Islamic art is perhaps the most accessible manifestation of a complex civilization that often seems enigmatic to outsiders. Through its brilliant use of color and its superb balance between design and form, Islamic art creates an immediate visual impact. Its strong aesthetic appeal transcends distances in time and space, as well as differences in language and culture. Islamic art not only invites a closer look but also beckons the viewer to learn more. For an American audience, a visit to the Islamic galleries of a museum such as the Los Angeles County Museum of Art can represent the first step toward penetrating the history of a religion and a culture that are often in the news but are little understood.
The term Islamic art may be confusing to some. It not only describes the art created specifically in the service of Islam, but it also characterizes secular art produced in lands under Islamic rule or influence, whatever the artist’s or the patron’s religious affiliation. The term suggests an art unified in style and purpose, and indeed there are certain common features that distinguish the arts of all Islamic lands. Although this is a highly dynamic art, which is often marked by strong regional characteristics as well as by significant influences from other cultures, it retains an overall coherence that is remarkable given its vast geographic and temporal boundaries. Of paramount concern to the development of this singular art is Islam itself, which fostered the creation of a distinctive visual culture with its own unique artistic language.
Calligraphy is the most important and pervasive element in Islamic art. It has always been considered the noblest form of art because of its association with the Qur’an, the Muslim holy book, which is written in Arabic. This preoccupation with beautiful writing extended to all arts – including secular manuscripts; inscriptions on palaces; and those applied to metalwork, pottery, stone, glass, wood, and textiles – and to non-Arabic-speaking peoples within the Islamic commonwealth whose languages – such as Persian, Turkish, and Urdu – were written in the Arabic script.
Another characteristic of Islamic art is a preference for covering surfaces with patterns composed of geometric or vegetal elements. Complex geometric designs, as well as intricate patterns of vegetal ornament (such as the arabesque), create the impression of unending repetition, which is believed by some to be an inducement to contemplate the infinite nature of God. This type of nonrepresentational decoration may have been developed to such a high degree in Islamic art because of the absence of figural imagery, at least within a religious context.
Contrary to a popular misconception, however, figural imagery is an important aspect of Islamic art. Such images occur primarily in secular and especially courtly arts and appear in a wide variety of media and in most periods and places in which Islam flourished. It is important to note, nevertheless, that representational imagery is almost invariably restricted to a private context. Figurative art is excluded from the decoration of religious monuments. This absence may be attributed to an Islamic antipathy toward anything that might be mistaken for idols or idolatry, which are explicitly forbidden by the Qur’an.
In Islamic cultures the so-called decorative arts provide the primary means of artistic expression, in contrast to Western art, in which painting and sculpture are preeminent. Illuminated manuscripts, woven textiles and carpets, inlaid metalwork, blown glass, glazed ceramics, and carved wood and stone all absorbed the creative energies of artists, becoming highly developed art forms. These works include small-scale objects of daily use, such as delicate glass beakers, as well as more monumental architectural decoration, for example, glazed tile panels from building façades. Such objects were meticulously fabricated and carefully embellished, often with rare and costly materials, suggesting that the people for whom they were made sought to surround themselves with beauty.
Royal patronage played an important role in the making of Islamic art, as it has in the arts of other cultures. The construction of mosquesand other religiousbuildings, including their decoration and furnishings, was the responsibility of the ruler and the prerogative of high court officials. Such monuments not only provided for the spiritual needs of the Muslim community, but often served educational and charitable functions as well. Royal patronage of secular art was also a standard feature of Islamic sovereignty, one that enabled the ruler to demonstrate the splendor of his court and, by extension, the superiority of his state. Evidence of courtly patronage is derived from the works of art themselves, but an equally important source of information is the extensive body of historical texts that attest to royal sponsorship of the arts almost throughout the Islamic period. These historical works also indicate that only a fraction of such court-sponsored art has survived; objects made of precious materials are particularly rare. From the fourteenth century onward, especially in eastern Islamic lands, the arts of the book provide the best documentation of courtly patronage.
Of course, not all works of Islamic art were sponsored by the court; in fact, the majority of objects and manuscripts in museum collections originated elsewhere. Such works of art – including pottery, base metal ware, carpets, and textiles – have often been viewed as the products of urban, middle-class patronage. These objects nonetheless frequently reflect the same styles and make use of the same forms and techniques employed in courtly art.
Whether produced in a courtly or an urban setting or for a religious context, Islamic art is generally the work of anonymous artists. A notable exception is in the sphere of the arts of the book. The names of certain calligraphers are well known, which is not surprising given the primacy of the written word in Islam, as are those of a number of painters, most of whom were attached to a particular court. The identification of these artists has been based on signed or attributed examples of their works and on textual references. Given the great number of extant examples, comparatively few signatures are found on metalwork, pottery, carved wood and stone, and textiles. Those signatures that do occur, combined with rare evidence from contemporary textual sources, suggest that families of artists, often over several generations, specialized in a particular medium or technique.