is often said that Islam bans images of people
or animals, but this is false. The Koran itself
has very little to say on the subject and the
Traditions of the Prophet are open to various
interpretations. As Muslims believe that God is
unique and without associate, He cannot of course
be represented. As He is worshipped directly without
intercessors, images of saints, as in Christian
or Buddhist art, have no place in Islam. As the
Koran is not a narrative like the Torah or the
Gospels, there is little reason for Muslims to
tell religious stories through pictures.
Islamic religious art has focused on the glorification
of God's word, specifically by writing it beautifully,
and accompanying the Arabic script with geometric
and floral designs known as arabesques, in which
plants grow according to the laws of geometry
rather than nature. Some people believe that these
designs have deep spiritual and mystical meaning,
while others believe they are simply beautiful
patterns. Believers are free to see in these designs
whatever they like this sense of ambiguity
is one of the hallmarks of Islamic art. Examples
of religious art range from beautifully calligraphied
manuscripts of the Koran to intricately carved
and inlaid pulpits or minbars, from which the
Friday sermon is given in the mosque.
secular art, on the other hand, might or might
not have representations of living beings, depending
on the local cultural traditions and the preferences
of the artist and patron. For example, North Africans
have generally shown little taste for images,
while Iranians have always enjoyed them, sometimes
even in religious settings.
of Islamic secular art, like religious art, is
decorated only with geometric and vegetal patterns
and inscriptions, but many objects, whether glazed
ceramics, carved ivories, intricately woven silks,
or luxurious carpets, are decorated with lively
human and animal figures set individually or in
scenes. Unlike much Christian art, which largely
developed for the use of the Church, Islamic secular
art has been characterized by the transformation
of everyday objects, whether bowls for eating
or carpets and cushions to sit on, into things
of transcendent beauty.
the Islamic fascination with God's word, the art
of the book has always been one of the favorite
forms of Islamic art, and calligraphers in the
Islamic lands have the fame accorded painters
and sculptors in the West. Although transcribing
the Koran and decorating the pages with beautiful
designs was always revered, calligraphers and
painters, particularly in Iran, India and Turkey,
also prepared manuscripts of epic and lyric poetry,
history and geography with beautiful calligraphy
and exquisite miniatures.
the PBS Special Islam: Empire of Faith)
Concept Of Decoration in Islamic Architecture
Decoration is a major unifying factor in Islamic
architecture and design. For 13 centuries, writes
Dalu Jones in a very interesting and informative
essay entitled "Surface, Pattern and Light"
(in Architecture of the Islamic World, edited
by George Michell), decoration has linked buildings
and objects from all over the Islamic world --
from Spain to China to Indonesia.
Jones, "Islamic art is an art not so much
of form as of decorative themes that occur both
in architecture and in the applied arts, independently
of material, scale and technique.
is never one type of decoration for one type of
building or object; on the contrary, there are
decorative principles that are pan-Islamic and
applicable to all types of buildings and objects
at all times (whence comes the intimate relationship
in Islam between all the applied arts and architecture).
Islamic art must therefore be considered in its
entirety because each building and each object
embodies to some extent identical principles.
objects and art differ in quality of execution
and style, the same ideas, forms and designs constantly
recur." Because little furniture is traditionally
used for daily life in Islam, decoration contributes
to the creation of a sense of continuous space
that is a hallmark of Islamic architecture.
Jones, "The layers of surface decoration
are increased and the complexity of visual effects
enriched by the use of carpets and cushions, which
often reflect the same decorative schemes as those
found on walls and ceilings. Floors and ceilings
contribute to the fluidity of space by the nature
of their decoration, since they are often patterned
in the same manner as the walls; sometimes, in
the case of floors, the decoration actually reproduces
carpets. The tomb of I'timad ad-Dawla in Agra,
for example, has an inlaid marble floor that exactly
reproduces the designs of Mughal carpets."
notes that to the West, Islamic design may seem
restricted to two dimensions but that the very
character of Islamic design implies three-dimensional
example, the interlacing designs, often accompanied
by variations in color and texture, create the
illusion of different planes.
the use of reflecting and shining materials and
glazes, the repetition of designs, the contrasting
of textures and the manipulation of planes, Islamic
decoration becomes complex, sumptuous and intricate.
is an art of repose, Jones adds, where tensions
are resolved. Jones states that, regardless of
form, material or scale, this concept of art rests
on a basic foundation of calligraphy, geometry
and, in architecture, the repetition and multiplication
of elements based on the arch.
and parallel to these are floral and figural motifs,"
and light are also of paramount importance to
Islamic architectural decoration as they generate
additional layers of patterns and -- just as happens
with surface decoration -- they transform space.
is defined by surface and since surface is articulated
by decoration, there is an intimate connection
in Islamic architecture between space and decoration.
is the variety and richness of the decoration,
with its endless permutations, that characterizes
the buildings rather than their structural elements,
which are often disguised. Many devices typical
of Islamic architectural decoration -- for example,
muqarnas [a honeycomb decoration that can reflect
and refract light]-- are explained by a desire
to dissolve the barriers between those elements
of the buildings that are structural (load-bearing)
and those that are ornamental (non-load-bearing)."
points to the Taj Mahal as an example of how the
feeling of continuous space is created in Islamic
architecture through the multiplication of given
patterns and architectural elements. Arches and
squinches of different types and scale are employed
for both structural and decorative purposes.
Dominated by the main dome," Jones writes,
"each facade of the building has two tiers
of three arched niches hollowed out of the principal
mass. The portals in the center of each side are
but a magnification of these niches. They are
in their turn each filled by miniatures of themselves,
the muqarnas. The smaller-domed pavilions on the
upper part of the building rest on open arches
that echo the blind arches of the platforms on
which the whole building rests. Each element of
the decoration therefore reproduces a structural
example of the conceptual basis of much Islamic
decoration is given by the floor decoration of
the Taj Mahal which, with its rippled effect,
suggests that the tomb is set in a tank of water.
The decoration... does not imitate the water...
in precise details, but it conveys the idea of
water... (I)t creates a situation, a 'landscape
of the mind,' a subtler environment than any aturalistic
section summarizes Jones' list of the elements
that make up Islamic decoration,
Because of its role in recording the word of God,
calligraphy is considered one of the most important
of the Islamic arts. Nearly all Islamic buildings
have some type of surface inscription in the stone,
stucco, marble, mosaic and/or painting. The inscription
might be a verse from the Qur'an, lines of poetry,
or names and dates.
other Islamic decoration, calligraphy is closely
linked to geometry. The proportions of the letters
are all governed by mathematics. Inscriptions
are most often used as a frame along and around
main elements of a building like portals and cornices.
inscription also might be contained in a single
panel. Sometimes single words such as Allah or
Mohammed are repeated and arranged into patterns
over the entire surface of the walls. Calligraphic
texts might appear in pierced cartouches, providing
a pattern for light filtering through windows.
Islamic artists developed geometric patterns to
a degree of complexity and sophistication previously
unknown. These patterns exemplify the Islamic
interest in repetition, symmetry and continuous
generation of pattern. "The superb assurance
of the Islamic designers is demonstrated by their
masterful integration of geometry with such optical
effects as the balancing of positive and negative
areas, interlacing with fluid overlapping and
underpassing strapwork, and a skillful use of
color and tone values.
than any other type of design (geometric patterns)
permitted an interrelationship between the parts
and the whole of a building complex, the exterior
and the interior spaces and their furnishings."
Islamic artists reproduced nature with a great
deal of accuracy. Flowers and trees might be used
as the motifs for the decoration of textiles,
objects and buildings. In the Mughal architectural
decoration of India, artists were inspired by
European botanical drawings, as well as by Persian
traditional flora. Their designs might be applied
to monochrome panels of white marble, with rows
of flowering plants exquisitely carved in low
relief, alternating with delicately tinted polychrome
inlays of precious and hard stones, Jones notes.
arabesque (geometricized vegetal ornament) is:"characterized by a continuous stem which
splits regularly, producing a series of counterpoised,
leafy, secondary stems which can in turn split
again or return to be reintegrated into the main
stem," writes Jones. "This limitless,
rhythmical alternation of movement, conveyed by
the reciprocal repetition of curved lines, produces
a design that is balanced and free from tension.
In the arabesque, perhaps more than in any other
design associated with Islam, it is clear how
the line defines space, and how sophisticated
three-dimensional effects are achieved by differences
in width, color and texture...."
underlying geometric grids governing arabesque
designs are based on the same mathematical principles
that determine wholly geometric patterns...."
and animals :
Because the creation of living things that move
-- that is, humans and animals -- is considered
to be in the realm of God, Islam discourages artists
from producing such figures through art. Nevertheless,
a certain amount of figural art can be found in
the Islamic world, although it is mainly confined
to the decoration of objects and secular buildings
and to miniature paintings. Figural sculpture
is quite rare in Islam.
For many Muslims (and non-Muslims), light is the
symbol of divine unity. In Islamic architecture,
light functions decoratively by modifying other
elements or by originating patterns. With the
proper light, pierced facades can look like lacy,
disembodied screens, Jones notes. Light can add
a dynamic quality to architecture, extending patterns,
forms and designs into the dimensions of time.
And the combination of light and shade creates
strong contrasts of planes and gives texture to
sculpted stone, as well as stocked or brick surfaces.
In hot Islamic climates, the water from courtyard
pools and fountains cools as it decorates. Water
can not only reflect architecture and multiply
the decorative themes, it can also serve as a
means of emphasizing the visual axes. Like the
images they mirror, Jones writes, pools of water
are immutable, yet constantly changing; fluid
and dynamic, yet static.
Decoration and the West
the untrained Western eye, Islamic decoration
often appears stultifying or excessive in its
richness. One exception to this school of thought
was the 19th-century British scholar and architect
Owen Jones. In The Grammar of Ornament (as quoted
in "Surface, Pattern and Light"), he
writes that the first principle of architecture
is to decorate construction and never to construct
decoration. Ornamentation that is constructed
falsely, he adds, can never achieve beauty or
harmony. In regards to Islamic decoration he writes,
"(W)e never find a useless or superfluous
ornament; every ornament arises quietly and naturally
from the surface decorated."