Ancient Islamic Art

Islamic art will typically encompass all visual arts produced from the seventh century onwards by culturally Islamic populations. It is not art from a specific region, time or place and is not encompassed by a single medium. It spans across about 1400 years and covers many lands, populations and includes a wide range of artistic fields from architecture to calligraphy, painting, glass ceramics, and even textiles, among others.

One of the key identifiers of Islamic art is that it does not usually show the human form. Unlike other religious arts, Islamic culture believes that the depiction of the human form is idolatry and is thereby a sin against God. It is forbidden in the Qu’ran, which it the central text of Islam. Calligraphy and architectural elements are given more important religious significance in Islamic art for this reason. However, despite this, it is a misconception to say that all Islamic art is free from figurative representation. Most of it is because most of it stems from religious or public spaces. In secular, private areas, one has a bit more freedom to explore. The areas where this is a bit more gray is usually in secular, or non-religious representations of Islamic art. Depictions of the human form can be found in these instances. Often private residences of sovereign rulers were filled with vast figurative paintings, mosaics, and sculpture.


Islamic art also developed from a variety of sources. From Roman art and early Christian influences to Byzantine styles. Even the influence of central Asian styles brought by various nomadic excursions can be seen in Islamic painting, pottery, and textiles. In general, however, Islamic art encompasses the visual arts produced from the seventh century onwards by both Muslims and non-Muslims who lived within territories that were inhabited or ruled by a culturally Islamic population. It is thus a very difficult art to define because of how wide spread it was. Islamic art is not necessarily restricted to religious representation and can include art from all manner of different, culturally rich walks of life. Because figurative representations were and still are generally forbidden in Islam, the written word takes on religious meaning in art through calligraphic inscription. Calligraphy and the decoration of manuscript Qu’rans is an important aspect of Islamic art as here the written word takes on the religious and artistic significance, instead of a figure meant to represent a god or angels.



Islamic architecture is also particularly important to look at. Architecture such as mosques are embedded with religious significance. There are repeating elements in Islamic art and architecture. Wall decorations or murals will typically be stylized, feature geometric floral or vegetative designs in a repeating pattern known as the arabesque. The arabesque in Islamic art is often used to symbolize the transcendent, indivisible and infinite nature of God. Some scholars believe that mistakes in these patterns may be a deliberate show of humility by artists who believe that only God can produce true perfection. This carries through to many different iterations of their craft, from an imperfect stitch in a carpet to a missed repetition on the decoration of a vase. The focus primarily in Islamic art was on the depiction of patterns and calligraphy.




One of the most famous monuments of Islamic art is the Taj Mahal, a royal mausoleum which is located in Agra, India. Hinduism is the majority religion in India however because Muslim rulers dominated large areas of modern-day India for centuries. As such, India has a vast and dynamic range or Islamic art and architecture. In general, Islamic empires and dynasties controlled territories from Spain to Western China at differing points in history. However, few artists from these areas would have labeled themselves as Islamic artists. An artisan from Spain would have just been a Spanish painter. As such, it makes it difficult for art historians to use the term “Islamic Art” as an umbrella term. Places like the Metropolitan Museum of Art have decided instead to omit the term “Islamic” from their new galleries. They will instead call them things like “Galleries for the Art of the Arab Lands, Turkey, Iran, and Central Asia.” This stresses more the regional styles and individual cultures associated with Islamic art. Despite this, there are still themes and types of objects that link the arts of the Islamic world together. Certain building types, for example, appear throughout the world. Mosques, gardens, mausoleums and religious schools can all be found across the Islamic world.