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"The Word" on Islamic Art

What is “Islamic Art”? The term is somewhat confusing, especially in cultures where Western art is predominant. Many people are unaware of this entire genre of art that that developed alongside Western art for centuries.

Islamic art is art created specifically in the context of the Muslim religion as well as secular art created in lands under Islamic rule or influence. Islamic art has a particular style and purpose that distinguish it from other types of art.

Islam arose in the early seventh century under the leadership of the prophet Muhammad. Muhammad was born in Mecca, in western Arabia, where he first began to preach the message of one god. Muhammad’s ideas were unpopular at first but eventually the Muslims established an empire over several centuries that stretched from the Atlantic Ocean to the borders of China, including at its height the areas now known as Syria, Palestine, Egypt, Iraq, Iran, North Africa, Spain, Central Asia, India, Sicily, Morocco, Turkey and Mongolia. During this time the empire absorbed many peoples and their cultures, resulting in the development of a unique form of artistic expression.

Calligraphy that is written in Arabic is the most pervasive element in Islamic art. It is considered to be noblest form of art because of its association with the Qur’an, the Muslim holy book. Unlike much of western art, calligraphy appears as a decorative element not only in manuscripts but on architectural components, metalwork, pottery, stone, glass, wood and textiles.

Another characteristic of Islamic art is the presence of complex geometric patterns or plant patterns (such as the arabesque). The complexity of the patterns and the impression of unending repetition is believed to encourage the observer to contemplate the nature of God.

A popular misconception about Islamic art is that it does not contain figural images. It is true that figurative art is excluded from the decoration of religious objects and architecture since anything that may be mistaken as idolatry is forbidden by the Qur’an. However, figurative art does occur in secular and courtly art.

In Islamic culture, the decorative arts provide the primary vehicle of artistic expression, in contrast to Western art, in which painting and sculpture predominate. These works include small objects of daily use as well as monumental architectural decoration. The meticulous embellishment of even ordinary household objects suggest the desire to create an environment of beauty for its own sake.

Royal patronage was important in the creation of Islamic art, especially the decoration and furnishings of mosques and religious buildings. The majority of art objects and manuscripts however, were the products of middle-class patronage. Regardless of the origin of a work of art, the Islamic artist generally remained anonymous. A exception to this rule occurs with the art of calligraphers who often signed their work. The exaltation of the calligrapher is not surprising given the importance of calligraphy in Islamic art. Analysis of the signatures combined with textual sources indicate that families of artists specialized in particular techniques that were handed down through generations.

The Los Angeles County Museum of art has an excellent collection of Islamic art as well as historical information on the subject. Click here to see their website.

silver Islamic pendant
Islamic art poster

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Diana Blake is a professional artist and art history enthusiast. Her fascination with art history began when she encountered European art firsthand during several trips abroad as a young adult. As she began to compose a portfolio for her own art career, she called upon what she had seen in Europe and extended her knowledge to other styles of art through profuse reading and exhaustive research. As a result, Diana has written more than one hundred articles in which she delves into a variety of art history topics and she has compiled a list of links that she believes to be invaluable for art history enthusiasts. In addition, she also reviews books and movies on the topic of art history and has assembled an extensive list of online stores that sell books, movies and gift items related to art history.
   You can see Diana's own artwork by visiting her site at