arches, domes and columns are all in evidence and some of the forms appear to have been borrowed from Roman and Christian centralized designs.  The interior and overall design is symmetrical and mimics the form of many centralized temple plans such as the Pantheon.  The plan varies from the Pantheon's plan in that it is really two building placed together almost like a layer cake. 

    The outer octagon creates a type of holding wall that surrounds a structure that could stand on its own.  The inner structure, surmounted by a 60 foot dome is placed a series of arcades that balance atop a series of almost Corinthian looking columns.  Beneath this dome and surround by the arcade is the rock which is protected by a low wall.

    Iconography:  The centralized plan and dome above it act almost as a visual target that makes the rock its gem.  The dome, which symbolized eternity and Roman technology is coopted as a focussing element.  The context of this work is extremely important to its symbolism.  The monument is constructed above the ruins of what many Jews believe was the original Jewish temple in addition to this monument centered over the rock from which Muhammad ascended to heaven and where the Jewish patriarch Abraham nearly sacrificed Isaac.  This means that the overall symbolism of this work deals with the creation and the major patriarchs of three major world religions.