The Essence of Islamic Art

  June 30, 2021   Read time 3 min
The Essence of Islamic Art
In order to answer whether or not there is an aesthetic, iconographic, or stylistic unity to the visually perceptible arts of Islamic peoples, it is first essential to realize that no ethnic or geographical entity was Muslim from the beginning.

There is no Islamic art, therefore, in the way there is a Chinese art or a French art. Nor is it simply a period art, like Gothic art or Baroque art, for once a land or an ethnic entity became Muslim it remained Muslim, a small number of exceptions like Spain or Sicily notwithstanding. Political and social events transformed a number of lands with a variety of earlier histories into Muslim lands. But, since early Islam as such did not possess or propagate an art of its own, each area could continue, and in fact often did continue, whatever modes of creativity it had acquired.

It may then not be appropriate at all to talk about the visual arts of Islamic peoples, and one should instead consider separately each of the areas that became Muslim: Spain, North Africa, Egypt, Syria, Mesopotamia, Iran, Anatolia, and India. Such, in fact, has been the direction taken by some recent scholarship. Even though tainted at times with parochial nationalism, the approach has been useful in that it has focused attention on a number of permanent features in different regions of Islamic lands that are older than and independent from the faith itself and from the political entity created by it. Iranian art, in particular, exhibits a number of features (certain themes such as the representation of birds or an epic tradition in painting) that owe little to its Islamic character since the 7th century. Ottoman art shares a Mediterranean tradition of architectural conception with Italy rather than with the rest of the Muslim world.

Such examples can easily be multiplied, but it is probably wrong to overdo their importance. For if one looks at the art of Islamic lands from a different perspective, a totally different picture emerges. The perspective is that of the lands that surround the Muslim world or of the times that preceded its formation. For even if there are ambiguous examples, most observers can recognize a flavour, a mood in Islamic visual arts that is distinguishable from what is known in East Asia (China, Korea, and Japan) or in the Christian West. This mood or flavour has been called decorative, for it seems at first glance to emphasize an immense complexity of surface effects without apparent meanings attached to the visible motifs. But it has other characteristics as well; it is often colourful, both in architecture and in objects; it avoids representations of living things; it gives much prominence to the work of artisans and counts among its masterpieces not merely works of architecture or of painting but also the creations of weavers, potters, and metalworkers. The problem is whether these uniquenesses of Islamic art, when compared to other artistic traditions, are the result of the nature of Islam or of some other factor or series of factors.

These preliminary remarks suggest at the very outset the main epistemological peculiarity of Islamic art: it consists of a large number of quite disparate traditions that, when seen all together, appear distinguishable from what surrounded them and from what preceded them through a series of stylistic and thematic characteristics. The key question is how this was possible, but no answer can be given before the tradition itself has been properly defined.

Such a definition can only be provided in history, through an examination of the formation and development of the arts through the centuries. For a static sudden phenomenon is not being dealt with, but rather a slow building up of a visual language of forms with many dialects and with many changes. Whether or not these complexities of growth and development subsumed a common structure is the challenging question facing the historian of this artistic tradition. What makes the question particularly difficult to answer is that the study of Islamic art is still relatively new. Many monuments are unpublished or at least insufficiently known, and only a handful of scientific excavations have investigated the physical setting of the culture and of its art. Much, therefore, remains tentative in the knowledge and appreciation of works of Islamic art.

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