Art and Architecture
THEMES AND VARIATIONS
Sheila S. Blair
Jonathan M. Bloom
All cultures throughout history have expressed themselves visually, and Islamic civilization was no exception. One need think only of oriental rugs, Persian miniatures, and Moroccan tiles, not to mention the Dome of the Rock, the Alhambra palace, the Selimiye Mosque, and the Taj Mahal, to see the great range of visual expression in the Islamic lands over the centuries. Islamic art encompasses all these and much more. As used in this chapter, the term Islamic art refers to all the visual arts produced in the lands in which Islam was the dominant religion, regardless of the confessional affiliations of the individuals who made the art or the purposes for which it was made. Unlike the term Christian art, the term Islamic art is not restricted to works made only for religious situations and functions, and many of the most cherished examples of Islamic art have little, if anything, to do with the religion of Islam. A page from a parchment manuscript of the Quran is obviously considered a work of Islamic art, but so is a bronze bowl inlaid with Christian scenes from thirteenth-century Syria.
What Is Islamic Art?
Islamic art could not have begun, of course, before the rise of Islam in early seventh-century Arabia, but it was nearly a century after that before Muslims began to be great and sophisticated patrons of the arts. Athough Muslims began erecting structures soon after the revelation of Islam, the first example of Islamic architecture is generally considered to be the magnificent Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, ordered in 692 by the Umayyad caliph Abd al-Malik ibn Marwan (r. 685–705). Following this broad definition, Islamic art continues to be produced to this day; artists continue to work in a variety of media in all Muslim countries. Nevertheless, the emergence of national identities, especially in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, has changed the ways in which people think about works of art produced in the Islamic lands in modern times. Thus, a portrait of the Qajar ruler Fath Ali Shah (r. 1797–1834) is more often considered to exemplify a distinctly Persian style of painting rather than to illustrate Islamic or Iranian attitudes toward representation in the nineteenth century. In current usage concerning modern art, the term Islamic generally refers to purely religious expressions such as calligraphy.
Today, many museums in North America, Europe, and the Islamic lands proudly display their masterpieces of Islamic art, but traditionally the visual arts played a relatively minor role in Islamic civilization, especially compared with the important arts of poetry and music. For example, there is no word for art per se in classical Arabic. The word most commonly used today, fann, is a neologism because it traditionally meant “craft” or “skill.” The same is true of the Persian and Turkish words hunar and hüner. In addition, artists did not usually enjoy high status in Islamic society, and there were few if any Michelangelos or Rembrandts, whose lives became the stuff of legends.
Of all the visual arts, the only one that was widely appreciated within its own culture was calligraphy, the art of beautiful writing. The names and biographies of calligraphers were collected and preserved, and treatises were written on the aesthetics of calligraphy. Calligraphy was the exception rather than the rule, however, and there was no Islamic equivalent to the first-century b.c.e. Roman architect Vitruvius or the fifteenth-century Italian architect Alberti, who wrote treatises on the theory of architecture. Nor did Islamic civilization produce figures comparable to the Chinese literati, who wrote treatises on the aesthetic appreciation of Chinese painting as early as the period of the Six Dynasties (229–589 c.e.). Because Muslims wrote so little about the aesthetic appreciation of their own visual culture, the study of Islamic art dictates a positivist approach. It must be based on the examination of the remains themselves. Some present-day scholars have tried to derive aesthetic principles for all Islamic art, but these principles tend to reflect modern preoccupations, as they were not generated by traditional Islamic society itself.
Islamic art comprises an unwieldy grab bag of media, techniques, styles, periods, and regions. Its study, a relatively new discipline, developed not in the Islamic lands but in western Europe as an offshoot of studying the history of European art. From the European perspective, Islamic art evolved in the Near East out of the remains of ancient Near Eastern and late antique artistic traditions and bridged the gap between late classical and early medieval art. As Islam spread far beyond the geographical confines of the Near East to western and Sub-Saharan Africa, Central Asia, India, and Southeast Asia, and beyond the temporal confines of the Middle Ages, so did its visual expressions. The models created to understand the arts of the Mediterranean region in the eighth century thus are not necessarily valid for understanding the Islamic arts of Indonesia or Mali.
The arts of western civilization are traditionally understood in a hierarchy, in which architecture and the representational arts of painting and sculpture have dominated the artistic landscape to this day. This hierarchy does not hold for Islamic art. Although architecture is equally important in Islamic culture, Islam produced few sculptures or panel paintings. In Chinese civilization, another long tradition of artistic production, there was a clear division between artists (painters, calligraphers, and poets) and craftsmen (sculptors, potters, metalworkers, and so forth), and therefore between art and craft. This division does not hold in Islamic art, because there was no such distinction between art and craft. Indeed, a distinguishing feature of Islamic art was the transformation of utilitarian objects into sublime works of art. Looking at Islamic material culture, therefore, one should be prepared to find artistic expression in a vast range of situations, from the humblest oil lamps to the most monumental tombs. Nevertheless, Islamic art remains a useful rubric under which to consider the visual cultures of the past fourteen centuries in much of Eurasia and Africa, because it allows certain connections and relationships to be established.
Architecture was universally the most important form of Islamic art. It cost the most, lasted the longest, and was seen by the widest audience. Buildings built for religious purposes, such as mosques and madrasas (theological colleges), are often the best known and best preserved because they continued to be used and maintained over the centuries. Religious buildings may provide the framework for tracing the development of Islamic architecture, but the conservatism inherent in religious architecture means that these structures would have been slow to present innovations. It is more likely that architectural innovation was introduced in secular buildings—such as palaces, houses, caravanserais (medieval motels for caravans), bathhouses, markets, and the like—because they were constructed at the whim of a particular person to meet his own needs. Far fewer of these buildings, however, have survived: some literally have been worn to ruins, while others were deliberately destroyed. Few rulers, for example, saw any purpose in preserving the personal fantasies of their predecessors. Thus, the architectural sample available for study is skewed; in attempting to reconstruct the shape of the past, it is important to remember that what survives is not all that was made.
As calligraphy and calligraphers were revered in all Islamic societies, the arts of writing—and by extension all the arts of bookmaking—were given extraordinary importance in Islamic culture. In the age before printing, all manuscripts, from copies of the Quran to popular tales and scientific works, had to be laboriously transcribed by hand, first on sheets of papyrus and parchment and later on paper. From an early date, the works of gifted calligraphers were particularly appreciated and collected. The individual sheets were often embellished with elegant decoration and, where appropriate, beautiful paintings, and then gathered together in boxes or bindings made of tooled and gilded leather. Books were preserved in libraries attached to mosques and palaces. At a time when European monasteries might treasure a few dozen volumes, libraries in the Islamic lands regularly contained hundreds, if not thousands, of volumes.
A third medium that achieved preeminence in Islamic art was cloth. The production and trade of fibers, dyes, and finished goods was a major source of revenue in many places. One modern historian has likened the textile industry in medieval Islamic times to the heavy industries of modern industrial states, because textiles laid the economic foundations of medieval Islamic society. The two major fibers were wool, produced from sheep, and linen, produced from the flax plant. Silk and cotton were also important because they, like wool, could be dyed relatively easily with brilliant colors. Many other fibers were used where available. Perhaps the most telling image of the centrality of textiles in Islamic culture is the kiswa, the cloth veil covering the Kaaba in Mecca, which may represent a vestige of the sacred tent—similar to the Israelites’ tent for the Ark of the Covenant (2 Sam. 6:17)—in which God dwelled. Although today the kiswa is always black and embroidered in gold with quotations from the Quran, in the past it could be of virtually any color, including white, green, or even red.
As in many societies, clothing made the man or woman. Dress distinguished not only men from women and rich from poor but also nomads from townspeople and Muslims from non-Muslims. Dress was also used to make countless other social and religious distinctions: green turbans were worn by descendants of the Prophet Muhammad, turbans wrapped around a red baton signified followers of the Safavid rulers of Iran. A coarse cloak of wool (suf in Arabic) was often worn by mystics, whose very personal approach to religion became increasingly important alongside the communal practice of Islam. These mystics became known as Sufis.
Textiles were also used for furnishings. There was little or no need for the tapestries that kept down the drafts in the cold castles of the medieval north, just as there was no need in the relatively dry and warm climate that prevails in most of the region for wooden furniture to raise people off damp and cold floors. Most people sat on mats or carpets spread on the ground, leaned against pillows or cushions, and slept on rugs on the floor. Meals were normally communal affairs; spread on the carpet or floor was a washable cloth on which diners would sit and serve themselves off communal trays laden with food, which were sometimes set on a low stand.
Perhaps most distinctively, textiles were also used for portable architecture in the Islamic lands. The area in which Islam originally spread encompassed the two great traditions of tent construction. The bedouins of the Arabian deserts used tents made from long strips of woven cloth supported by posts and tied down with strings and pegs. By contrast, the Turkic nomads of Central Asia used tents made from self-supporting wooden frames covered with felts. Under Islam both types of structures, the Arab tensile structure and the Turkic compression structure, spread into the traditional regions of the other group, and characteristic features were exchanged. Because of the important and often powerful roles played by nomads in sedentary Islamic society, these humble dwellings were adopted by rulers, who transformed the utilitarian structures with luxurious accoutrements made of the finest and most costly materials.
In the study of Islamic art, many of its other aspects—such as metalwork, ceramics, and glassware, and carved wood, ivory, and rock crystal—are usually encompassed under the rubric “decorative” or “minor” arts. In Western art these terms have somewhat derogatory connotations because these media are considered less noble than the major arts of painting and sculpture. This is simply not true in Islamic art. As in many other cultures, craftsmen working for rich patrons transformed expensive materials, such as elephant tusks, gold, and precious stones, into luxury items. In the Islamic lands, however, craftsmen also transformed the humblest materials, such as clay, sand, and ores, into brilliantly glazed ceramics, limpid glasswares, and glimmering metalwares used by many classes of society. These objects were often utilitarian, such as pitchers and basins for washing and trays and bowls for serving. It takes a great leap of imagination to transport an earthenware bowl, austerely displayed in a museum case, to its original setting as a serving dish at a medieval meal.
The Bobrinski Bucket, one of the masterpieces of Islamic art, exemplifies many of these characteristics. Bought in Bukhara (now part of Uzbekistan) in 1885, it was later acquired by the Russian count A. Bobrinski, from whom the piece gets its name. The round cast-brass body is inlaid in copper and silver with horizontal bands of inscriptions and figural scenes. According to the dedicatory inscription on the rim, the bucket was ordered by Abd al-Rahman ibn Abdallah al-Rashidi, formed by Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahid, and inlaid by Masud ibn Ahmad, the designer from Herat (in present-day Afghanistan), for the merchant Rashid al-Din Azizi ibn Abul-Husayn al-Zanjani. The handle is inscribed with the date Muharram 559 of the Islamic calendar, corresponding to December 1163. None of the people mentioned in the inscription is known from other sources, and the function of the bucket is somewhat of a puzzle. It was once called a “kettle” or “cauldron,” but it is too fancy to have been used for cooking. Nor could it have been intended for carrying food or liquids, because contact with the interior might have caused food poisoning from verdigris (corroded copper). The most likely explanation is that the bucket was a bath pail, intended to hold water for washing when the merchant went to the bathhouse. In short, the Bobrinski Bucket was a present for the man who had everything in 1163, the medieval equivalent of a costly gadget from an expensive catalog store.
Despite the enormous variety in Islamic art, which can range from great structures to tiny objects produced between the Atlantic coast of Africa and the islands of Indonesia from the eighth century to the present, several themes have had universal and perennial appeal. In the limited space available in this volume, it would be impossible to recapitulate the long and varied history of Islamic art over fifteen centuries and three continents. Furthermore, this approach tends to emphasize regional and chronological divisions. Instead, this chapter takes a thematic approach that emphasises common features that unite much Islamic art over the continents and centuries. Five themes have been chosen: the art of writing; aniconism, the absence of figures; the decorative themes of arabesque and geometry; the exuberant use of color; and the notion of willful ambiguity. Each of these themes may not appear in every work of Islamic art, but collectively they define an aesthetic approach that makes Islamic art distinct from the artistic traditions of surrounding regions and cultures.