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What is Islamic Art

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					             Middle East and Islamic Studies Program, San Francisco State University




What is Islamic Art?
When we think of art we think of portraiture, landscapes, and still life images made with
attention to naturalism. When we think of Islam many think of the injunction in the
Quran against portraying humans and animals as this is considered idolatry and
competing with God’s creation. Thus the term “Islamic art” may seem like a paradox.
However, there is a very rich history of art in the Islamic world. Among the forms or art
are painting, calligraphy, metalworking, ceramics, textile production and architecture.
Here we will explore painting and the related art of calligraphy. Both of these forms
of art represent Islamic cultural expression.

Painting
       There are two main categories of painting in Islamic art. The first is “religious”
       painting and the other secular painting. Both serve to illustrate the message or
       events of the text. The paintings are usually found in books and are called
       “miniature paintings.” Created nearly 700 years after the death of Muhammad
       miniature painting represents the diversity of Islamic culture as it grew in other
       parts of the world. Miniature paintings generally come from three areas: Ottoman
       Turkey, Persia and India. These areas are far from the Muslim heartland, in the
       Arabian Peninsula, and had already established traditions of painting, such as
       Byzantine, Chinese and Hindu painting, that were adapted to the new faith.

              What is Islamic Religious Painting?
                      Religious paintings in Islamic art are concerned mostly with
                      illustrating the life of the Prophet Muhammad. The artists knew that
                      this was a tricky endeavor and sometimes showed deference by
                      covering the face of the Prophet. See figure 1.

              What is Islamic Secular Painting?
                      After the Mongol conquest of Persia in the 13th century miniature
                      painting became a major form of artistic expression in this area of
                      the Islamic world. As foreign rulers of an Islamic culture the
                      Mongols found texts and illustrations an effective way to
                      communicate their values and history. They set up workshops
                      known as the kitabkhana in their capital cities to produce and copy
                      books. See figure 2. The style of the paintings they commissioned
                      was a combination of Byzantine, Chinese and Arab styles. The
                      subject matter of their texts were secular and either dealt with royal
                      history, geography, science, poetry, fables and animal husbandry.
                      One other important subject of their texts was the legendary
                      Persian history of kings called the Shahnama, or book of kings.
                      After the decline of Mongol rule local rulers continue the art of
                      miniature painting and famous workshops were set up in Ottoman

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                      Turkey, Safavid Persia, and Mughal India. The highpoint of
                      miniature art in these areas stretches between the 16th and 17th
                      centuries. Miniature art declines when the power of these rulers
                      decline and as the naturalism of Western style art becomes more
                      desirable to later rulers.


       Do miniature paintings have a specific style?

              While there are regional variants to the style of miniature painting, they
              have some feature in common (see figure 3). Among these include:
                        1. Space—the miniature painter was not concerned with
                           depicting the natural world from the perspective of his own
                           eye. Instead he wanted to depict the world as if seen from a
                           sacred point of view where the essence of objects are
                           captured and space is two-dimensional. Most landscapes
                           and architectural interiors, therefore, appear to us as if tilted
                           up for an eye that sees from above.
                        2. Pattern and line—Miniature painting is closely related to the
                           art of calligraphy. Therefore the treatment of line is very
                           important and we see the use strong outlining. Also of
                           interest is the use of patterns to depict the ground, trees and
                           architecture. The artist creates visual interest through the
                           play of color, rhythmic line and dots. The artist juxtaposes
                           areas of pattern to create tension and harmony.
                        3. Color—the paint of miniature art is gouache that is
                           composed of highly concentrated pigment suspended in a
                           water base. Pigments are derived from mineral and
                           vegetable sources and produce the deep rich colors often
                           associated with miniature painting.
                        4. Form—the human, animal and vegetal forms depicted in
                           miniature painting are abstract in style. The artist has
                           abstracted the visual qualities from the form and reproduced
                           its essence. This abstraction steers the artist away from
                           possible trouble for depicting humans and animals as he can
                           claim they are not life-like depictions. The otherworldly
                           quality of poetry, fables and legends is also symbolized by
                           the abstract treatment of forms.


       What happens in a kitabkhana?
              Islamic paintings are produced in a workshop called the kitabkhana.
              Every workshop had a director who managed the affairs of book making
              and reported to the ruler. The ruler paid for the materials and artists, he
              also selected which subjects would be produced. Qurans were also
              produced in the kitabkhana. When the director received an order to create

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              a book he would gather together the best artists and calligraphers. After
              the calligraphers transcribed the words onto the pages the director and his
              assistants would illustrate the story. Many hands worked together on a
              single painting in the kitabkhana. See figure 2.

       Who saw the miniature paintings after they were completed?
               After a book was complete it was sent to the ruler’s library. When the ruler
              wanted he would sit in the library and read his books and admire the
              illustrations. Sometimes important dignitaries were invited to the ruler’s
              library to view the masterpieces of his collection.
              Many of the books, especially royal histories were reproduced and sent to
              the libraries of local governors. They read these histories to understand
              the background and values of their ruler.
              After the great rulers of Persia and India began to decline in the late 17th
              and 18th century they were unable to maintain kitabkhanas. Businessmen
              and smaller rulers commissioned books and helped support the books arts
              for another century. The quality of these books do not come close in
              quality to those produced for the rulers.
       Activities:
       Look and describe.
              1. Display this image of Nushirvan receives an Embassy from the King of
                 Hind from Shahnameh-yi Shah Tahmasp. Figure 4.
              2. Ask students to discuss what they see. Ask them to describe the color,
                 the forms, what is important to the artist.
              3. Inform them of the story of that is being illustrated: The King of Hind
                 (India) wanted to play a clever trick on the Persian king, Nushirvan. He
                 sent the game of chess to Persia and bet that Nushirvan nor his wise
                 men would be able to figure out the rules, but if they did the king of
                 Hind would pay him a treasure from his kingdom. Nushirvan did nor his
                 wise men could figure out the rules but the doubled the bet by sending
                 the game of backgammon to India, which the Indian king could not
                 figure out either. This image shows the arrival of the embassy. Notice
                 the elephant with a monkey on top on the left.

Calligraphy
       The written word has a particularly important place in Islamic culture. (Figure 6).
       This is in no small part due to the central place of the Quran in the lives of
       Muslims. The Quran is the principal and often times the only visual manifestation
       of Islamic spirituality. Therefore, much attention is concentrated on beautiful
       writing, or calligraphy and it appears in many places, such as ceramics,

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       mosques, textiles, metal ware and of course texts. In Islamic writing the pen is
       made from a reed and is called a qalam (figure 7). The calligrapher’s most
       important job was copying the Quran. Later he would also be asked to provide
       writing to decorate objects, textiles, coins and architecture.

              What are the languages of Islamic calligraphy?
                      The first and foremost language of Islamic calligraphy is Arabic.
                      This is the language of the Quran. The calligraphy we find on
                      textiles, ceramics and mosques are phrases taken from the Quran.
                      Islamic calligraphy can also be found in Persian, Turkish, and Urdu,
                      which all use the Arabic alphabet.

              What are some of the characteristics of Arabic writing?
                      Arabic is written and read from right to left. Short vowels are only
                      represented as diacritic marks, which are typically only included in
                      religious source texts such as the Quran and Hadith. Long vowels
                      and diphthongs are written, however, the letters used to write them
                      may also represent other sounds (semi-vowels, etc.).

       The Forms of Calligraphic Writing
              Islamic calligraphy varies in form (fig. 8). The earliest form of calligraphy is
              called Kufic. It has a blocky appearance and is very legible. The early
              Qurans were transcribed in this script. As time passed calligraphy became
              more decorative and varied. Other commonly used calligraphic scripts are
              the Thuluth, Naskh and Nastaliq. These more cursive scripts are found
              in books and on the inscriptions of religious architecture.
              Activities:
              Ask student to find the Arabic letter that best matches the first letter of
              their first name. Hand out the sheet with that letter and let the student
              color in the letters from pdf packet. This will provide them with hands on
              experience with Arabic writing. Ask them notice how the words are read
              from right to left. (See alphabet chart).



Illustrations (Download full figures online):
Figure 1: Folio from the Life of the Prophet Prophet, Muhammad at the Ka'ba by Nakkaş
Osman [c. 1595] Topkapi Palace Museum, Istanbul (Inv. 1222/123b).
Figure 2: Folio from the Akhlaq-i Nasiri of Tusi - depicting the kitabkhana or artist's
workshop. Mughal Period, Lahore, c.1595.




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Figure 3: Folio from Shahnameh-yi Shah Tahmasp. Ardashir and the Slave Girl Gulnar
by Mir Musavvir, c. 1522-1540.
Figure 4: Folio from Shahnameh-yi Shah Tahmasp. Nushirvan receives an Embassy
from the King of Hind, c. 1522-1540.
Figure 5: Arabic Calligraphy, ink and reed pens.
Figure 6: Persian Reed Pen.
Figure 7: Examples of the Naskh, Thuluth, Muhaqqaq, Nastaliq, and Riq'a scripts in
Arabic calligraphy, Courtesy of Sakkal Design, www.sakkal.com




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