When the Arabs invaded Syria their sole art was poetry. Mohammed was believed to have forbidden sculpture and painting as accomplices of idolatry—and music, rich silks, gold and silver ornaments as epicurean degeneracy; and though all these prohibitions were gradually overcome, they almost confined Moslem art in this period to architecture, pottery, and decoration. The Arabs themselves, so recently nomads or merchants, had no mature facility in art; they recognized their limitations, and employed the artists and artisans—adapted the art forms and traditions—of Byzantium, Egypt, Syria, Mesopotamia, Iran, and India. The Dome of the Rock at Jerusalem and the Mosque of Walid II at Damascus were purely Byzantine, even in their decoration. Farther east the old Assyrian and Babylonian tile decoration, and current Armenian and Nestorian church forms, were adopted; and in Persia, after much destruction of Sasanian literature and art, Islam saw the advantages of the column cluster, the pointed arch, the vault, and those styles of floral and geometrical ornament which finally flowered into the arabesque. The result was no mere imitation, but a brilliant synthesis that justified all borrowing. From the Alhambra in Spain to the Taj Mahal in India, Islamic art overrode all limits of place and time, laughed at distinctions of race and blood, developed a unique and yet varied character, and expressed the human spirit with a profuse delicacy never surpassed.

Moslem architecture, like most architecture in the Age of Faith, was almost entirely religious; the dwellings of men were designed for brief mortality, but the house of God was to be, at least internally, a thing of beauty forever. Nevertheless, though the remains are scant, we hear of bridges, aqueducts, fountains, reservoirs, public baths, fortresses, and turreted walls built by engineer-architects who in the first centuries after the Arab conquest were in many cases Christian, but in after centuries were predominantly Moslem. The Crusaders found excellent military architecture at Aleppo, Baalbek, and elsewhere in the Islamic East, learned there the uses of machicolated walls, and took from their foes many an idea for their own incomparable castles and forts. The Alcazar at Seville and the Alhambra at Granada were fortresses and palaces combined.

Of Umayyad palaces little survives except a country house at Qusayr Amra in the desert east of the Dead Sea, where the ruins show vaulted baths and frescoed walls. The palace of Adud ad-Dawla at Shiraz, we are assured, had 360 rooms, one for each day in the year, each painted in a unique color combination; one of its largest rooms was a library two stories high, arcaded and vaulted; “there was no book on any subject,” says an enthusiastic Moslem, “of which there was not here a copy.”124 Scheherazade’s descriptions of Baghdad mansions are fiction, but suggest an ornate magnificence of internal decoration.125 Rich men had villas in the country as well as homes in the city; even in the city they had formal gardens; but around their villas these gardens became “paradises”—parks with springs, brooks, fountains, tiled pool, rare flowers, shade, fruit, and nut trees, and usually a pavilion for enjoying the open air without the glare of the sun. In Persia there was a religion of flowers; rose festivals were celebrated with sumptuous displays; the roses of Shiraz and Firuzabad were world famous; roses with a hundred petals were gifts grateful to a caliph or a king.126

The houses of the poor were then, as they are now, rectangles of sun-dried brick cemented with mud, and roofed with a mixture of mud, stalks, branches, palm leaves, and straw. Better homes had an interior court with a water basin, perhaps a tree; sometimes a wooden colonnade and cloister between court and rooms. Houses rarely faced or opened upon the street; they were citadels of privacy, built for security and peace. Some had secret doors for sudden escape from arrest or attack, or for the inconspicuous entry of a paramour.127 In all but the poorest houses there were separate quarters for the women, occasionally with their own court. Rich houses had a complicated suite of bathrooms, but most dwellings had no plumbing; water was carried in, waste was carried out. Fashionable homes might have two stories, with a central living room rising to a dome, and a second-story balcony facing the court. All except the poorest houses had at least one window grille (mashrabiyyah), a lattice of woodwork to let in light without heat, and allow the occupants to look out unseen; these grilles were often elegantly carved, and served as models for the stone or metal screens that adorned the palace or the mosque. There was no fireplace; heat was provided by charcoal-burning portable braziers. Walls were of plaster, usually painted in many colors. Floors were covered with hand-woven rugs. There might be a chair or two, but the Moslem preferred to squat. Near the wall, on three sides of the room, the floor was raised a foot or so, forming a diwan, and was furnished with cushions. There were no specific bedrooms; the bed was a mattress which, during the day, was rolled up and placed in a closet, as in modern Japan. Furniture was simple: some vases, utensils, lamps, and perhaps a niche for books. The Oriental is rich in the simplicity of his needs.

For the poor and pious Moslem it was enough that the mosque itself should be beautiful. It was built with his labor and dirhems; it gathered up his arts and crafts and laid them like a rich carpet at Allah’s feet; and that beauty and splendor all men might enjoy. Usually the mosque was situated near the market place, easily accessible. It was not always impressive from without; except for its façade it might be indistinguishable from—even physically attached to—the neighboring structures; and it was rarely built of any more lordly material than stucco-faced brick. Its functions determined its forms: a rectangular court to hold the congregation; a central basin and fountain for ablutions; a surrounding arcaded portico for shelter, shade, and schools; and, on the side of the court facing Mecca, the mosque proper, usually an enclosed section of the portico. It too was rectangular, allowing the worshipers to stand in long lines, again facing Mecca. The edifice might be crowned with a dome, almost always built of bricks, each layer projecting a bit inward beyond the layer beneath, with a surface of plaster to conceal the deviations.128 As in Sasanian and Byzantine architecture, the transition from rectangular base to circular dome was mediated by pendentives or squinches. More characteristic of mosque architecture was the minaret (manara, a lighthouse); probably the Syrian Moslems developed it from the Babylonian ziggurat and the bell tower of Christian churches, the Persian Moslems took the cylindrical form from India, and the African Moslems were influenced in its design by the four-cornered Pharos or lighthouse of Alexandria;129 perhaps the four corner towers of the old temple area at Damascus influenced the form.130 In this early period the minaret was simple and mostly unadorned; only in the following centuries would it achieve the lofty slenderness, fragile balconies, decorative arcades, and faïence surfaces that would lead Fergusson to call it “the most graceful form of tower architecture in the world.”131

The most brilliant and varied decoration was reserved for the interior of the mosque: mosaics and brilliant tiles on floor and mihrab; exquisite shapes and hues of glass in windows and lamps; rich carpets and prayer rugs on the pavement; facings of colored marble for the lower panels of the walls; lovely friezes of Arabic script running round mihrabs or cornices; delicate carvings of wood or ivory, or graceful molding of metal, in doors, ceilings, pulpits, and screens…. The pulpit itself, or minbar, was of wood carefully carved, and inlaid with ebony or ivory. Near it was the diqqa, a reading desk supported by small columns and holding the Koran; the book itself, of course, was a work of calligraphic and miniaturist art. To show the qibla or direction of Mecca, a niche was cut into the wall, possibly in imitation of the Christian apse. This mihrab was elaborated until it became almost an altar or chapel, and all the skill of Moslem artists was deployed to make it beautiful with faïence or mosaic, floral or scriptural moldings or reliefs, and colorful patterns in brick, stucco, marble, terra cotta, or tile.

We probably owe this splendor of ornament to the Semitic prohibition of human or animal forms in art: as if in compensation, the Moslem artist invented or adopted an overflowing abundance of non-representational forms. He sought an outlet first in geometrical figures—line, angle, square, cube, polygon, cone, spiral, ellipse, circle, sphere; he repeated these in a hundred combinations, and developed them into swirls, guilloches, reticulations, entrelacs, and stars; passing to floral forms, he designed, in many materials, wreaths, vines, or rosettes of lotus, acanthus, or palm tendrils or leaves; in the tenth century he merged all these in the arabesque; and to them all, as a unique and major ornament, he added the Arabic script. Taking usually the Kufic characters, he lifted them vertically, or expanded them laterally, or dressed them in flourishes and points, and turned the alphabet into a work of art. As religious prohibitions slackened, he introduced new motifs of decoration by representing the birds of the air, the beasts of the field, or strange composite animals that dwelt only in his whimsical fantasy. His flair for adornment enriched every form of art—mosaic, miniature, pottery, textiles, rugs; and in nearly every case the design had the disciplined unity of a dominant form or motif developed from center to border, or from beginning to end, as in the elaboration of a musical theme. No material was thought too obdurate for such ornament; wood, metal, brick, stucco, stone, terra cotta, glass, tile, and faïence became the vehicles of such a poetry of abstract forms as no art, not even the Chinese, had ever achieved before.

So illuminated, Islamic architecture raised in Arabia, Palestine, Syria, Mesopotamia, Persia, Transoxiana, India, Egypt, Tunisia, Sicily, Morocco, and Spain an endless chain of mosques in which masculine strength of outward form was always balanced by feminine grace and delicacy of interior ornament. The mosques of Medina, Mecca, Jerusalem, Ramleh, Damascus, Kufa, Basra, Shiraz, Nishapur, and Ardebil; the Mosque of Jafar at Baghdad, the Great Mosque of Samarra, the Zakariyah Mosque of Aleppo, the Mosque of Ibn Tulun and the el-Azhar in old Cairo, the Great Mosque of Tunis, the Sidi Oqba Mosque of Qairuan, the Blue Mosque of Cordova—we can do no less, and no more, than name them, for of the hundreds such that were built in this period only a dozen remain distinguishable; indiscriminate time has leveled the rest through earthquake, negligence, or war.

Persia alone—a fraction of Islam—has yielded to recent research such unsuspected architectural splendor as marks a major event in our rediscovery of the past.* The revelation was too long delayed; already many masterpieces of Persian architecture had crumbled to earth. Muqaddasi ranked the mosque of Fasa with that of Medina, and the mosque of Turshiz with the Great Mosque of Damascus; the mosque of Nishapur, with its marble columns, gold tiles, and richly carved walls, was one of the wonders of the time; and “no mosque in Khurasan or Sistan equaled in beauty” the mosque of Herat.132 We may vaguely judge the exuberance and quality of Persian architecture in the ninth and tenth centuries from the stucco reliefs and carved columns and capitals of the mihrab in the Congregational Mosque at Nayin, now mostly destroyed, and the two lovely minarets that survive at Damghan. The Friday Mosque at Ardistan (1055) still shows a handsome mihrab and portal, and many elements that were to appear later in Gothic: pointed arches, groined pendentives, cross vaults, and ribbed dome.133 In these and most Persian mosques and palaces the building material was brick, as in Sumerian and Mesopotamian antiquity; stone was rare and costly, clay and heat were plentiful; yet the Persian artist transformed brick layers with light and shade, novel patterns, and divers attitudes into such variety of decoration as that modest substance had never known before. Over the brick, in special places like portals, minbars, and mihrabs, the Persian potter laid varicolored mosaics and the most brilliant tiles; and in the eleventh century he made bright surfaces more resplendent still with luster-painted faïence. So every art in Islam humbly and proudly served the mosque.

Sculpture, forbidden to make statues lest idolatry return, devoted itself to decorative reliefs. Stone was skillfully carved, and stucco, before it hardened, was shaped by hand into a rich diversity of designs. One impressive sample remains. At Mshatta, in the Syrian desert east of the Jordan, Walid II began (c. 743), and left unfinished, a winter palace; along the lower surface of the façade ran a sculptured stone frieze of extraordinary excellence—triangles, rosettes, and borders intricately carved with flowers, fruits, birds, beasts, and trailing arabesques; this chef-d’oeuvre, transferred to Berlin in 1904, has survived the Second World War. Woodworkers beautified windows, doors, screens, balconies, ceilings, tables, lecterns, pulpits, and mihrabs with such exquisite carving as may be seen in a panel from Takrit in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Workers in ivory and bone adorned mosques, Korans, furniture, utensils, and persons with carvings and inlays; from this age only one piece has come to us—an elephant rook (in the National Museum at Florence) precariously ascribed to the ninth century and to a chess set allegedly sent by Harun to Charlemagne.134 The metalworkers of Islam acquired Sasanian techniques, made great bronze, brass, or copper lamps, ewers, bowls, jugs, mugs, cups, basins, and braziers; cast them playfully into the forms of lions, dragons, sphinxes, peacocks, and doves; and sometimes incised them with exquisite patterns, as in a lacelike lamp in the Art Institute of Chicago. Some craftsmen filled incised designs with silver or gold, and made “damascened” metal—an art practiced, but not originated, at Damascus.135 The swords of Damascus were of highly tempered steel, adorned with reliefs or inlaid with arabesques, scripts, or other patterns in gold or silver threads. The metalworkers of Islam stood at the very top of their art.

When the Moslem conquest settled down to cultural absorption, Mohammedan pottery found itself heir, in Asia, Africa, and Spain, to five ceramic traditions: Egyptian, Greco-Roman, Mesopotamian, Persian, Chinese. Sarre discovered at Samarra some Tang pottery, including porcelain; and early Islamic-Persian wares were frankly copied from Chinese prototypes. Pottery centers developed at Baghdad, Samarra, Rayy, and many other towns. By the tenth century Persian potters were making almost every kind of pottery except porcelain, in every form from hand spittoons to monstrous vases “large enough to hold at least one of the Forty Thieves.”136 At its best Persian pottery showed a subtlety of conception, a splendor of color, a refinement of workmanship, second only to the Chinese and Japanese; for six centuries it had no rival this side of the Pamirs.137 It was a favorite and congenial art with the Persians; aristocrats collected its masterpieces jealously, and poets like al-Ma’arri and Omar Khayyam found in it many a metaphor for their philosophy. We hear of a ninth-century banquet at which poems were composed and dedicated to the bowls that adorned the board.138

In that century the potters of Samarra and Baghdad distinguished themselves by making—perhaps inventing—lustered pottery: the decoration was painted in a metallic oxide upon the glazed coating of the clay, and the vessel was then submitted to a smoky and subdued second firing, which reduced the pigment to a thin layer of metal, and gave the glaze an iridescent glow. Lovely monochromes were produced in this manner, and still lovelier polychromes in gold, green, brown, yellow, and red, in a hundred almost fluid tints. The luster technique was applied also to the ancient Mesopotamian art of decorative tiles. The rich colors of these squares, and their harmonious combinations, gave unique splendor to the portals or mihrabs of a hundred mosques, and to many a palace wall. In the allied art of working glass the Moslems inherited all the skill of Egypt and Syria. Brilliant lamp shades were made in glass adorned with medallions, inscriptions, or floral designs; and perhaps in this period Syria inaugurated the art of enameled glass, which would reach its peak of excellence in the thirteenth century.

When we recall the exuberant and omnipresent use of painting and sculpture in Catholic cathedrals, and its importance as a vehicle of Christian creed and story, we are struck by the absence of the representative arts in Islam. The Koran had forbidden sculpture (v, 92), but it had said nothing about painting. However, a tradition ascribed to Aisha reported the Prophet as condemning pictures too.139 Moslem law, Shi’ite as well as Sunnite, enforced the double prohibition. Doubtless Mohammed had been influenced by the Second Commandment and Judaic teaching, and partly by the notion that the artist, in giving form to living things, usurped the function of the Creator. Some theologians relaxed the prohibition, permitting pictures of inanimate things; some winked at the portrayal of animal or human figures on objects intended only for secular use. Certain Umayyad caliphs ignored the prohibitions; about 712 Walid I adorned his summer palace at Qusayr Amra with Hellenistic frescoes depicting hunters, dancing girls, women bathing, and himself on his throne.140 The Abbasid caliphs professed piety, but had murals in their private chambers; al-Mutasim hired artists, probably Christian, to paint hunting scenes, priests, and naked dancing girls on the walls of his palace at Samarra; and al-Mutawakkil, who persecuted heretics, permitted Byzantine painters to add to these frescoes one that represented Christian monks and a Christian church.141 Mahmud of Ghazni decorated his palace with pictures of himself, his armies, and his elephants; and his son Masud, shortly before being deposed by the Seljuq Turks, covered the walls of his chambers at Herat with scenes based on Persian or Indian manuals of erotic techniques.142 A story tells how, at the home of a vizier, two artists vied with each other in realistic representation: Ibn Aziz proposed to paint a dancing girl so that she would seem to be coming out of the wall; al-Qasir undertook a harder task—to paint her so that she would seem to be going into the wall. Each succeeded so well that the vizier gave them robes of honor, and much gold.143 Many other violations of the interdict could be listed; in Persia particularly we find living things pictured in joyous abundance, and in every form of pictorial art. Nevertheless the prohibition—supported by the people to the point of occasionally mutilating or destroying works of art—delayed the development of Islamic painting, largely restricted it to abstract ornament, almost excluded portraiture (yet we hear of forty portraits of Avicenna), and left the artists completely dependent upon royal or aristocratic patronage.

From this age no Moslem murals survive save those of Qusayr Amra and Samarra; they reveal a strange and barren marriage of Byzantine techniques with Sasanian designs. As if in compensation, Islamic miniatures are among the finest in history. Here fruition came to a varied heritage—Byzantine, Sasanian, and Chinese; and zealous hands carried on an art so intimately beautiful that one almost resents Gutenberg. Like chamber music in modern Europe, so in medieval Islam the illumination of manuscripts with miniature paintings was an art for the aristocratic few; only the rich could maintain an artist in the devoted poverty that produced these patient masterpieces. Here again decoration subordinated representation; perspective and modeling were deliberately ignored; a central motif or form—perhaps a geometrical figure or a single flower—was extended in a hundred variations, until nearly every inch, and even the border, of the page was filled with lines as carefully drawn as if incised. In secular works men, women, and animals might be introduced, in scenes of hunting, humor, or love; but always the ornament was the thing, the fanciful play of delicate line, the liquid flow of harmonious colors, the cool perfection of abstract beauty, intended for a mind at peace. Art is significance rendered with feeling through form; but the feeling must accept discipline, and the form must have structure and meaning, even if the meaning outreach the realm of words. This is the art of illumination, as of the profoundest music.

Calligraphy was an integral part of illumination; one must go as far as China to find again so fraternal a union of writing and design. From Kufa had come the Kufic letters, clumsily angular, crudely sharp; the calligraphers clothed these meager bones with vowel, inflectional, prosodic, diacritical marks, and little floral flourishes; so redeemed, the Kufic script became a frequent feature of architectural decoration. For cursive writing, however, the Naskhi form of the Arabic alphabet proved more attractive; its rounded characters and sinuous horizontal flow were of themselves a decoration; in all the world is no writing or print that equals it in beauty. By the tenth century it had gained the upper hand over Kufic in all but monumental or ceramic lettering; most of the Moslem books that have reached us from the Middle Ages are in Naskhi script. The majority of these surviving volumes are Korans. Merely to copy the holy book was a work of piety sure of divine reward; to illustrate it with pictures was accounted sacrilege; but to lavish beautiful handwriting upon it was deemed the noblest of the arts. Whereas miniaturists were hired artisans poorly paid, calligraphers were sought and honored with royal gifts, and numbered kings and statesmen in their ranks. A scrap of writing by a master’s hand was a priceless treasure; already in the tenth century there were bibliophiles who lived and moved and had their being in their collections of fine manuscripts, written on parchment with inks of black, blue, violet, red, and gold. Only a few such volumes have reached us from this age; the oldest is a Koran in the Cairo Library, dated 784. When we add that such works were bound in the softest, strongest leather, tooled or stamped with unexcelled artistry, and the cover itself in many instances adorned with an elegant design, we may without hyperbole rank Islamic books of the ninth to the eighteenth century as the finest ever issued. Which of us can be published in such splendor today?

In the embellishment of Islamic life all the arts mingled like the interlaces of a decorative theme. So the patterns of illumination and calligraphy were woven into textiles, burned into pottery, and mounted on portals and mihrabs. If medieval civilization made little distinction between artist and artisan it was not to belittle the artist but to ennoble the artisan; the goal of every industry was to become an art. The weaver, like the potter, made undistinguished products for ephemeral use; but sometimes his skill and patience found expression, his dream found form, in robes or hangings, rugs or coverings, embroideries or brocades, woven for many lifetimes, designed with the finesse of a miniature, and dyed in the gorgeous colors so favored of the East. Byzantine, Coptic, Sasanian, Chinese textiles were already famous when the Moslems conquered Syria, Persia, Egypt, and Transoxiana; Islam was quick to learn; and though the Prophet had proscribed silk, Moslem factories soon issued the sinful substance in bold abundance for men and women who sought forgiveness for their bodies as well as their souls. A “robe of honor” was the most precious present a caliph could offer his servitors. The Moslems became the leading silk merchants of the medieval world. Persian silk taftah was bought for European ladies as taffeta. Shiraz was famous for its woolen cloths, Baghdad for its baldachin* hangings and tabby silks; Khuzistan for fabrics of camel’s or goat’s hair; Khurasan for its sofa (Arabic suffah) covers, Tyre for its carpets, Bokhara for its prayer rugs, Herat for its gold brocades. No samples of these products from this period have survived the wear and tear of time; we can only surmise their excellence from later work, and the witness of the writers of their age. An entry in the archives of Harun al-Rashid notes “400,000 pieces of gold, the price of a robe of honor for Jafar, the son of Yahya the Vizier.”144

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!