SENEGAL TO HONOLULU - Art of Islam
Islam is an Arabic word that means "acceptance",
"surrender", "submission", or "commitment", and
it expresses the innermost attitude of those who have hearkened to the
preaching of Mohammed.
- Mosque of the Shah, 1611-1616, Isfahan,
Persia (Iran), Lithograph, Reproduction photograph.
|During the time when
the architecture of the Islamic world was distinguishable as
an independent group of styles - from Islamic conquests to as
late as the 18th century - building styles consistently
appeared adapted to their surroundings. Basic elements of
Islamic architecture here include a dome raised on a
drum and set on a square chamber; with a great arch or iwan.
Walls are covered with multi-coloured tiles of blue, cream and
gold. The gateway is framed by a text from the Koran, Islam's
holy scripture, and at the sides rise tall minarets. Minarets
are used by the muezzin to call Islamics to prayer 5 times a
day. (It is said that Mohammed
Mosque of Omar, 19th Cent., David
Roberts, British (1796-1864), Temple
Mount, Jerusalem. Lithograph, Reproduction photograph.
| The dome
is the chief feature of the mosque. The faithful must turn
towards the Holy City of Mecca during prayers, thus the rear
wall of the mosque faces this city. A Moslem can pray whenever
he likes, at home, work or in the open air. Mecca is the
center of worship and was even before Mohammed's time, when
many gods were idolized. A sacred stone building in Mecca,
called the Kaaba, contains a large black stone which the Arabs
believed had been sent from heaven.
Calligraphic Ornament, c.1193, Delhi,
carved sandstone. Reproduction photograph.
| The arts of sculpture and painting were
never developed in Islam as much as other cultures. This fact
combined with a widespread liking for decoration were among
the influences that helped raise Islamic craftsmanship in
other fields to the very highest levels.
Islamic architecture was generally lively
and open in feeling, as opposed to solid and shut in. This
effect was sometimes achieved by decoration, often covering
every surface and particularly masking the structure of the
building. Such decoration however, never created a focal point
or center to draw attention to itself. In particular, one
feature that prevented any single element from becoming too
prominent was the "infinite pattern" - a basic motif
of Islamic art in all of it's forms.
Timurid-style Peacock, 1370-1500,, cast
and embossed steel. Reproduction photograph.
Astrolabe, , 14th Cent., Arabic, Brass
and Copper. Reproduction photograph.
all the decorative arts of Islam, the one that attracts
immediate attention is metalwork, which reached the very
highest level, both technically and in its standard of
representation. Bronze and iron for weapons, were the metals
most commonly used and to a lesser extent: gold and silver -
despite a ban imposed on these by the teachings of the Koran.
techniques of ornamentation were used, such as engraving and
embossing, but the most important was inlaying. Using this
method, a groove in the metal sheet is filled with a thread of
gold, silver or copper, which is then beaten and smoothed down
until absolutely no unevenness can be felt.
metalworkers produced items for three main uses: religious,
domestic and military. the first included lamps for mosques,
especially those with domes to be lit. Household items
included inkstands, incense burners, basins, mirrors, mugs,
jewel cases, vases and ewers. The Mongols developed the art of
making arms and armor, especially helmets and shields,
especially damascened (ornamented with wavy patterns or with
double inlay work of precious metals.)
merely decorative quality of this peacock tail contrasts with
the simplicity of the figure as a whole. The body is cast,
possibly using the "lost wax" method.
Plate, 16th Cent. Iznik, Turkey, Clay
and glaze. Reproduction photograph.
|| Moslems went
far beyond the Greeks in their development of laboratory
techniques, especially in chemistry and medicine. They also
advanced the study of mathematics and progressed so far in
astronomy that they were able to use the stars as guides as
they crossed the desert. The astrolabe is a navigational
instrument used to sight the sun, find the altitude of a star
etc. The numbers and letters are Arabic.
One of the greatest contributions to
civilization was the introduction of Arabic numerals (Hindu in
origin) to replace the clumsy Roman numeral system.
| Islamic craftsmen adopted
techniques from Egypt and Mesopotamia, and combined them with
various methods of ornamentation: incision, including "sgraffito"
in which a layer is scraped to reveal another; decorating over
the slip, a creamy layer of ground clay and
"impasto" in which paint is laid thickly to form an
The Ottoman potters contributed new work, of
which the best dates from about the 16th Century. Even today
their decorations in the Ottoman style are amongst the most
highly prized items of their kind in the world. Iznik was the
principal center of production in this period. The main
characteristics of its wares were heavy enameling; arabesques
representing carnations, tulips and elongated leaves;
sailing-boat motifs; and human and animal figures. Another
feature, common to Turkish pottery in general, was the use of
distinctive coral red with a relief effect.
Gur Slays the Rhino-Wolf, c.1500, Iran, Miniature.
Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY. Reproduction photograph.
This print is from the
Houghton Shah-nameh, whose miniatures are among the greatest
masterpieces of Persian painting ever produced; in them, the
ideals of this exacting art seem to culminate. This manuscript
was made for the Safavid ruler of Iran, Tahmasp, a dedicated
and sensitive patron of the arts who reigned from 1525 to
1576. Its 258 miniatures include the work of the most
distinguished artists of the period and probably took over 10
years to complete. This painting represents the ideal king,
elegant and assured on a magnificent steed, in daring combat
with a monster who combines ferocity with a delightfully
Muraqqa-i Gulshan (Gulshan
album aka Jahangir
1569-1627. Persia, Miniature. Imperial Library,
Gulshan Palace, in Teheran, Iran. Reproduction photograph.
| At its finest, Islamic
miniature painting had various distinctive features in common.
The figures were surrounded by an elaborate multicolored frame
or contained within wide borders like those of a carpet; they
were usually shown as a crowd in action, on several planes;
and the painting gave a bird's eye view of them. The
perspective was geometrical with no attempt at naturalism, so
that the artist was free to present his own personal
interpretation. There were often intensely blue skies, golden
leaves, and trees stylized with meticulous elegance, all
creating a fairytale atmosphere. miniatures influences both
carpet design and architectural decoration and these in turn
had an effect on painting.
Ceremonial Wall Hanging for a Tent,
Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto, Canada. Poster
The Islamic world has a great feeling for the written
word. Most people possess a copy of the Koran and there are many
well-stocked libraries. By about 1000 AD the libraries of Cordova had
accumulated 140,000 manuscripts, while the largest library of the
Christian world, the Vatican Library contained less than 1,000. Moslems
knew about printing from the tenth century.
son of a merchant, was born in AD 570 at Mecca. he was about 40 when he
began to preach; he stressed that he was not divine but only a man whom
God had chosen to be his messenger. He said that he had been sent to call
men to God's worship, and to bid them to put away evil before the end of
the world and the Last judgment, which would not be long delayed. This
message was not the taste of the ruling merchants, and the prophet and his
followers were forced to flee.
Apart from the attraction of his preachings Mohammed had
great talents as a strategist and a diplomat, and recruits to his cause
came in rapidly. In 630 he took Mecca. After his death in 632, the
revelations he had delivered over a period of some 20 years were collected
into a book, the Koran.
Islam teaches that the surest way to paradise is to die
fighting in the cause of God, and the Arabs soon began their career of
conquest. They erupted from the Arabian peninsular and, picking recruits
as they went, overran the neighboring lands. As they advanced they were
joined by discontented subjects of the older empires.
The only formal requirement for a convert to Islam is
that one professes that there is but one God, Allah, and that Mohammed is
his prophet. Men of many races joined Arabs in creating a new empire and a
The Arab Empire became a melting pot in which many
peoples were fused together. but one field in which the Arabs themselves
predominated was poetry. Arabs lead the world in the study of medicine.
Astrology flourishes alongside more scientific study of astronomy. The
prophet, Mohammed, urged his followers to "seek learning." Every
miniature, every mosque, every line of the poets is a tribute to him.
Islam's greatest contributions lay in the encouragement which it has given
to the spread of learning.