Category Archives: Islam


Samarra stucco Style A (Abbasid era)

There is a curious parallel between the flowering of an art with geometrical motifs like interlacement, double spirals, triple vortices, continuous swastikas and so on in Northern Europe, and particularly in the British Isles, and the almost simultaneous appearance of these same forms in the nascent art of Islam. These two manifestations of art differ in only one respect: in northern countries, it is the stylized animals that seem somehow to be the first element of the ornamentation; they are entwined in spirals, fold into knots and form interlacements of facing pairs, whereas it is the stylized plant, in Islamic surroundings, from which most of the ornamental motifs are fashioned. The analogies are occasionally striking, as, for example, between one page of the Lindisfarne Gospel (698 A.D.) and a certain mosaic pavement in the Umayyad palace of Minya on Lake Tiberias (705 A.D.), but it would be pointless to attempt to explain everything by exchanges that might have taken place on the periphery of a Europe overwhelmed by barbarian invasions, between the Northern Isles and the Near East. The parallel in question is all part of a much vaster phenomenon, namely the emergence at the confines of the Graeco-Roman world of an archaic art whose elements, abstract, rather than descriptive, are linked to a universal and primordial symbolism: These elements lose their immediately symbolic character. on contact with the ‘civilized’ world or, more exactly, this character is suddenly obscured by the flowering of ornamental possibilities inherent in them. This metamorphosis is directly perceptible in the Christian art of Ireland, where it is calligraphy that lays hold of, and transforms most naturally, the ancient heritage of forms; but here, again, there is an analogy and a kind of anticipation of what was to come about in Muslim art.

Christian art in abstract forms was of only brief duration; its extraordinary genius crumbled as the northern islands gradually became reintegrated into the Latin world. The art of Islam, on the other hand, worked out a synthesis between the broad current of archaic forms, which flourish in popular art and that of the nomads, and the more rational requirements of urban art; it assimilates archaic motifs by reducing them to their most abstract, and and general formulae. In a certain way, therefore, it levels them out and, in so doing, takes away every magical quality; but, in compensation, it endows them with a new lucidity, almost, one could say, with spiritual elegance. Let us not forget that Islam is the religion of return to the beginning, and that this return shows itself as a restoration of all things to unity.

Titus Burckhardt, Art of Islam: Language and Meaning, 1976


The merchants of Cairo apparently emulated the dress codes of their rulers, the Fatimid caliphs (r.909-1171), whose splendid wardrobes outdid even those of the Abbasid caliphs of Baghdad. The Fatimid caliph al-Muizz (r.953-75), the first of his line to rule in Egypt, created an institution in the palace called the House of Clothing, where all kinds of garments and cloth used to be cut. Every winter and summer courtiers and servants, their wives, and their children were given new suits according to their rank, everything from turbans to trousers and handkerchiefs. At one such investiture, al-Muizz gave away cloth worth more than 600,000 dinars. The amirs got dabiqi garments and turbans with gold borders, these two items worth 500 dinars, and the highest ranking amirs received necklaces, bracelets and ornamented swords. When hungry troops looted the caliphal treasuries in 1067, one eyewitness recorded that the looters brought out more than 100,000 pieces of cloth from the storerooms. The value of what was sold in fifteen days, quite apart from what was plundered or stolen, came to 30 million dinars.

According to contemporary descriptions, the Fatimid caliphal treasuries also held stores of tents and upholstery and furnishing fabrics of unimaginable luxury and splendour. One tent was decorated with a picture of every beast in the world; it took 150 workers nine years to make and cost 30,000 dinars. There were elephant saddlecloths of red embroidered everywhere with gold except at the bottom where the elephants’ thighs protruded. The accompanying howdahs had matched sets of cushions, pillows, carpets, seats, curtains and spreads of silk brocade. The fabrics were decorated with designs of elephants, wild beasts, horses, peacocks, birds and even humans in all manner of striking and wonderful forms and shapes.

Jonathan Bloom and Sheila Blair, Islamic Arts, 1997


Henri Matisse

In order to test the Queen of Sheba, and ultimately to demonstrate his superiority over her, Solomon orders the construction of a sarh covered with or built of slabs of glass or of crystal (27. 45). The exact meaning of the word sarh is the subject of much controversy and it may be easier to think of it as some sort of constructed space, without trying to be more precise. The peculiarity of whatever it is that Solomon built is that it is supposed to be interpreted by the Queen of Sheba as a body of water, as something different from what it really is. The pious implications of the story need not concern us here, but what is important is that a work is manufactured in order to create an illusion of reality. Two aspects of the story are pertinent to Islamic attitudes toward the arts, in partial contradiction with each other. One is that a work of art is something to wonder about, to be amazed by; it belongs to the category of wondrous things that became known as the ajaib (pl. of ajib, “wonderful” or “astonishing”), a term used constantly to praise manufactured items of all sorts. The other implication is that a work of art is a falsehood, a lie, because it gives you the impression of something that it is not.

Oleg Grabar, “Art and Culture in the Islamic World” in Islam: Art and Architecture, 2004

Big Tent

The fourteenth-century North African philosopher and historian Ibn Khaldun singled out tents as one of the emblems of royal authority and luxury. Certainly, they could be of palatial dimensions. According to Clavijo, the Castilian ambassador, one of Timur’s tents, pitched on the plain of Kani-Gil outside Samarqand, was large enough to shade ten thousand people. Clavijo, who was in Samarqand in 1404, described another of Timur’s tents as having gates, a domed ceiling, upper galleries, a turret, and battlements. A fortune was spent on the inner furnishings, including tapestries, silks, and gold brocade; and it is illuminating to know that Timur, who had grown up among the nomadic Chagatay Mongols, relegated the Gok Saray, his palace in Samarqand, to the role of a storehouse and prison.

Robert Irwin, Islamic Art in Context: Art, Architecture, and the Literary World, 1997

Sacred Art

The love of ‘formulae’, that is, of formal syntheses which are both concise and rich in possibilities, is characteristic of every sacred art. Buddhist iconography is made up of type images of this kind, and the same is true of Hindu and Taoist art, as well as of the icons of the Eastern Church , whose colouring and composition are fixed by tradition. In each case the imagination of the individual artist is subordinated to the traditional model; his imagination is free only in an inward sense in that he endeavours to attain to the spiritual kernel of his model and to remake the image from that. In the case of Islam, it is in architecture and ornamentation that one must look for the formulae of prototypes which the artist ceaselessly reproduces and varies according to circumstance. These prototypes are inexhaustible because they are true.

This fidelity to models, which religion does not actually prescribe but which the consensus of believers has in a sense consecrated, has earned for Islamic art the stigma of being the victim of ‘stagnation’, as if its stability over the centuries had been the result of inertia or lack of awareness. In reality, the alternatives of stagnation are highly inapplicable to sacred art, which is either faithful to its principles, and hence active and aware, or forgetful of them, thus entailing decadence and collapse.

Titus Burckhardt, Art of Islam: Language and Meaning, 1976

Islamic Art

The methodological importance and intellectual interest of Islamic art, at least in its formative stages, lies in the encounter between extremely complex and sophisticated uses of visual forms and a new religious and social system with no ideological doctrine or behavioural need for them.

Richard Ettinghausen and Oleg Grabar, The Art and Architecture of Islam: 650-1250, 1987