The Dome of the Rock, 691-692. Jerusalem
Art,  English

Islamic art is not the art of a nation or of a people, but that of a religion…

The text below is the excerpt of the book Art of Islam (ASIN: 1646993616), written by Gaston Migeon and Henri Saladin, published by Parkstone International.

Within a century, the Arab conquests that spread rapidly into the East, North Africa and Spain upset the social fabric of all the subjugated peoples by imposing not only a new religion and organisation, but also new customs and practices. One religion alone orchestrated the spread of a single statute. Although still reeling in the aftermath of barbarian conquests and torn by sectarian conflicts among Christians, the ruined former Roman provinces became the cradle of a new world, the Muslim world, which for centuries was more civilised than most countries in Europe. Since Muhammad had promised his followers that they would possess the kingdoms of the world, the enjoyment of material things was viewed as a gift and a reward, not as a despicable pleasure to be shunned by the faithful. Consequently, Muslim leaders sought to surround themselves with luxury and decorated their cities and palaces. The ostentation of caliphs became proverbial, and throughout their empire imposing monuments sprang up whose opulence and elegance remained legendary in the East.

Courtyard of the Al-Azhar Mosque, 970-972, Art of Islam
Courtyard of the Al-Azhar Mosque, 970-972. Cairo.

The Muslim civilisation, forged by the efforts of many different people, was not composed solely of Arabs. Consistent with the models that influenced it and the places where it grew, it also included Greeks, Persians, Syrians, Egyptians, Spaniards and Indians. Considering all origins together, however, Arabs, although never so far accurately defined, unquestionably made up the greatest number. This background notwithstanding, they were able to fuse these greatly diverse elements into one homogeneous blend and build a civilisation that bears the mark of their genius. The art of Felix Arabia, ancient Yemen, cannot be left out of a list of countries that influenced early Islamic art. The primary result of Islamic conquests was a kind of blend of Eastern and Western artistic traditions.

This vast Muslim world, whose pilgrimages to Mecca reflected the nomadic nature of their culture, made persistent efforts towards unification, transmission and mixing of the various traditions in their empire, resulting in a constant evolution of the arts. During periods of peace, the pilgrimage, obligatory for every faithful Muslim, brought together people from various countries. Naturally, people of the same trade preferred to meet together and interact with one another. The trip to Mecca was long and expensive for craftsmen from far-flung countries, and the poorest had to stop and work along the way in order to obtain the necessary resources. During such relatively long stays in the cities, the most assiduous could learn construction techniques and manufacturing skills. Upon returning home, they would try to imitate the new techniques they had seen.

The Taj Mahal, 1632-1643, Art of Islam
The Taj Mahal, 1632-1643. Agra, India.

Consequently, the rich and powerful Muslim world established a considerable trade system throughout the Mediterranean, along caravan routes, the Red Sea, and the Persian Gulf. During long periods of peace, under the great caliphs, the luxury and wealth of individuals facilitated trade. Immense bazaars were set up in every big city, and caravansaries appeared even in the middle of deserts. Islamic maritime art rivalled that of the Byzantine Empire or Italy. This situation was very advantageous to the renewal and proliferation of artistic techniques. The distinction between the splendour of the early centuries of Islam and the barbarism of the Christian world until the crusades is extraordinary.

Paradoxically, from the early years of the Hijra, the more Rome dealt, in every aspect, with the subjugated people, the more, on the contrary, the arts of the vanquished people influenced the victor. In effect, Rome succeeded in stamping her civilisation only on the barbarians it subjugated. From an artistic perspective, Greece, Sicily, Egypt and Asia Minor never completely succumbed to Roman influence. On the contrary, Islam subjugated people whose civilisation was in all ways superior. Consequently, everywhere it went, it transformed and made use of the arts it encountered.

Harem garden, 18th century, Art of Islam
Harem garden, 18th century. Miniature. David Collection, Copenhagen.

Whereas Islamic arts initially had a visible affinity with Persian and Byzantine arts, a constant evolution on its part enabled it to perfect itself and become unique in all its forms. Depending on the countries and the period, this art was characterised by its varied forms and decorations. Islamic art is thus a vast field of study that stretches from the Hijra in 622 to the works of art produced until the 19th century. The territory covered is vast, stretching from Spain to India. Owing to the movement of artists, merchants, sponsors and works of art, at least forty-two dynasties that ruled on three continents had a certain degree of stylistic unity. This sense of unity was strengthened by the use of a single form of writing in the entire Islamic world and the amazing development of calligraphy. Therefore, rather than being viewed as merely religious, Islamic arts should be considered as one of the pillars of a civilisation.

Three of famous mosques and buildings:

Minaret of the Great Mosque of Al-Mutawakkil, 848-852
Minaret of the Great Mosque of Al-Mutawakkil, 848-852. Height: 50 m. Samarra, Iraq.
Ablution fountain, 1363
Ablution fountain, 1363. Sultan Hassan Mosque, Cairo.
The Poi Kalon complex, 12th-20th centuries
The Poi Kalon complex, 12th-20th centuries. Bukhara, Uzbekistan.

See more about Islamic art here:

Islamic Museum of Australia

The Museum of Islamic Art, Doha, Qatar

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia

British Museum

Virtual Museum

Aga Khan Museum

The Museum for Islamic Art – Jerusalem

Museum of Islamic Art – Egypt

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Parkstone International is an international publishing house specializing in art books. Our books are published in 23 languages and distributed worldwide. In addition to printed material, Parkstone has started distributing its titles in digital format through e-book platforms all over the world as well as through applications for iOS and Android. Our titles include a large range of subjects such as: Religion in Art, Architecture, Asian Art, Fine Arts, Erotic Art, Famous Artists, Fashion, Photography, Art Movements, Art for Children.

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