Islamic Middle East

Marble panel from the cenotaph of Muhammad

The term Islamic is used here to define the art and material culture of those lands where the dominant religion is Islam, the religion revealed to the prophet Muhammad in seventh century Arabia. The Islamic lands have encompassed at different times Spain to the west and as far as the Malay world and China to the east. Within the broad definition of Islamic art there are both works made in the service of religious belief, such as Qur’ans or tombstones, as well as objects for secular use such as metalwork and ceramic vessels

Despite regional diversities and changes across time and place, there are a number of defining features of Islamic art: these include the pre-eminent role of Arabic calligraphy; the predominance of geometric and arabesque designs and the absence of figural representation in religious contexts.

Arabic is the language in which the Qur’an, the holy book of Muslims, was revealed and it was in the Arabic script that it was written down. Beautiful scripts were developed to copy the Qur’an and then were used in other contexts such as stone inscriptions or ceramic bowls. The script became both a method of communication and decoration. Other key elements are geometric designs: infinitely repeating units that include circles and squares, and vegetal ornament- designs that are often highly elaborate that feature elegant intertwining stems, scrolls and fleshy leaves. These elements either singly or combined, appear on many objects of Islamic art.

Image caption: Marble panel from the cenotaph of Muhammad
From Cairo, Egypt, AH 356/AD 967

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