The Islamic era began in the year AD 622 with the Hijra
(or emigration) of the Prophet Muhammad from Mecca to Medina. Within less than two centuries of his death in 632, Islam had spread to conquer territories stretching from Spain in the west to Afghanistan and North India in the east. Civilizations of very different religious, cultural, historic and artistic backgrounds were thus united under the single banner of Islam. A few centuries later, sizeable Muslim communities had been established in an even wider area of the Old World, running from Africa across the Indian Ocean to Southeast Asia and from there northwards through China.In this context, the term ‘Islamic art’ can be used broadly to describe art produced by Muslim artists for Muslim patrons (although of course, there are numerous works produced by, or for, non-Muslims within these wide-ranging territories). It also covers a multitude of forms, ranging from architecture to book-production and the decorative arts such as glass, metalwork, pottery, jewellery and textiles. ‘Islamic’ does not imply that this art is exclusively religious in content or use: a significant portion of it is secular in nature. Instead, it is ‘Islamic’ because its artistic vocabulary is partly rooted in Muslim philosophical thought. The creative expression of the various Muslim peoples is shaped, to some extent, by the spirit and doctrines of the Muslim faith. This is why we are able to discuss Islamic art as the art produced by the group of nations brought together under Islam, and not at the art of a single country of civilization.One of the main characteristics of Islamic art is the paramount importance of calligraphy, and the role it played not just as an art form in its own right, but in the decoration of all other media as well, from architecture to pottery. In Islam, calligraphy is awarded a status higher than that of any other art form. As the medium through which the Qur’an was transmitted and recorded, it was only natural that the Arabic script acted as a spiritually unifying factor and received a unique, elevated position. Another important characteristic of Islamic art, and one of its most familiar features, is the extensive use of scrollwork, arabesques, geometric motifs and interlace patterns.Contrary to popular assumption, figural imagery also plays an important role in Islamic art. Although the hadith
(traditions) prohibit the representation of human beings and animals in religious context, this rule does not extend to secular art.
Therefore although they are almost universally avoided in mosque decoration or in Qur’ans, a wealth of figural scenes and representations of birds and animals frequently feature in secular art and architecture.Throughout their history, Islamic art and architecture have been influenced by the artistic traditions of the empires with which they came into contact, as local styles were adapted to the needs of the new faith and remodeled to comply with its religious and philosophical ideas. This interaction, frequently encouraged through trade (not to mention conquest and territorial expansion) has enriched not only the material culture of the Muslim world but also that of those pre-existing cultures. In its initial stages, Islamic art was deeply embedded in the styles prevailing before Islam, those of Byzantium in the west and Sasanian Iran in the east. By the middle of the 8th century, however, when the Abbasids came to power, Islamic art had matured into a fully independent art form.The development of Islamic art was, until recently, believed by many to end in the early 19th century, when artistic production was seen to decline. This was considered to be a direct result of increased diplomatic and trade relations between Europe and the Muslim world. This approach, however, ignores the strong revivalist movements that sprang up at the same time in different centres with the Islamic world, and overlooks the work of many living artists, whichis undeniably linked to the traditions of the past. The output of these artistic revivals, and indeed much of the work produced in the 20th century, should not be regarded as mere copying. Rather, it should be seen as embodying pride in a rich, deeply rooted, common heritage, even at a time when it was constantly being subjected to foreign influences. The same challenges and responses will form Islamic art in the multi-cultural world of the 21st century.