Art and Architecture: Islam

Art and Architecture of the World’s Religions. Editor: Leslie Ross. Volume 2. Santa Barbara, CA: Greenwood Press, 2009.

Origins and Development

The religion of Islam is the youngest of the three major monotheistic religious systems popular in the world today and also the fastest growing of the world religions. Closely related to Judaism and Christianity by sharing a belief in one God, Islam expands on aspects of the earlier two systems by its acceptance of the culminating revelations received by the Prophet Muhammad (570-632 CE). Islam acknowledges the sacred nature of the Hebrew and Christian scriptures and accepts figures such as Moses and Jesus as inspired prophets of God. According to Islam, however, Muhammad was the final prophet whose revelations and teachings complete and supersede all earlier. Muhammad is regarded as the “seal” of the prophets, and his message represents a return to the one, true religion, as originally revealed to the first man, Adam, and the ancient biblical patriarch Abraham (Ibrahim). Muslims trace their heritage to the common “Abrahamic tradition” of Jews and Christians, but believe that Muhammad’s message represents the final renewal of this tradition.

Muhammad (Muhammad ibn Abdallah) was born in the city of Mecca in present-day Saudi Arabia. He was a merchant and a member of an important tribe. Circa 610, when he was about 40 years old, he began to have mystical experiences that continued throughout the rest of his life. These divine revelations led him to proclaim that there was one God only (Allah) and that the traditional polytheistic beliefs previously held by the Arabian tribal groups were idolatrous. The religious beliefs of the society into which Muhammad was born involved worship of a number of different major and minor deities. His proclamation of the one God was thus extremely controversial and originally met with great opposition. Nevertheless, the strength of his message impressed many, and he quickly gained followers who accompanied him to the city of Yathrib (later named Medina—Madinat al-Nabi—the City of the Prophet) in 622. This exodus/emigration from Mecca to Medina is known, in Arabic, as the Hegira (or Hijra), and it marks the first year of the Muslim calendar, as well as the formal founding of the Islamic community, or Umma. For the next decade, Muhammad continued his teachings and gained many followers. He returned to Mecca with a military force in 630, captured the city, and proclaimed the end of idol worship. By the time of his death in Medina in 632, most of the Arabian peninsula was under his military and religious control, and his successors continued to expand this empire rapidly by political conquest and conversion.

After the death of Muhammad, disputes arose regarding the leadership of the Muslim community, and it is to this early period that the two major divisions still found within Islam today can ultimately be traced. The majority of Muslims in the world today follow the Sunni branch. Sunni refers to sunna (“tradition”), and Sunni Muslims are “the people of the tradition.” Although the Sunni movement did not formally arise until the 10th century, it can be seen as the ultimate result of doctrinal disputes and political rivalries of the first several decades after the death of Muhammad and, in particular, the claims of the Shi’ite sect to overarching legitimacy and authority.

The Shi’ite movement opposed the election of Abu Bakr al-Asamm (leader from 632 to 634), a close companion of Muhammad, as the first caliph (“deputy” or “successor” of Muhammad) and believed that the Prophet’s cousin and son-in-law, Ali ibn Abi Talib (caliph from 656 to 661), should have been chosen instead as the rightful leader and spiritual guide, or imam. The term Shi’ite comes from Shi’at Ali, the “partisans” or “followers” of Ali. Although Ali did ultimately become the fourth caliph, the divisions over rightful succession and correct lineage of the leaders resulted in military uprisings and conflicts that continue to occur in the Islamic world today.

In addition, the Shi’ite movement itself divided into two major branches in the eighth and ninth centuries, over similar issues. Ismaili Shi’ism (which itself contains many subsects) arose with the supporters of Ismail as the seventh Imam, and Ismailis “believe in an unbroken line of Imams to the present day.” “Twelver” Shi’ism maintains a belief in the return, at the end of time, of a “hidden” twelfth Imam who disappeared in the late ninth century into “a miraculous state of concealment … ‘occultation.’“ In Shi’ite traditions, the Imams are divinely inspired spiritual leaders who must be direct descendants of the Prophet (through Ali and Muhammad’s daughter, Fatima). The Imam “is a link in the chain of prophecy stretching back through Muhammad and Jesus to Abraham and Adam…. The Imam, therefore, is the only legitimate authority on earth, and obedience to him is required of all humankind. He is held to be infallible, without sin, and in possession of a body of knowledge transmitted by God.”

Sunni Muslims, “while thinking of themselves as members of the single worldwide community of Islam … recognize internal social and cultural differences born of the encounter between Islamic teaching and local and regional practices.” Thus, Sunni Muslims themselves represent a vast diversity of groups in different geographic settings and cultures. Shi’ism, with a greater emphasis on clerical authority and more narrowly defined doctrines, is followed by only 10 percent of Muslims today; the vast majority of Muslims are Sunnis. It was primarily within Sunni traditions that the four major schools of Islamic law (the Sharia) developed in the eighth and ninth centuries, with a series of scholars who devoted attention to codifying rules for proper conduct according to Islamic principles. These different schools of legal study and interpretation are still followed in the Islamic world today.

The initial growth of Islam was primarily among Arabic peoples, but in the centuries following, “Arabs were joined by large numbers of people from other ethnic and religious backgrounds … [and] in this way, Islam was transformed from the religion of a relatively small number of Arabs to a universal faith.” One can trace this growth through a series of eras associated with different dynasties of rulers: the Umayyads in the Middle East and Spain, the Abbasids in Iraq, the Fatimids in Egypt, the Seljuk Turks in Central Asia and Anatolia, the Mongol Ilkanids in Central Asia and Persia, the Timurids in Persia, the Ottomans based in Anatolia, the Safavids in Persia, and the Moghuls in India. In all cases, the art and architecture associated with these different eras and peoples represent a great cultural diversity. Islam continues to flourish and grow rapidly around the world today. Thus, it is extremely wise to recognize that the historical development and present nature of Islam involve a plethora of Islamic cultures rather than a faith based on one sole religious leader or political authority. All Muslims, however, share some fundamental beliefs and key practices.

Principal Beliefs and Key Practices

“There is no God but God and Muhammad is his Prophet.” This statement, known as the shahada (“confession” or “witnessing”), contains the two fundamental beliefs that provide the foundation for Islam. Islam is an Arabic word that means “submission” or “surrender” to the will of God, and the followers of Islam are called Muslims—those who “submit” or “surrender” to God. “To submit to the divine will … is … to bring about a harmonious order in the universe. In this sense, Islam refers not only to the act of submission but to its consequence, that is, peace (salam.)” Muslims do not worship Muhammad but regard him as the Prophet of God, through whom God spoke.

The sacred scriptures for Islam are known as the Qur’an, or “recitation,” and consist of a series of revelations received by Muhammad beginning in ca. 610 when he had the mystical experience of first being visited by the angel Gabriel, who told him to “recite” the words from God. This was followed by many further mystical revelations through the rest of his life. The text of the Qur’an was dictated by Muhammad to several scribes during his lifetime and is also based on slightly later memories of his teachings. The final and authorized version of the Qur’an was created within 20 years of Muhammad’s death and remains unchanged today. Because the Qur’an was received and written in the Arabic language, translations into other languages are not considered truly authentic or authoritative. The subsequent importance of the Arabic language and script for Islamic art is discussed later in this chapter.

The Qur’an is a complex and poetic text (about the same length as the New Testament/Christian scriptures) filled with narratives, metaphors, mystical expressions, and directions for specific duties and moral obligations. Chief among these latter are the “Five Pillars” of Islam. These are (1) confession of faith in the one God, Allah, and Muhammad’s role as Prophet, (2) prayer five times daily, (3) charity to the poor in terms of specific tithes/taxes, (4) fasting from sunrise to sunset during the holy month of Ramadan, and (5) making a pilgrimage (or Hajj) to Mecca at least once during one’s life, if one is able (and preferably at the designated period for this). The focal point of the pilgrimage to Mecca is the visit to the Ka’ba. This is an ancient sacred structure in the form of a cube-shaped building—presently about 43 feet tall. Tradition holds that the Ka’ba was first constructed by Adam, rebuilt by Abraham, and purified by Muhammad when he rid Mecca of idol worship.

In addition to the Qur’an, the other sacred scriptures of Islam are known as the Hadith. This is a vast compendium of material that includes sayings of the Prophet as well as information and anecdotes about his life and deeds. The Hadith, originally transmitted purely orally, were primarily collected and compiled in the late eighth and ninth centuries. They trace their transmission back to authoritative sources such as close companions and family members of the Prophet, but in some cases may also be seen as reflecting later interpretations of doctrine.

The Qur’an and the Hadith are the foundational and most revered texts of Islam, and these works provide the basis for the Sharia (the “Islamic way”)—codes of contact, social, and legal obligations. Reflections on these foundational works by Islamic writers through the eras have also resulted in a vast body of theological and mystical literature, which may be categorized under the general term of Sufism. “The term may perhaps derive from the Arabic suf (‘wool’), and thus is perhaps a reference to the rough, simple garb worn by ascetics in the formative period of Islam.” Although Sufism is often described as the “mystical branch” of Islam, in many ways, Sufism “should be seen as an integral dimension of Islamic life rather than as something pursued apart from the mainstream practices and doctrines of the tradition.” Through the centuries and in different Islamic cultures, Sufi teachers and movements have been responsible for remarkable works of devotional literature and art.

Traditional Art and Architectural Forms

Definitions and Dilemmas

The focus of this study is on Islamic religious art and not on the vast and multifaceted field of Islamic art in general. However, the terms Islamic art, Islamic religious art, and even religious art are, as a whole, all extremely problematic. Because Islam itself represents many coexisting variants, and because the extent and influence of Islam covers “not just one period and one country but fourteen centuries in nearly forty countries,” it is wise to acknowledge the dangers and difficulties inherent in a “religiously based classification” for this vastness and diversity of material.

Indeed, much scholarship has been devoted to the complex issues of defining what is Islamic about Islamic art or to posing questions such as this: “What is one meant to attend to in Islamic art?” It can be said that many of the copious studies of Islamic art include works of art that are, arguably, not specifically religious in nature. Many works of a secular nature—objects and architecture designed for nonreligious, domestic purposes—are often included in studies of Islamic art. Are works of art Islamic simply because they were produced for Muslim patrons, or in regions of the world where Islam was, or is, the dominant faith? Is it the case that “the art of Islam is Islamic art not only because it was created by Muslims but because it issues forth from the Islamic revelation”?

There are no simple answers to these questions, and the definition of Islamic art remains an intriguing matter of intense scholarly debate. This dilemma also brings up “a key issue of contemporary thought: whether it is valid to apply the same investigative methods to the art of all cultures, or whether the very nature of artistic experience requires methods created by the culture itself.” Again, opinions on this diverge widely. Whereas some scholars have claimed that Islamic art requires “specific rules in order to be understood,” others have argued that this attitude creates a dangerous “mystification” of the topic.

In addition, one of the issues that needs to be addressed immediately in any discussion of Islamic religious art (or Islamic art in general) regards the attitude of Islam to the arts, the figurative arts in particular. Many religions place great emphasis on narrative imagery and make use of two- and three-dimensional images for didactic and inspirational purposes. Deities are often pictured in human or human-like forms in many religious art traditions. Stories from the lives and deeds of saintly figures feature prominently in some traditions, and images may function and be understood as containers or sacred receptacles for divine presences. In some religious traditions, holy images are housed within shrines or temples, and these images are objects of intense veneration in the form of prayers, ceremonies, and offerings. The images may be taken out and processed in special religious festival contexts and otherwise may not only serve as reminders of divine presence but may also be understood as divine presences.

The worship of a multitude of different deities, and the use of imagery to visualize and embody a number of deities, was characteristic of some of the religious practices of pre-Islamic Arabia before the time of Muhammad. By his lifetime in the sixth century, of course, the traditions of Christian art and iconography had significantly developed, and Jewish art forms had continued to evolve. Figural and narrative scenes involving representations of humans and animals had played a greater or lesser role in both Jewish and Christian art for centuries by the time of Muhammad. Muhammad’s message of the oneness of God (Allah) posed a sharp contrast to any polytheistic beliefs and practices and reconfirmed the monotheistic message of both Judaism and Christianity. The belief in one single all-powerful God required that the worship practices and imagery associated with polytheism be rejected in favor of submission to the one, true God. The creation, use, and worship of images of deities was seen as indicative of the misguided polytheism of pre-Islamic times, which was supplanted by the message and revelations of Muhammad.

There are, however, no specific strictures against art in general in the Qur’an itself, although the text does emphasize and reassert the evilness of idol worship following the Hebrew and Christian scriptures on this matter. The blasphemy represented by the worship of false gods and idols was dramatically signaled by Muhammad’s reported actions when he overtook the city of Mecca in 630. According to several accounts, one of his first actions upon his return to Mecca was to order the destruction of all idols in the city, many of which were housed near or inside the Ka’ba—“the most important ritual site of the nomadic tribes that inhabited Arabia, [originally] built at God’s express command by Abraham and Ismael, according to Islam.” By the time of Muhammad,

there were said to be 360 different deities including Awf, the great bird, Hubal, the Nabatean god, the three celestial goddesses, Manal, Al-Uzza and al-Lat, and statues of Mary and Jesus. The most important of all these deities was called Allah (‘god’). This deity was worshiped throughout southern Syria and northern Arabia, and was the only deity not represented by an idol in the ka’ba.

All the pagan idols were destroyed, “with the notable exception of the statues of Mary and Jesus … Thus, by gaining both religious and political control over Mecca, Muhammad was able to redefine the sacred territory and restore Abrahamic order to it.”

Although it is certainly possible to interpret this act of idol-smashing as an act of iconoclasm—and iconoclastic tendencies certainly do exist and have repeatedly surfaced in the history of Islam (as in Christianity, Judaism, and other world religions as well)—the destruction of the idols was most primarily a reflection of Muhammad’s wish to rid the city of pagan religions and have his followers turn to the one true God: Allah.

Other more specific statements concerning art can be found among the Hadith traditions (the sayings of Muhammad as later recorded or remembered by his companions), and several of these statements have been interpreted as representing a negative attitude toward figural art in general. For example, several Hadiths say that those who attempt to imitate what God has created, or those who attempt to imitate God by creating representations of living beings, will be punished on the day of judgment. However, it seems clear that, even from the very earliest era, the target of concern was not art per se but rather idolatrous art created for the worship of false gods.

This is borne out by the fact that figural and narrative imagery are found in Islamic art and even in art of an intensely religious nature. Although it has been convenient for many who have written about Islamic art in the past to draw a distinction between “secular” art (where it is clear that figural images appear from the very earliest periods) and “religious” art (where “prohibitions” upon or at least avoidance of figural imagery appear to have been in place from the earliest periods), the situation is not as simple and clear cut as this implies. “Figural representation has always been a part of secular art in the Islamic world,” and in some cases—notably later Persian manuscripts illustrated with images of the Prophet and scenes from his life—figural imagery also plays an important role in reflecting the political and religious aims of different eras. It is certainly a mistake to characterize Islamic art as anti-figural or to regard figurative art, when it does appear, “as an aberration within a strictly aniconic culture.” Nevertheless, there is no doubt at all that Islamic art, in general, makes highly sophisticated use of patterns—geometric, vegetal, and calligraphic—and these patterns play a dominant role in both the religious and the secular arts characteristic of a diversity of periods and Islamic cultures.

The Mosque

In terms of religious architecture, the mosque is the fundamental form of gathering space designed to suit the specific needs of Muslim worship. “As a type, the mosque is ubiquitous, and at once old and very new. It is a culture-bound place of worship, representing local and regional traditions, and a trans- or supraregional expression of … a pan-Islamic worldwide character.” The principal function of mosques is to accommodate groups of believers who may gather in prayer at the five specified times daily. The term mosque (or masjid) derives from the Arabic word meaning “to prostrate oneself.” Thus, a mosque is a “place or worship” and specifically a “place of prostration.” Muslims may perform their daily prayers alone and in whatever areas or spaces are convenient for them, but the communal gathering in a mosque is especially important in some Islamic cultures—and especially on Friday (the Islamic holy day), Muslims are encouraged to attend communal prayer services and listen to teachings and sermons (khutba) at a mosque. Traditionally, men and women are afforded separate spaces for prayer in mosques, although variations exist, especially in current practices.

Depending on the time period and cultural context, the architectural forms and styles of Islamic mosques vary widely. All mosques, however, share specific requirements. Chief among these is orientation. All Islamic mosques worldwide are oriented as closely as possible to the direction of the holy city of Mecca. All Muslims throughout the world pray in the direction of Mecca and perform their prayers (salat—by a series of formalized physical movements and gestures, involving standing, kneeling and prostration, plus the recitation of specific phrases) in the direction of the qibla (the wall of the mosque that is oriented to Mecca) and the mihrab (a niche in the qibla wall). A qibla and mihrab are thus among the requirements for Islamic religious architecture. In addition, most mosques are equipped with a minbar (often located next to the mihrab), which is an elevated platform or podium from which the prayer leader (imam) may deliver a sermon. Large mosques may also include a dikka (raised platform) from which the speeches of the imam may be re-conveyed to the congregants. Because ritual preparation for prayer requires cleansing and washing of head, feet, and hands, mosques are customarily provided with fountains or other ablution areas for worshipers. Towers (or minarets) are often a customary aspect of mosque architecture, but are by no means a universal feature. They exist in a wide variety of styles, some characteristic of particular regions. The minarets may not only signal the location of the mosque but may also provide the location from which the formalized call to daily prayers (adhan) can be conveyed or broadcast by the muezzin (a specially trained and appointed person) or—in modern times—often a taped broadcast through loudspeakers).

Within these basic parameters of function and requirements, mosque architecture and style vary widely depending on the historical time period and world region. The form and style of mosques may also depend on their status as smaller community mosques constructed for local audiences or as grander and perhaps royal or state-sponsored mosques with connections to political authority in some manner. Some mosques enclose more space than others, a factor that also depends on climate conditions.

In some case, mosques will show a hypostyle (or multi-columned hall) arrangement preceded by an open-air courtyard or sahn. Some of the very earliest mosques are of this type, such as the Great Mosque in Cordoba, Spain, constructed beginning in the late eighth century under the Umayyad rulers. This building was enlarged several times in the 9th and 10th centuries and ultimately became transformed via the insertion of a large Christian chapel in the midst of the former prayer hall in the 16th century. The prayer hall contains multiple rows of columns supporting horseshoe-shaped arches on superimposed levels. Red brick and white stonework add to the visual complexity and “startling originality” of the large hypostyle interior space.

Other mosques are of central-plan format with an emphasis on a vast domed interior space. Courtyards may or may not appear in this type, which is especially characteristic of medieval Ottoman style, such as the “Blue Mosque” in Istanbul, constructed in the early 17th century under the Ottoman sultan Ahmed I (1590-1617). Six tall, slim minarets grace the exterior edges of this mosque complex, and the interior is famous for its thousands of glazed, patterned tiles of dominantly blue tones.

A central courtyard surrounded on all four sides by vaulted halls with wide arched entrances (or iwans) is yet another format. The four-iwan plan was especially developed in medieval Persia, such as seen with the Royal Mosque (now the Imam Mosque), which was constructed under the patronage of the Safavid ruler Shah Abbas (1571-1629) in the early 17th century. The central courtyard contains a large, square pool of water that reflects the multiple small and large arches of the enclosure.

Many contemporary mosques represent variations on these traditional historical formats while also demonstrating materials, elements, and styles of modern and postmodern architectural design. Apart from purely religious functions as centers for communal worship, Islamic mosques have traditionally also functioned as focal points in larger architectural complexes involving schools of Islamic law and theology (madrasas) plus hospitals and other facilities for charitable works. The Islamic mosque is often not a stand-alone religious building but incorporates these other functions too.

However, regardless of architectural style, date, and cultural context of Islamic mosques, the interior and exterior decoration of mosques rarely if ever shows any designs that include human figures. Strictly speaking, as mentioned previously, Islamic religious art does not include or permit the representation of human beings. This is a complex issue and has been understood and variously interpreted by different Islamic cultures through the centuries. However, the interior and exterior decoration of mosques is traditionally restricted to non-figural motifs and will primarily include geometric and calligraphic forms.

The Word in Islamic Art

The holy scriptures of Islam (the Qur’an) were received by and recited in the Arabic language to Muhammad, who transmitted the sacred words to his followers, in Arabic. Hence, Arabic is considered to be the holy language of Islam, and the careful transmission of the sacred scriptures, in written form, in the original Arabic, is one of the most important forms of Islamic art and religious devotion. Although it is surely the case that many other world religions regard their sacred texts as divinely inspired, and certainly the care and attention that adherents of other faiths devote to the correct copying and transmission of sacred scriptures can be seen to parallel that of Islam, the written word truly plays a quite distinctive role in Islamic art. Because of the dominant role of the written word in Islam, the art of calligraphy is one of the most stellar and most esteemed forms of Islamic art generally. In strictly religious contexts, such as manuscripts of the Qur’an and the decoration of mosques, where figural and narrative imagery are avoided, calligraphic inscriptions are certainly paramount in ways unparalleled in the religions arts of other cultures. Moreover, calligraphy appears in all media of Islamic art—it is not simply restricted to the obvious context of text transmission in manuscripts of the Qur’an, but appears in all forms of Islamic art from large to small scale, of both strictly religious and more secular forms.

Much scholarship has been devoted to the topic of the artful word in Islamic cultures and the “love of the written word that turned Islamic calligraphy into an elevated noble art.” It is traditionally explained “that calligraphy is so developed because of the absence of a representational tradition in Islamic art, because of theological difficulties in representation and because the Arabic language, and the Qur’an at the heart of it, is so significant in Islam.” The artistic evidence certainly demonstrates that artful writing is among the most ubiquitous forms of Islamic art.

The history of Islamic calligraphy and its use in art, and as art, is a lengthy and fascinating topic. Various styles of script developed in different Islamic cultures and these different styles can be recognized by their degrees of angularity and uprightness (such as the early and traditionally esteemed kufic script—which also has many variant forms) or by their rounded, slanting, and more cursive appearance (such as thuluth, naskhi, muhaqqaq, and numerous other styles of cursive script). Sometimes different styles of script will be found on the same page in a manuscript or in close proximity on an architectural monument. In some periods and regions, the script styles were elaborated to a highly complex degree. Words and letter forms may be elongated, twisted, braided, overlaid, or enhanced with decorative extensions and geometric designs to the extent that textual legibility appears to be of relatively minor concern in favor of overall pattern, ornamental aesthetics, or mystical letter and word symbolism. Sometimes figural forms are created of text as well.

A page from an early 14th-century Qur’an created in Baghdad by the esteemed calligrapher Ahmad ibn-al-Suhrawardi al-Bakri includes sections of both kufic and muhaqqaq script. The more angular kufic script appears in the upper and lower bands (reading, “Baghdad may Allah the Exalted honor it”), and the three lines of elegant cursive muhaqqaq script in the center of the page identify the artist “praising Allah and blessing His Prophet Muhammad.”

A complex combination of script styles and layouts can be seen in the mosaic tile inscriptions on the dome of the Royal Mosque (Shah Mosque, now Imam Mosque) in Isfahan, Iran. Created for the great art patron Shah Abbas in the early 17th century, cursive bands of thuluth-style script praise the Shah and the Safavid dynasty in the upper section of the dome’s base (or drum), whereas lines of elongated ornamental kufic offer praises to Muhammad in the center of the drum, above geometric blocks of square kufic with inscriptions featuring statements such as “God is most mighty” and “Allah is God.”


The Dome of the Rock, Jerusalem, begun 691

The Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem is certainly one of the most well-known, intensely studied, and frequently reproduced examples of Islamic architecture. It is one of the very first examples of Islamic architectural construction, and although it has been much restored through the centuries, it still stands today in a form that fundamentally retains its original appearance. It was constructed in Jerusalem under the patronage of the caliph Abd al-Malik in the late seventh century. A powerful symbol of Islam, the shrine is considered the third of the most holy of Islamic sites (after the Ka’ba in Mecca and the Mosque of the Prophet in Medina). Although it “is often called the first work of Islamic architecture … this building so completely follows the traditions of late antique and Byzantine architecture that some people do not even regard it as Islamic at all. The people who built it, however, undoubtedly meant it to serve an ‘Islamic’ function.” Understanding the function, history, and symbolism of this unique structure in particular is a critical element in any discussion of Islamic religious art.

The city of Jerusalem has played an extremely important, if at times somewhat variable, role in the history of Islam since the foundation of the faith in the early seventh century and to the present day. A holy city for Jews and Christians alike (it is the site of the ancient Jewish Temple and the site of the death and resurrection of Jesus), the city of Jerusalem came under Islamic control in the early seventh century (around 636-38) just a few years after the death of Muhammad. During his lifetime, and up until 622 when he proclaimed that the proper direction for prayer was Mecca, early Muslim prayers were originally directed to the city of Jerusalem, reflecting the sanctity of this holy city in Judeo-Christian tradition as well. “Although the Qur’an does not explicitly say so, the original direction for prayer was Jerusalem.”

Jerusalem is also intimately connected with Muhammad via the account of his mystical “Night Journey” (or isra’), which is briefly mentioned in sura (chapter) 17 of the Qur’an. According to tradition, the angel Gabriel appeared to Muhammad one night and gave him a mystical winged creature called al-Buraq (or “Lightning”). This celestial steed had the face of a woman and the tail of a peacock and transported the Prophet through the night skies to the city of Jerusalem. Alighting at the site of the Temple of Solomon and on the sacred rock of the Temple Mount, Muhammad met and prayed with Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and other prophets before climbing a ladder of light up through the heavens to meet with Allah. This ascension to and return from heaven is known as the mi’raj. This Night Journey and Ascension, Muhammad’s “real and physical or spiritual and mystical journey to cosmic boundaries … was a major part of the collective memory shared by the faithful.” The tangible evidence of this is said to be marked by the footprint of the Prophet visible in the sacred rock in Jerusalem. In the same night, Muhammad returned down the heavenly ladder of light to Jerusalem, and his mystical steed transported him back to Mecca.

In Muslim tradition (mirroring Christian and Jewish traditions), the site is also associated with the last days and the final judgment, at which time “the angel of death, Isra’fil, will stand on the Rock and sound the end of time with his trumpet.” Thus, the building has a multitude of meanings. It “has become a commemorative monument for the Prophet’s mystical journey into the heavens, but it was built … for the very ideological local purposes of sanctifying the old Jewish Temple according to the new Revelation and of demonstrating to the Christian population of the city that Islam was the victorious faith.”

The sacred oblong rock (approximately 56 by 42 feet) that is enshrined in the Dome of the Rock is enclosed within an octagonal structure with four doors facing the cardinal directions. The architectural form with its centralized plan closely resembles slightly earlier Byzantine models of shrines and martyria (saintly tombs). The exterior is richly decorated with brilliant tile work of geometric patterns and largely Qur’anic inscriptions, which primarily date from the early to mid-16th century under the patronage of the Ottoman sultan Suleyman the Magnificent (1494-1566). Similar tile work appears on the drum that supports the impressive golden dome. The present gold-colored aluminum of the dome dates to the 20th century, but the shape and color of the dome today mirror the original lead-sheathed and gilded original.

The interior space is divided by columns and piers into two ambulatories encircling the Rock itself. This arrangement allows for the ritual circumambulation (tawaf) undertaken by pilgrims to the shrine. The interior dome rises 70 feet above the floor and is covered with gilt plaster in intricate patterns and calligraphic verses. Windows of colored glass in the walls and drum bathe the interior and extensive mosaics in a soft light. Pilgrims proceed around the rock and gaze upwards at the glowing dome, as Muhammad himself was transported to and returned from the heavens.

“It is important to recall that, in addition to its continued forceful presence, the Dome of the Rock was the first monument sponsored by a Muslim ruler that was conceived as a work of art, a monument deliberately transcending its function by the quality of its forms and expression.” The balance, symmetry, and brilliant decoration of the monument also reflect its religious and political significance. Situated on the Temple Mount (known to Muslims as the Haram al-Sharif or Noble Sanctuary), on the site of the ancient Jewish Temple, in a city long sacred to Christians also, the lengthy history of the Dome of the Rock continues, in many ways, to symbolize the relatedness as well as the tensions between the faiths of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam and the supreme significance of the city of Jerusalem for all of these faiths.

Two Persian Manuscripts with Narrative Illustrations

Exquisitely illuminated manuscripts—enriched with complex, jewel-like paintings—typify the arts produced for royal patrons of the Timurid and Safavid dynasties in late medieval Persia. Both of these examples are illustrated pages from manuscripts produced for courtly patrons. They may serve as exemplars of the richness, delicacy, and detail associated with one of the most flourishing eras in the history of Islamic book production.

The production of manuscripts has a lengthy history in the Islamic world. Unlike their Western counterparts, which were written on parchment (animal skin), most Islamic manuscripts were—from at least the 10th century onward—written and illustrated on paper (knowledge of which had been earlier introduced from China). The paper (a mixture of rag and shreds of flax) was starched and given a glossy sheen by burnishing. The jewel-like pigments were derived from mineral and vegetable materials. Gold leaf and polished gold and silver flecks can also contribute to the glowing details of these lavish pages.

Although manuscripts of the Qur’an with figural and narrative scenes will not be found, many other works were often enriched with illustration programs from the 11th century onward in various regions of the Islamic world. These include historical chronicles, scientific and medicinal treatises, works of philosophy, moral teachings, literature, and poetry. The styles of painting and script vary widely from region to region and often demonstrate various cross-cultural influences as well as distinct local styles.

Both of the examples shown here also demonstrate the interesting and complex paradox of figural imagery in Islamic art. As mentioned earlier, “traditional Islamic civilization is supposed to have spurned images altogether. Specialists … have therefore tended to remain extremely wary of trying to account for the undeniable existence of this civilization’s plastic and especially figurative arts.” Although it has been argued that figural imagery in Islamic art appears primarily in secular contexts, such as literary and historical works produced for lay patrons, in cases such as the examples shown here, the subject matter of the texts and the illustrations is far from purely secular. “Many of these paintings lie embedded in didactic sacral texts with explicitly moral or mystical themes [or texts which] are themselves deeply devout, laced with Koranic inscriptions, and closely styled upon Koranic verbal imagery.”

The illustrated manuscript depicting the scene of Joseph and Zulaykha, created by the renowned painter Bihzad (Kamal al-Din Bihzad, 1465-1535), in the court sphere of Herat (present-day Afghanistan) in 1488, is an excellent case in point. The manuscript is a copy of a work titled the Bustan (The Orchard)—a collection of moral lessons that were originally composed in the 13th century by the Persian poet Sa’di of Shiraz.

Ever since he composed them in the thirteenth century, Sa’di’s Bustun, in Persian verse, and its companion volume, the Gulistan (“Rose Garden”) in mixed Persian verse and prose, were regarded throughout Persianate Eastern Islam as the civilization’s twin supreme literary models of the genre known as andarz, or ‘moral admonishment,’ consisting of a collection of pious fables in the first place addressed to princes.

The late 15th-century copy was created for the Timurid ruler of Herat, Sultan Husayn Mirza Bayqara (reigned 1470-1506), under whose patronage Herat became a major center of literature and manuscript production.

Each of the 10 sections of the poem concerns specific moral virtues—as well exemplified by the scene of the attempted seduction of Joseph by Zulaykha. This is one of four full-page illustrations in the manuscript securely attributed to (indeed, signed by) Bihzad, in addition to a frontispiece which, it is generally agreed, includes work by Bihzad and his teacher, Mirak. The story itself ultimately derives from the tale of Joseph and Potiphar’s wife from the Hebrew scriptures, in which the wife of the Egyptian minister, Potiphar, attempts to entrap the young Joseph during his captivity in Egypt. Featured also in sura 12 of the Qur’an—and embellished and expanded in later commentaries—for the 13th-century poet Sa’di, the tale primarily served as a “warning to distinguish between God and idols,” to remain steadfast and chaste in one’s piety and devotion. This religious reading of the poem had also been greatly expanded by another writer just a few years before the illustrated copy was produced in Herat. “The most eminent literary figure and religious authority in contemporary Herat, the mystic writer Jami,” composed, in 1484, a work titled Yusef [Joseph] and Zulaykha.Verses from this work, as well as Sa’di’s, can be found inscribed in the illustration by Bizhad.

Indeed, the elaborate architectural structure found in Bihzad’s illustration derives purely from Jami’s description of the magnificent and labyrinthine palace that Zulaykha had constructed in order to entrap Joseph. The structural complexity of the palace is brilliantly conveyed in Bihzad’s painting with its flat and angular patterns showing doors, windows, gates, and balconies all extending and overlapping in a claustrophobic and complicated fashion. The palace ultimately symbolizes the material world and its temptations, and the seven rooms (through which Zulaykha led Joseph, locking the doors behind them) represent stages of the soul’s journey to God. “The doors, which are so prominently displayed and lead the eye through the composition, are tightly shut and can only be opened by God.” At the moment of Joseph’s epiphany, when he flees from Zulaykha, all the locked doors miraculously open before him. Joseph is also understood to be a symbol for God, and Zulaykha represents the soul’s yearning for God. “The woman completely lost in her love of Joseph is a fine symbol for the enrapturing power of love, expressed by the mystic in the contemplation of divine beauty revealed in human form…. Zulaykha has become … the symbol of the soul, purified by ceaseless longing in the path of poverty and love.”

“Religious imagery in medieval Islam raises a theological problem far more complex than usually allowed, perhaps even realized, by most contemporary writers on the arts of this culture.” It appears that “a later owner of this manuscript, in an iconophobic fit, scratched away Joseph’s face.” The issue of facial features in figural narrative imagery is handled differently in the next example.

An illustration of the Ascent of Muhammad comes from another Persian manuscript produced for a royal patron, the Safavid ruler Shah Tahmasp I (1524-76), who established his capital at Tabriz in present-day Iran. The manuscript dates to ca. 1540 and is a copy of another very popular and often-illustrated literary work: the Khamsa (Five Poems or Five Jewels) of Nizami (Nizami Ganjavi, 1141-1209). The Khamsa is a lengthy work, composed in the masnavi style of rhymed couplets. It contains five major sections, including historical and folk tales, romantic stories, and didactic, philosophical materials dealing with theological matters. The illustrated copy made for Shah Tahmasp in the mid-16th century “is constantly cited … as one of the masterpieces of Persian book-painting.”

There are 14 paintings in the book that date to the time of Tahmasp. Four additional paintings were added later. The manuscript was not finished during the lifetime of the patron, who appears to have lost interest in the arts of the book around 1545, shortly after this manuscript was started. Among the paintings from the mid-16th century is the illustration of the ascent (or Night Journey) of Muhammad; this painting is attributed to the master artist Sultan-Muhammad. The scene shows the prophet in the center of the composition; he is seated on his mystical steed who transports him through the night sky on his journey between Mecca and Jerusalem. Guided by the archangel Gabriel, attended by a hoard of gift-bearing angels, the prophet is surrounded by golden, radiant flames, indicating the miraculous nature of this event. The brilliant colors, exquisite details, and the energy and animation of the figures are especially remarkable.

One notes that the face of the prophet is hidden behind a veil, so no facial features are shown. But many other Khamsa manuscripts (which often include this scene) show the prophet’s face. Indeed, the illustration of the Night Journey and Ascension of Muhammad appears frequently in medieval Persian manuscripts, and in fact, there are some manuscripts completely devoted to the details of this miraculous event. Perhaps the emphasis on this subject in Persian art may be “because, from the 11th century, the Ascension played a special role in the mystical imagination of Islam in Iran [or] because the imagination of a quasi-magical vision lends itself more easily to illustration than more common scenes from the Life of Muhammad.” Again, it seems clear that at some periods and in some regions, “the proscription against human and animal representation in Qur’ans did not extend to secular manuscripts, and consequently they frequently contain a wealth of figural imagery,” even if the imagery and texts are of a highly religious and clearly non-secular nature. It is also obvious that “attitudes to the use of images clearly differed between periods, between regions and between social classes”—a situation that still exists today.

An Ottoman Prayer Rug, Late 16th Century

When Muslims perform their prayers—which involve physical actions of kneeling and prostration—they often make use of mats or rugs, such as this especially fine example from the late 16th century. Prayer rugs (the term “rug” officially applies to works of a smaller size than carpets) are, most often, distinguishable by designs that indicate a directional emphasis rather than an overall or purely symmetrical pattern. In this case, the directional emphasis is shown via the three-arched architectural motifs with single and paired columns indicating niches. These represent the qiblah (direction of prayer to Mecca) and the mihrab (niche), traditionally found in Islamic mosques. In this example, a lamp is depicted in the mihrab, suspended from the central arch.

The rich colors, as well as the floral, foliate, and decorative designs on this example, are typical of the luxury arts produced for the Ottoman court sphere of the 16th and 17th centuries. This particular example has been attributed to a workshop in Bursa or Istanbul and is a very early example of a triple-arched format as well as a rare early survival of an Ottoman court prayer rug.

Rugs such as these are painstakingly hand-knotted on a matrix of vertical (warp) threads stretched on a loom. Horizontal (weft) threads are inserted between the rows of hand-tied knots. The closely cropped knots create the slightly raised pile surface of the rug. Especially detailed patterns, such as seen here, are created with knots of very fine, thread-like yarn, whereas bolder and less detailed patterns are obtained with thicker and denser yarns. In this example, warp and weft threads are of silk, and the knotted pile is of wool and cotton threads. The colors of the yarns are derived from dyes made of various mineral, vegetable, and animal substances, such as plants, insects, and nutshells.

Examples such as this indicate not only the opulence of Ottoman court style but also the continued importance and ubiquitous presence of textiles in the Islamic arts generally. There is a lengthy tradition of fine textile production across the centuries and regions associated with Islamic cultures. The study of textiles is a vast and complex field. Different styles, motifs, colors, and materials are associated with many different centers of textile production from Egypt to Persia to India, and specific style variants typify Safavid, Ottoman, and Mughal productions, for example. Given the perishable nature of the materials however, few examples survive from much earlier than the 12th century, although literary references and depictions of textiles in other media certainly demonstrate the continued prominence of the textile arts.

It has been noted “that textiles in Islamic society fulfilled far more than the functions normally expected of them in other societies … [and that this may] account for some of the major characteristics of Islamic art in general.” Knotwork, interlace patterns, surface decoration, and textile-derived motifs are pervasive in Islamic ornamentation, and “the terms which naturally and insistently impose themselves refer back to textiles.” Any discussion of Islamic religious art (and Islamic art in general) would be dramatically incomplete without at least a brief mention of the textile arts and the critical role of the prayer rug in Islamic worship.