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The Islamic World: Past and Present What is This? Accessible coverage of Islam from the seventh century to the twenty-first century


    Islamic art takes root from the basic ideals of Islamic theology, emphasizing God's role as the creator of all life. Harmonious compositions and regular, repetitive designs suggest the unity of the Islamic community. The absence of human figures on mosques and other religious monuments reflects the idea that to create a human figure is to attempt to rival God. Main features of Islamic art include patterns of curved, interlaced lines, intricately decorated surfaces, and the use of vivid colors.


    Islamic art developed during the Middle Ages, the period roughly between 500 and 1500. Before 500 Arabs wrote poetry but practiced no other art forms. Mosque and religious architecture became immensely important after the establishment of Islam. The Dome of the Rock, constructed in Jerusalem in the late 600s, serves as one of the most revered religious sites in the world. Calligraphy flourished as well as architecture, and the hand-copying of the Qur'an took on major artistic significance. On pilgrimages to Mecca, Muslims were influenced by people from other societies, mainly the Persians and the Byzantines.


    Miniature painting, used to illustrate books and manuscripts, emerged as a popular artistic form during the Middle Ages. This Indian miniature from the 1500s features the Mughal emperor Babur passing his crown to his son Humayan.

    Victoria and Albert Museum, London/Bridgeman Art Library

    view larger image

    Early Influences.

    Until the 1200s, the capitals of the Muslim world were Arab (Baghdad and Damascus), but artisans in various parts of the Muslim world developed their own traditions. From Central Asia to Spain, Islamic crafts took on a distinctive character. In the late 1700s, Western countries expanded their empires into Islamic states, and interest in Muslim arts grew. Demand for textiles and other goods, combined with the introduction of Western methods of production, increased artistic output in many Muslim regions.

    The influence of other cultures enriched Islamic arts in many ways. From the Chinese, for example, Muslims learned how to make paper, thus enabling calligraphers and painters to adapt their skills for the production of manuscripts and books. A strong tradition of miniature painting, used to illustrate books, also emerged (especially in Persia, under Indian influence). By the end of the Middle Ages, court artists in the Islamic world had access to European painting and had begun to experiment with Western techniques.

    New Production Methods.

    Until around the 1800s, artists used traditional methods of production—that is, they crafted objects by hand. In rural areas, most artisans produced items in their homes either for domestic use or for local trade. In urban centers, workshops employed skilled artisans who produced objects for the royal court as well as for the marketplace. Royal commissions for luxurious carpets, jewelry, and other items could sometimes account for all of a workshop's business.

    By the 1800s, increased contact with European cultures brought profound changes to the Islamic arts. Western societies had developed an enthusiastic taste for art objects from the Islamic world, and Europe and the United States became huge markets for Islamic goods—particularly carpets. To satisfy the demand, artisans began producing more goods for export, to the extent that domestic production in some areas almost ceased. Artisans also adapted traditional stylistic elements to appeal to Western notions of beauty.

    Europeans also introduced modern methods of production, such as the use of mechanized looms and factories. At the same time, they brought inexpensive mass-produced goods from their own countries into Islamic markets. These goods were so much cheaper than traditionally crafted items that it became almost impossible for Islamic artisans to remain profitable. Focus shifted from small-scale production for local consumption to mass production for foreign export. Traditional techniques in some arts, such as carpet weaving, almost disappeared. In recent years, however, many Islamic countries have revived traditional practices, and consumers in the West have shown an interest in buying handmade goods.

    Features of Islamic Art

    The distinctive visual elements of Islamic art can be classified into two categories: surface decoration and structural form. Surface decoration includes geometric patterning, repetitive design, and calligraphy. Domes, minarets, arches, and mihrabs constitute the main structural elements of Islamic architecture.

    Surface and Form.

    The intricate decoration of plain surfaces, such as walls and other parts of buildings, coins, pottery, fabrics, and carpets, is one of the most characteristic features of Islamic art. Artists use geometric motifs—circles, triangles, hexagons, and squares—to create ornate patterns. The graceful curves of the arabesque and the formal, angular patterns of geometric motifs both express and reinforce the unity of the Islamic world vision.

    Unlike Christian art, which often depicts scenes from the Bible and includes images of Christ and even God, early Islamic art does not typically include human or divine representation. Human figures do not appear in mosque decorations, and artists never depict Allah. Such an act would seem an attempt to imitate God's power and a mark of profound disrespect. In nonreligious artwork, artists sometimes represent human beings but in a stylized way to emphasize their decorative purpose. Instead of striving for realistic effects, Islamic artists favor a high level of technical skill and place an emphasis on embellishment.

    Mosques contain many of the structural elements associated with Islamic art. Domes are painted or tiled in shades of bright blue or turquoise to represent the heavens. Mihrabs guide the faithful by placing them in the proper position for prayers. The minaret, a tall spire from which the muezzin calls the faithful to prayer, is usually next to the dome. Together, the dome and minaret symbolize the presence of Islam and serve as a focal point for the Muslim community. Arches also play a significant role in the architecture of Islamic buildings. The rhythmic repetition of rows of arches in mosque architecture provides a sense of community and unity.

    Decorative Lettering.

    The art form most highly revered in the Muslim world is calligraphy—artistic, stylized lettering. More than any other cultures, those in the Islamic world have used the written word to embellish surfaces of buildings and other structures. Quotations from the Qur'an often decorate mosques, serving both to beautify the building and to remind the faithful of God's teachings. The practice of calligraphy originated in the 600s, when scribes began to make hand-copies of the Qur'an. Religious leaders felt compelled to develop a script style worthy of the sacred text. Only the best trained and most pious calligraphers were considered appropriate for the task of copying the Qur'an. According to a saying attributed to the Prophet, a person who makes a beautifully written copy of the Bismallah—the phrase meaning “In the name of God, the Merciful the Compassionate”—will enter paradise.

    The first Islamic calligraphers copied the Qur'an in a geometric script known as Kufic, named for the Iraqi city of Kufa. This style often appears on wall decorations, with squarish letters complementing the rectangular shape of the glazed tiles. After the Muslims learned how to make paper, calligraphers developed flowing scripts, generally known as naskh.

    The special qualities of various shapes and surfaces, such as arches and domes, coins, bowls, and metalwork inspired innovations in calligraphy. In Ottoman Turkey in the 1700s and 1800s, different types of mirrored script became popular. To create this type of calligraphy, the artist painted or carved the mirror image of a phrase opposite its original. Calligraphers sometimes created multiple mirror images of a phrase and sometimes twined them together. Another popular trend involved the writing of texts in circular forms, which became widespread as calligraphers imitated the design of Qur'anic texts that adorned the tops of some mosques.

    Circular calligrams, known as tughra, appeared around the name of ruling sultans and bore embellishments corresponding to the artistic perferences of the period. Tughra also came to be used on postage stamps, banknotes, and coins, as well as on title pages of books to show the imprint of the publisher. Many calligraphic designs of the 1800s and after display an elaborate and ingenious style. Examples of such works include an Indian prayer scroll with a tiny text written into the letters, a Persian prayer scroll with the words appearing within the figures of imams, and scrolls with gold lettering on leaf skeletons.

    Contemporary artists in the Islamic world continue to find ways to use calligraphy. Even in parts of the world that do not use the Arabic script, such as Bangladesh, Malaysia, and Indonesia, artists have developed an interest in handwriting and letter art. In Turkey, the International Research Center for Islamic Culture and Art (IRCICA) holds competitions in classical calligraphy. Computer-generated calligraphy has developed, and although this method does not conform to the traditional techniques, it shows the possibilities of using Arabic script for decorative purposes.

    Islamic Crafts

    Muslim artists perfected techniques for making carpets, illuminated manuscripts, pottery and ceramic tiles, metalwork, and jewelry for domestic use and for trade. The only major art form not part of the Islamic tradition is sculpture, possibly because of the religious prohibition against depicting the human form realistically.

    Weaving as a Cottage Industry.

    Carpet weaving is one of the most distinctive and characteristic art forms in the Islamic world. Nomadic tribes who lived in the arid lands of the Muslim empire, from Morocco to northern India and western China, wove carpets from the wool they gathered from their own herds. Most of these carpets were for their family's domestic needs, but some were made for trade. In urban areas, commercial weaving enterprises provided carpets for a growing international market. In Muslim regions, carpets were popular at all levels of society, and members of royalty ordered specially-woven rugs for their palaces.

    Carpet weaving gained prominence in Anatolia (western Turkey) in the 1500s. It also flourished in Iran, the Caucasus, and Central Asia. Although rural carpet-making remained stable, urban Anatolian carpet production began to decline in the 1800s because of a shrinking market in Europe. In addition, the introduction of machine looms and artificial dyes affected traditional weaving techniques. By the 1970s, the quality of Turkish carpets had significantly declined. Renewed interest among European collectors, however, stimulated a revival in traditional carpet weaving techniques. Prices rose dramatically, and carpet weavers returned to older methods to improve the quality of their products. By the 1990s, Turkey produced new carpets, using traditional methods, in record quantities.

    In the Caucasus, carpet weaving dates back to the 1600s. Local traditions of village weaving lasted through the 1800s, resulting in a limited production of small carpets in traditional designs. While most carpet weavers in the region were Muslim, many of the people who dyed the yarns, as well as those who bought the finished product, were from Christian Armenia. Carpets from the Caucasus became popular in Britain and the United States and were sold by Armenian immigrants at very low prices. After the Soviet Union took control of the Caucasus region in the early twentieth century, however, Western buyers looked elsewhere for carpets. As the Soviets relocated rural communities, the Caucasian carpet weaving industry virtually disappeared.

    Iranian carpets are typically large, regularly woven, and intricately designed. The technical skill of the weavers ensures that the carpets lie flat and square when finished. In the late 1800s, Iranian rug weavers manufactured carpets with traditional patterns in sizes that would fit the floorspaces of European and American homes. In fact, some British companies operated their own carpet factories in Iranian cities. Weavers in rural areas contributed to the carpet trade by sending materials and unfinished pieces to the factories. The Iranian Revolution of 1979 , however, slowed carpet production and demand from the West ceased. Since then, Iranian leaders have struggled to promote their carpet exports.

    Before the 1800s, weavers in Central Asia produced carpets almost entirely for their own use. Because of their relative isolation from other markets, weavers managed to preserve their distinctive traditions even when faced with demand from Western countries. By the late 1800s, when Russian railways into Central Asia opened, rugs from Turkmenistan began to appear in European markets. Although carpet production continued after the Soviet takeover, the traditions of nomadic carpet weaving declined and were replaced by the production of rectangular floor carpets with synthetic dyes.

    Tiles and Tableware.

    Islamic artisans produce many ceramic products, using a variety of forms, techniques, and decorative styles. Ceramic tiles adorn mosques and other buildings. People drink, cook, serve, store, and carry food using vessels made from clay. In recent years, however, the use of plastic, aluminum, and enamel has increased in Muslim countries and is slowly replacing traditional materials.

    In northern Africa, ceramic goods include plates, covered dishes, bowls, oil and butter jars, inkwells, and lamps. Qalliline, a suburb of Tunis, is known for its ceramic panels and tableware decorated in large floral or animal motifs. Ceramists in southern Tunisia typically produce large, unglazed storage jars and popular green and yellow ceramic ware. Although Egypt has a distinguished history of ceramic arts, most pottery produced today serves everyday functions and is of unexceptional quality.

    By the 1700s, local traditions of ceramic manufacture were profoundly affected by contact with Europe. In many regions of the Muslim world, traders began to import fine porcelain from the European cities of Meissen, Vienna, and Sevres. A few European firms established factories in Iran and Turkey, where workers used modern methods of production but catered to local tastes. Inspired by European methods, rural potters created new styles of tableware, architectural tiles, and religious objects that they exported mainly to Armenian markets.

    In Iran, the cities of Kashan, Isfahan, Meybod, Shiraz, and Nain served as centers of ceramic production. Artisans used a variety of decorating styles, including bicolored black and blue patterns, European-influenced multiple color schemes, and luster painting, which involves the use of metallic paint on a white or blue glaze. Production of architectural tiles remains strong, and different types of folk items, such as ceramic beehive covers, are also produced.

    Afghan and Central Asian pottery factories were much less affected by Western imports. As a result, ceramics produced there closely resemble those of earlier centuries. Artisans in this region use turquoise glazes with splashes of dark blue and purple and techniques similar to those used in the Chinese T'ang dynasty.

    The art of glassmaking flourished in Islamic countries for centuries, dying out in the 1500s when European cities such as Venice became the major centers of export. In Egypt and Syria, glassblowers created cut glass, gilt glass, enameled glass, and lustre glass, which is fired with a thin coating of metal to give it a glistening surface. Craftsmen in Iran, Iraq, and Turkey produced similar items. In a few Islamic cities, such as Cairo and Damascus, studios use recycled materials to create traditional glass items as well as colorful glass beads and bracelets.

    Pictorial Art.

    With a few exceptions, human imagery does not appear in Islamic religious art. Tradition holds that artists who depict human figures are imitating God, who alone can create life. In mosques and other holy sites, painters decorated walls with calligraphy or abstract images. Ornamental chapter and verse headings serve as ornamentations in most religious texts. Books that contain religious subjects, however, sometimes feature human figures. A book about Muhammad , for example, might contain an illustration of a journey he took, although the artist would take care to depict Muhammad and his fellow travelers in a one-dimensional, stylized manner that in no way seemed realistic.

    Other Islamic texts, such as histories, the lives of the saints, mystical poetry, folktales, romances, epics, and animal fables were often richly illustrated. Artists typically created such works for wealthy patrons or royalty. A manuscript from the 1200s, now in the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris, depicts a lively scene in which a pilgrim caravan departs from Mecca. Several camels, one carrying a palanquin (enclosed coach) possibly containing a lady, follow blue-coated men blowing trumpets. The painting, with figures of animals, human beings, banners, and plants, curves to fill the space in a harmonious way. Perspective and shading—painting techniques that create the illusion of three dimensions—are absent. Paintings like this are typical of those used to illustrate books and manuscripts.

    By the end of the Middle Ages, Islamic artists—who usually worked in royal courts and thus had the opportunity to meet foreign visitors—had begun to take an interest in European styles of painting. They learned how to use perspective and shading. Landscape painting, an important tradition in Ottoman art, had traditionally focused on presenting precise geographical characteristics. In the 1700s, however, painters began to create more lush, romantic scenes in the European style. At the same time, European painters copied elements of Islamic painting. Important artists, such as Jean-Auguste Ingres and Eugene Delacroix , experimented with an “orientalist” style of painting that included images of Arabic horseman and exotic beauties in the sultan's harem.

    Metalwork and Jewelry.

    In Islamic societies, jewelry often served as part of a woman's dowry. Women commonly wore such items as bracelets, anklets, and earrings. Men wore jewelry as well, such as turban ornaments, rings, and talismans (charms worn around the neck to protect against harm). Artisans used metals to create pots, pans, perfume bottles and stoppers, water jugs, and other domestic items.

    Traditionally, only members of royalty wore gold. Plain or gilded silver served the needs of the wealthy, nobility, and those in the royal court. Islamic leaders sometimes sent gifts of jeweled or metal objects to religious shrines, mosques, and the holy cities. Metalwork and jewelry, particularly turban ornaments, also served as gifts.

    Artists created items using techniques such as enameling or setting jewels in their finished products. In India, works of enamel on gold became decorated in geometric, floral, bird, and animal patterns. Iranian artisans painted portraits and scenes on gold or silver. Both Indian and Iranian artists used images of the sun in their work. In Turkey, metalworkers created floral patterns in painted and cloisonné enamel. Turkish styles reflected a wide range of influences, including European designs such as rose-filled baskets and vases, ribbons, and pine cone patterns.

    Artisans made vessels and architectural decorations out of bronze, iron, and steel, as well as the preferred brass and copper. Such objects were either plain, or inlaid with gold or silver. Gilded copper was highly valued in Turkey. Artisans in eastern Anatolia and the Caucasus made silver and brass vessels inlaid with jewels and niello, a black metallic alloy of sulfur and copper. In India, artisans used bidri, a zinc alloy inlaid with silver or brass. In recent times, however, plastic vessels have come to replace many metallic items.

    Jewelers also worked with a wide variety of gemstones. They used emeralds, lapis lazuli, jade, rock crystal, topaz, garnet, turquoise, and beads made from plaster and glass. Gold and precious jewels appeared most commonly in urban areas. In rural regions, people adorned themselves with silver and more modest gems. In Mughal, India, pearls became particularly fashionable and designers embroidered them onto royal garments. In Iran, pearled bandoliers, armbands, crowns, and clothing were popular until the mid-1800s. Earrings in elongated shapes of domes or half moons were also common in Iran, as were bird pendants.

    Some Muslim women continue to wear traditional ornaments, but Western styles have influenced fashion in urban areas. In some large cities, women order jewelry from Europe. At the same time, however, Islamic jewelry and jeweled items have gained popularity in the international market.

    Artisans also used gems, such as carnelian and agate, to create seals, which people used to authenticate documents and to convey their status. Some people carried their seal in a small pack placed in an inside pocket. Others wore them around their necks or had them set in rings. Jewelers also made talismans from a variety of gems. Talismans came in round, square, rectangular, oval, heart, and teardrop shapes, and people wore them on bracelets or as pendants, or had them sewn into their clothes. See also Arabic Language and Literature; Architecture; Music; Textiles.

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