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Recurring Themes in the Art of the Islamic World

The works of art featured in this resource reflect the diversity of the people and cultures of a vast area that includes Spain, North Africa, the Middle East, Turkey, Iran, Central Asia, and the Indian subcontinent. The common thread of    Islam unites these regions, and thus recurring themes, forms, and modes of expression emerge. This guide highlights these themes while preserving an understanding of the unique cultural and artistic heritage of each region.

Perhaps the most significant shared feature of these regions is the presence of  Islam. All the geographic areas discussed in this guide produced art for Muslim religious life. Many aspects of the religion naturally give rise to the creation of art, including, most notably, the production of manuscripts of the Qur'an, Islam's holy book. Presented in this publication are examples of Qur'an folios and manuscripts from regions as disparate as Spain, Syria, and the central Islamic lands. You will also see a proliferation of writing, or calligraphy, on many other works of art from across the Islamic world. The interest in calligraphy and its ornamental possibilities is directly linked to the exalted position of the Qur'an in all Muslim societies. (See Islam and Religious Art and Arabic Script and the Art of Calligraphy.)

Mosques are also a common feature of all of these regions; many works provide a glimpse into the decorative and functional features of these structures, such as prayer niches (mihrabs) (image 4) and mosque lamps (image 6 and image 45). In addition, the necessity of daily prayer influenced the artistic development of prayer rugs (image 24), as well as scientific instruments like astrolabes (image 16), which helped calculate prayer times and locate the direction of Mecca.

Despite distinct regional variations, all of the religious art and much of the secular art in this guide share a common preference for calligraphic, geometric, and vegetal (plantlike) decoration. This type of nonfigural ornament abounds in art from the Islamic world and is present in a vast range of media—from architectural surfaces to small decorative objects. You will see such decoration on many, if not most, of the works in this guide, including the stylized floral ornament on the prayer niche (mihrab; image 4), the geometric ornament on all the featured works of art in Geometric Design in Islamic Art, and the calligraphic ornament on ceramics, textiles, and metalwork in Arabic Script and the Art of Calligraphy.

Ornament in the form of animal and human figures is also present in the decorative margins of manuscript pages and on an array of objects. However, this type of decoration is only found in secular (nonreligious) spheres, since figural representation is not deemed appropriate in religious contexts. (See also Frequently Asked Questions.) Examples of figural ornament in this guide include the margins of Mughal album pages (image 30) and the ivory panel from Spain (image 20). Figural representation is also seen in manuscript illustrations and sometimes appears in the form of statues of humans or animals. Examples in this guide include Persian and Mughal manuscript illustrations or album folios (image 27, image 28, image 29, image 30, and image 32) and the Persian elephant-shaped drinking vessel (image 44), among others. In these works, figural representation, rather than ornamental surface decoration, is the primary focus.

The influence of trade, diplomacy, and cultural interconnections is another element reflected in the art of these regions. Trade was an important commercial and cultural factor because of the many vital trading posts and routes throughout the Islamic world, such as the Silk Road. Two chapters in this guide—Ceramics in China and the Near East and Venice and the Islamic World—focus specifically on the artistic ramifications of these types of interconnections. However, you will see evidence of artistic influence and exchange in many of the other chapters of this resource. For example, you will read about the influence of Persian painting and calligraphy on the art of Mughal India (see The Mughal Court and the Art of Observation) and the impact of fourteenth-century Spanish architecture on a sixteenth-century Ottoman prayer rug (see Art and Empire: The Ottoman Court).

Diversity of Patronage
People from many different walks of life in the Islamic world commissioned and bought works of art.

The patronage of the court, or ruler, was paramount in many areas. Court workshops—with unparalleled access to funds, fine materials, and the most talented artists—produced sumptuous goods and fostered the transmission of motifs and styles from one medium to another as artists worked together in a collaborative environment. The significance of court patronage is evident in the Shahnama (Book of Kings) manuscript (image 27, image 28, and image 29), the Ottoman royal emblem (tughra) and tile (image 23 and image 26), the Mughal decorative objects and paintings (image 15 and image 30), and the textile fragment from Islamic Spain (image 13 and image 22).

The artistic patronage of nonruling classes—whether merchants, nomads, scholars, or members of a wealthy urban elite—demonstrates the overarching importance of art in daily life and the common desire for beautiful objects. Examples of works of art commissioned by nonruling classes in this guide include ceramics from the mercantile city of Nishapur (image 33), nomadic Turkmen objects (image 40), and the Damascus Room (image 38).

Works of art were not only commissioned or bought for private use, but also as gifts. The importance of charity in the Muslim faith expresses itself in the practice of giving gifts to mosques and other religious institutions by those in all echelons of Muslim society in every region. Many of the objects discussed in this guide—such as the Qur'an stand (image 5), the mosque lamps (image 6 and image 45), the Spanish textile fragment (image 13 and image 22), and the lamp stand (image 9)—were likely commissioned as gifts for religious institutions. Other works of art, such as tiraz (image 8), were likely given by rulers to subjects or visiting dignitaries as marks of honor.

Technical Innovation
Constant innovation in both materials and techniques characterizes the art of the Islamic world. Artisans from these regions were internationally renowned for their ingenuity in developing increasingly fine materials and experimenting with new and complex techniques to create works of art, from ceramics and metalwork to carpets and textiles. Because of the interconnections among many Islamic regions, innovations spread quickly and were often adopted and further improved far from their place of origin. The introduction of stonepaste as a medium for ceramics is one of the most important of these innovations (and further discussed in Ceramics in China and the Near East). Other artistic techniques—originating in Iraq, Iran, and Central Asia—such as opaque white glazes, underglazing, and techniques for inlaid metalwork, likewise revolutionized artistic production in many parts of the Islamic world and beyond.

Techniques conceived in the Islamic world found their way into Western artistic production, facilitated by trade routes between the East and West (see Venice and the Islamic World). Techniques for producing transparent glass, luster-painted ceramics, and certain types of textiles such as velvet are among the artistic innovations that had a global impact.