Islam: Historic Background

The Islamic world extends from the Middle East through much of Africa, and east to Indonesia, and Western China. Clearly there are many ethnic flavors to Islamic culture and style. However, there are also many common elements which are shared by all muslim societies, in spite of doctrinal and ethnic differences.

Islam was founded in the seventh century by Mohammed. The Arabian desert, in what today is known as the country of Saudi Arabia, was the point of origin for this faith. Prior to the advent of Mohammed, it was inhabited by a variety of tribal peoples who worshipped a variety of local gods, represented by idols and other sacred objects. Mohammed's message emphasized in the place of variety, a unity of belief. He preached that there was but one god, and that he was not to be represented by any image. His teachings stressed the spiritual order and coherence of god's plan, and the duty of all believers to submit themselves to the will of God. His teachings were founded on the teachings of Judaism and Christianity. However, he preached that he was the last and greatest prophet. The Koran is believed to be the direct word of God, spoken directly to Mohammed.

The Koran and the accompanying commentaries that have accumulated over the years are considered to be the guide to all aspects of life for the believer. The sacred law, or sheria, is still considered the law of the land in some muslim countries.

The fundamental teachings of Islam are as follows:

  1. The absolute unity of God. This is in the face of the apparent chaos of the world around us; the true unity and order of the universe is deemed knowable only to God.
  2. Submission to his will. Since the order and meaning of life is only known to God, there is no path to truth and salvation except to submit to that greater wisdom.

For all muslims, a set of holy duties are laid out:

  • Faith The acceptance of the basic tenet that there is but one God, and Mohammed is the last and greatest of the prophets, through whom the will of God was expressed in the revelation of the Koran.
  • Prayer-- all are enjoined to pray five times each day, facing toward the Moslem holy city of Mecca.

  • Almsgiving-- Those who can do so are enjoined to give to the poor, and also perform public works. The building of mosques, schools, fountains and shelters (kervansarai) for travellers are common examples of such public works.

  • Fasting -- During the ninth month of the muslim year (Ramadan) all muslims are expected to fast from sunrise to sunset.

  • Pilgrimage -- Once during one's lifetime, if possible, the believer is expected to make the pilgrimage to the holy sites at Mecca and Medina.
  • Islamic Visual Art

    The first characteristic of Islamic art is a limitation set by Islamic law (Hadith): Images of living beings, human or animal, are forbidden. This is because of the emphasis on the unity and singularity of God, and the prohibition against idol worship. As a result, most Islamic art is non-representational. There are, however, important exceptions to this. Although public art and religious art is almost always non-representational, there is a tradition of figurative image painting in books and on other personal objects for domestic use that probably is a continuation of pre-Islamic artistic styles. Persian ceramics, textiles, and other domestic objects sometimes depict human figures, animals, and birds. The best known examples of figurative images are the beautifully detailed miniature paintings seen in books. These usually illustrate histories, folktales, and occasionally even religious texts.

    Since most Islamic art is non-representational, much attention has been given to the development of sophisticated systems of organizing and assigning meaning to the principles and elements that go into decorative design. Islamic scholars, in any case, were always preoccupied with the measuring and patterning of the world and the sky above it; astronomy, geometry, and the tools of navigation and surveying, as well as the sciences of anatomy and medicine were all religious exercises, an attempt to demonstrate the underlying order of creation. Therefore even the geometry of pattern and the colors of the spectrum take on great mystical significance.

    There were several ways in which the mystical metaphor of geometry and number could be applied to pattern. First, there was the matter of proportion, and the division of space. The square, the equilateral triangle, and the circle were considered to be perfect forms that could be combined in infinite ways to create complex designs. This approach was applied to both surface design and the design of architectural forms. The maze-like patterns seen in carved wooden panels and the arrangement of tiles demonstrate such patterning. These links to mosques, shrines in Isfahan, Iran and a palace in Istanbul, Turkey, and an architectural panorama of 19th c. Istanbul will show you some of the finest examples of Islamic architectural form and surface design, as does this site that contains tours of a number of Muslim holy sites throughout the Middle East .

    Patterns developed from differing systems might also be laid over one another to create intricate designs; the concept expressed is that the apparent chaos of the world disguises an order that can be revealed by "peeling back" layers of ordered meaning. This kind of design can be seen in painted ceramics, or certain intricate carpet patterns. Different styles of pattern may also be combined in architectural decoration, as in this entry way in the Topkapi Palace complex in Istanbul, Turkey.

    Pattern may also be asymmetrical. The repeat of the pattern which seems to be needed to satisfy the western sense of balance may be thought of as being completed in another, spiritual dimension; another way of expressing the idea that only God can grasp the totality of the order underlying the universe, and reminding the viewer that apparent disorder is only a result of the limitations of human understanding.

    Colors are subject to complex systems of symbolism. A simple four color system, for example, equates colors with the four traditional elements: Red= fire; yellow= air; green= water; blue= earth. Additional levels of meaning are associated with seasons, directions, and other abstract concepts. In a series of Persian miniature paintings, a hero, Bahram Gur, is shown in a series of pavilions, each of a different color; in each case the colors suggest states of mind, qualities of virtue, and auguries for the outcome of the courtships in progress.

    In addition to the abstractions of geometry and color, there are certain images that are intrinsic to Islamic beliefs, and are often used in Islamic art. One of these is the idea that paradise is a garden, filled with fragrant flowers and fruit, and flowing fountains. It should not be surprising that in this desert religion water and gardens are part of the concept of heaven. Flowers and foliage are a common motif in Islamic art, as are images associated with water-- streams, fountains, and water pitchers often appear in carpet designs, as well as other objects.

    The prayer niche which indicates the direction of Mecca in the mosque is itself a visual symbol- a gateway to paradise, to be contemplated in prayer. The prayer niche is represented on prayer carpets, and the niche form also appears on other objects as well.

    Calligraphy has become a highly developed art. Since the Koran is written in Arabic, the Arabic script is itself held in veneration, and calligraphy is a common decorative element. Many styles of calligraphy have been developed, and motifs that resemble writing are also commonly used.

    Islamic design has been influential in European art and design since the Crusades, in the Middle Ages. In the later nineteenth century Islamic motifs and oriental carpets became popular, and inspired the decorative design of William Morris and other figures in the English Arts and Crafts movement. Islamic motifs also appeared in the fashion world of late Art Nouveau and early Art Deco fashion, inspired by the "Orientalist" designs of Leon Bakst and the Ballet Russe. The Ballet Russe came to Paris in the years preceding World War I, and influenced French fashion designers such as Paul Poiret .

    For further examples of Islamic painting and book arts arts , try this link. Another gallery of Islamic decorative arts can be reached here.

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