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Islamic Art


Islam, among the world's major religions, is usually thought to have avoided significant aesthetic expressions of its major spiritual tenets. One will not find in Islamic art the artistic equivalents of Gothic cathedrals with their sophisticated reflection of Thomist thought, of Byzantine icons with their spiritual effectiveness, or of Buddhist sculptures with their involved iconographic programs and their pietistic quietness. And yet the artistic creation of Islamic civilization could not, any more than the creation of any culture, escape the needs and ideals of its faith. In this context of the relationship of the faith of islam to Islamic art a brief presentation will be made here of the monuments that were erected between the 7th and the 17th centuries in the vast area that stretches from the Atlantic Ocean to the Gulf of Bengal. Since it will not be possible to mention either all monuments or all problems, this article will concentrate on three topics: it will first define the features of the faith that had a direct influence on the arts, then proceed to explain the major elements of Islamic religious architecture, and finally show that the faith had an influence on representational and decorative arts as well.

The Faith of Islam and Art. There is, first of all, one major area in which the faith of Islam requires some sort of monumental expression. This is the mosque, from Arabic masjid, "a place to prostrate one's self [in front of God]," as in prayer. In a strict sense, the individual act of prayer, the main purely religious obligation of the Muslim, could be accomplished any place. But Islam is also a communitarian social order and, at least once a week, prayer is meant to be a congregational experience as well as a private one: "O ye who believe, when the call is heard for the Friday prayer, haste unto remembrance of God and leave your trading" (Qurān 62.9). In the early years of the Muslim community the private house of the Prophet in medina (a simple courtyard with rows of columns on its southern and northern sides and private rooms to the east) became almost accidentally the place of gathering of the small band of faithful, and it was only later that it acquired the sacred value of being the first mosque. As the Muslim world grew and conquered, the mosque maintained its function as the place where the community assembled, learned, fulfilled some of its financial obligations, and proclaimed its allegiance to temporal rulers.

Liturgy and the Mosque. The mosque, in short, meant to serve all activities of the community, thereby emphasizing the key Muslim point of the inseparability of social order from allegiance to certain beliefs. Its main physical requirement was space, as large a space as would accommodate the body of believers available in any one community. From the very beginning it acquired three further needs: an orientation (the qiblah ), since prayer is to be directed toward mecca, the first and unique sanctuary of God; a device for calling the faithful, eventually to become, in most instances, the tall tower known as the minaret; and a place of honor for the imĀm, or leader of prayer, usually the head of the Muslim community or his representative; it was a sort of throne, known as the minbar, and it is only little by little that it has become the multistepped structure found today in most mosques. Some place for ablutions must have been available, but it played no known part in early architecture. In the 7th and 8th centuries two other features were added: the mirab (a concave niche in the back of the mosque, usually supposed to indicate the direction of prayer, but more likely to have been originally a memorial to the place where the Prophet stood when leading prayers); and, in some mosques only, a maqsūrah, a screen identifying the place of the prince. Space commensurate to the population, plus orientation, minaret, minbar, mirab, and, secondarily, a place for ablutions and a maqsūrah were then the major features that, to speak liturgically, identified the purposes and requirements of the main Islamic religious building and the only ones needed almost at the very beginning of the new faith.

Islam and Images. The second area of Islam's impact on the arts concerns the representational arts. It is usually assumed that, from the very beginning, Islam asserted its opposition to any kind of representation of living forms. This is simply not so, and the whole problem can best be understood if put into its proper historical context. In 7th century Arabia, images of any kind played a very minor part in the life and culture of either nomads or city dwellers. In the Qurān there is no statement opposing or justifying images. The only references, in fact, to any kind of representation are either to prohibited idols (e.g., 6.75) or to one case of a miracle attributed to Jesus (3.49). However, two basic thoughts run throughout the Qurān: the absolute opposition to idolatry, and the total power of a single God (for instance, 39.6263 or the celebrated passage, 2.255). After the conquest of Christian and other lands, Muslims with these ideas encountered a world in which holy images played a considerable part and in which the great crisis of iconoclasm and of the place of holy images within the faith was already brewing (to explode a century later). The Muslims clearly interpreted Christian, and later Buddhist, views on images as idolatry and as challenges to God's exclusive power; and since their lack of artistic background did not permit them to develop alternate ideas, they little by little formulated a theory of opposition to images in general because of the character of images in the 7th and 8th centuries in Christianity. In its extreme and absolute form, this antagonism was limited to religious circles only and there were several degrees of it, the most moderate of which merely prohibited the representation of God. But the general mood

of orthodox Islam remained throughout one of reluctance to deal with images for fear of their magical powers and, as a result, Muslim secular art tended to be most inventive in the formation of a characteristically Islamic imagery.

Architectural Development of the Mosque. The first four or five centuries of Islamic history were characterized by the creation in every Muslim city of large congregational mosques.

Regional Styles. Their type varied from province to province according to local circumstances and architectural traditions. In Syria the mosque of Damascus used the ancient Roman temple area and classical or Byzantine columns for an original composition of a courtyard surrounded by porticoes, with a three-aisled portico indicating the direction of prayer. In Iraq, Egypt, and the Muslim West the same basic plan was modified by the transformation of the qiblah area into a vast hypostyle hall of columns or piers. The most superb remaining instance

of this type is the mosque of cÓrdoba, where the double tier of arches introduced a particularly original solution to the problem of light in a large hall (see umay yads). A different solution was eventually found in Iran, where there had not been a major columnar tradition. The solution, as seen in Isfahan, was to keep the courtyard but to surround it with a screen of high vaults and arcades behind which vaults and domes covered variable interior arrangements. After the conquest of Constantinople in 1453, a highly original, centrally planned mosque evolved from the indigenous Christian tradition. In all instances the most significant feature was that local and extremely diverse architectural techniques were modified into new compositions, which succeeded in providing the main need of the Islamic mosque: large space. In almost all instances the court framed by covered halls remained as a constant memory of the Prophet's house in Medina.

Mosque and Palace. While the single large mosque remained for centuries the characteristic example of religious architecture in Islam, it was not the only one, and it underwent many internal changes. The history and significance of other architectural types as well as of changes within the mosque are complex matters, whose details are often still improperly investigated; only two points of wider interest will be considered here. The first is that the architecture of the mosque was constantly influenced by the architecture of the palace, about which, unfortunately, very little is known, except in the palaces of the first two Muslim centuries and in the Alhambra, at Granada, of the 14th Christian century. Yet it seems clear that the slow development in mosque architecture of wide central naves, of domes in front of mirabs, and of outer monumental gates was a direct result of the taste created by princes in their palaces.

Special-Purpose Mosques; Endowed Institutions. The other change that occurred within Islamic religious architecture is perhaps of greater interest to the study of religious architectures in general. Although none of its basic tenets were modified, Islam as a whole changed considerably over the centuries. As its cities grew and its social order became more complex, the religious institution also developed in intricacy. Large congregational mosques still fulfilled their purpose as the main magnets of a city's life, but the very rich or groups of people tied together by a variety of bonds (guilds, tribal or family allegiances, city quarters) began to prefer to worship in smaller, less crowded surroundings. Many smaller mosques were therefore created, often on the same plans as the large ones but more intimate in character, like small havens of peace in the crowded and turbulent cities.

Another phenomenon of medieval Islam was the growth of heresies; to counter them the various orthodox princes instituted from the 11th century on a sort of educational institution, the madrasah, where principles of orthodox theology and jurisprudence were taught. Several types existed, but at its most monumental, as in the case of the madrasah of Sultan Hassan in Cairo (14th century), it had a large central court with several vaulted halls opening on it and quarters for students between these large halls. The tomb of the founder was often added to the composition.

Related to the madrasah were the ribat and the khanqah, institutions of uncertain origins that were the Muslim equivalents of the monastic orders of Christianity. All these institutions, to which must be added the more purely philanthropic hospitals, were usually founded by princes or wealthy merchants, who endowed them by developing business enterprises, hostelries, baths, warehouses, and bazaars, whose revenues were exclusively earmarked for holy institutions and therefore inalienable. Thus from about 1100 the whole Muslim world became literally covered with a large number of closely related philanthropic, religious, and business enterprises, whose remains can still be found in Cairo or Aleppo or Jerusalem. All of them received a monumentality commensurate with the wealth and prestige of the endowers; and all of them tended to use approximately the same basic forms: high gates, open courts, long vaulted halls, domed tomb chambers. Although comparable institutions existed in other systems of faith as well, it is peculiar to Islam that, quite early in the Middle Ages, they were all executed in monumental form.

Memorial Edifices. A phenomenon related to the preceding one is that of the monumental mausoleum. Early Islam was quite opposed to any form of visible commemoration of the dead. The earliest known memorial building, the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, did not acquire its precise memorial quality of a monument to the Ascension of the Prophet until later. But in the 10th century two separate movements became strong enough to initiate a complete reversal of earlier practices. One was purely secular and involved attempts by princes to proclaim their glory or that of their dynasties beyond death. The other was religious; the main Muslim heterodoxy, Shiism (see shĪites), laid particular stress on the descendants of the Prophet and appealed to emotional and personal aspects of early Islamic history rather than to the strict and rather dry legalism of orthodoxy. This was often achieved by building up the sacred martyria to Alī, Husayn, and other descendants of the Prophet. As an answer to this development, the orthodox began to develop cults of holy men, from ancient Hebrew Prophets to contemporary heroes. Mystical orders also worshipped by the tombs of their founders. Thus the Muslim world became covered with mausoleums, from humble ones dedicated to obscure saints to the magically secular Taj Mahal. Their shapes varied considerably, but almost all of them were variants on the traditional classical mausoleum, i.e., the central plan, circle, square, polygon, always covered with a dome. These domes became characteristic focal points for popular piety or mere illustrations of princely vanity. As monuments of architecture such buildings as those of the Cairo cemeteries, of the Shah Sindah in Samarkand, and of Agra in India are among the most impressive creations of Islamic art and, together with the congregational mosques and the monuments of philanthropy, best identify the various facets of Muslim religious feeling.

Architecture and Decoration. It would not be proper to omit, in a discussion of Islamic architecture, those elements of construction or decoration that have given it its originality. From Spain to India, vaults and domes were the characteristic parts of construction on which most effort was exercised. The problem was to build high domes and vaults that would still manage to create wide interior spaces and to give light. Although solutions were numerous, it is in Ottoman architecture in Turkey that the most superb engineering effects were achieved, while Spain and Iran provided the most impressively original effects, in which decorationstucco compositions of various three-dimensional shapes known as muqarnas or stalactites, and colored tilesplayed a notable part. And, in a sense, the ultimate quality of Islamic architecture resides in the stunning fashion in which a wide variety of decorative devices tending to cover the totality of the wall struck

a generally successful balance with more properly architectural values of mass and spaces. Neither the specific aesthetic characteristics of these developments nor their historical contexts have yet been sufficiently studied to hazard a judgment on the causes of this phenomenon. And yet, as one contemplates the brilliant domes and minarets of Isfahan or the intensely logical mosques of Istanbul or the rich and solid monuments of Cairo, they express varying aspects of the Muslim faith: its order, its total involvement of all human activities, and the colorful poetry of its emotional fringes.

Decorative and Pictorial Art. The main emphasis of this article has been architecture, because in this, quite clearly, an art was created that was closely bound to the Islamic faith. But this is not to say that the faith of Islam did not affect, positively or negatively, other aspects of artistic creation. Three points of particular significance are here considered.

First, there is no doubt that the great development of calligraphy was related to Muslim veneration of the holy text of the Qurān. Qurānic passages served the purpose of images in Christian art in identifying and explaining the purpose of monuments. But the importance of this veneration of writing went much beyond this simple level. The smallest object or the largest building acquired

a decoration of letters, words, or quotations and formulas that gave them quality. It is for this reason that the calligrapher became the artist par excellence, so that even today his product is prized much above that of any other creator. It is curious to note that the first purely Islamic development of a new artistic form, that of a magnificent ceramic in the 9th century in eastern Iran, uses beautiful writing as its most characteristic decorative effect, although the content of the inscriptions is only remotely connected with the faith as such.

A second impact of the faith is perhaps more debatable but should be mentioned because it has often been discussed. It has always been agreed that some of the most typical values of Islamic art were decorative. One of the peculiarities of this decoration was that it usually abandoned natural elements and, instead, broke up visible forms and recombined them according to new and different abstract patterns. It has been suggested that this characteristic derived from an attempt to reflect the Muslim theological position that creation is a continuous divine miracle, whose individual elements are not automatically in the same relationship to each other. The artist, in other words, felt free to recompose the atoms of the universe and to create new and unknown shapes.

Finally, while it is clear that the main source of inspiration of Islamic paintingin books or on ceramicswas secular, certain peculiarities of iconography and style may be related to the mystical ideas of late medieval Islam. Thus, for instance, it can be argued that the tendency of Persian painters after the 14th century to create artificial settings in which man and nature seem to blend in superb masses of color reflected the pantheistic tendencies of some mystical groups that saw all things as equal symbols of the divine. It has also been argued that many images, especially those of love, had in fact a possible esoteric meaning, since love, like banqueting or drinking, particularly favorite subjects for representations, could be interpreted symbolically as well as literally.

All these points still deserve considerable investigation, and it would be hazardous to accept them entirely at face value. They would, however, illustrate a fact of importance: beneath its superficial veneer of glamour and brilliance, Islamic art did try to reflect the more profound aspects of the faith of Islam. It was hampered, no doubt, by the fact that official orthodoxy was reluctant to rely on artistic creation for the expression of its beliefs; but the faith played too important a part in the lives of men not to have influenced their arts.

Bibliography: k. a. c. creswell, Early Muslim Architecture, 2 v. (Oxford 193241); A Short Account of Early Muslim Architecture (Baltimore 1958); Muslim Architecture of Egypt, 2 v. (Oxford 195259). a. u. pope and p. ackerman, eds., A Survey of Persian Art, 7 v. (New York 1939), uneven. b. gray Persian Painting (New York 1961). r. ettinghausen, Arab Painting (New York 1962). Articles in Ars Islamica and Ars Orientalis. For relations between art and faith see l. massignon, "Les Méthodes de réalisation artistique des peuples de lIslam," Syria 2: 4753 and b. farÈs, Essai sur l'esprit de la décoration islamique (Cairo 1952). r. h. pinder-wilson, ed., Studies in Islamic Art (London 1985). o. grabar, The Formation of Islamic Art (New Haven, CT 1987). a. khatibi and m. sijelmassi, The Splendor of Islamic Calligraphy (New York 1996). k. otto-dorn, The Art and Architecture of the Islamic World (Berkeley 1996). r. irwin, Islamic Art in Context: Art, Architecture, and the Literary World (New York 1997). r. hillen-brand, Islamic Art and Architecture (New York 1999). j. bloom, Early Islamic Art and Architecture (Burlington, VT 2000). o. grabar and c. robinson, Islamic Art and Arabic Literature: Textuality and Visuality in the Islamic World (Princeton NJ 2000). r. ettinghausen, o. grabar and m. jenkins, The Art and Architecture of Islam 6501250 (New Haven, CT 2001). y. tabbaa, The Transformation of Islamic Art during the Sunni Revival (Seattle 2001).

[o. grabar]

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