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Friday, May 8, 2020

What is “Islamic Art”?

The term “Islamic art” is a western and modern concept, created by art historians in the 19th century to categorize and study the material first produced under the Islamic peoples that emerged from Arabia in the 7th century. However, today, “Islamic art” encompasses so much more than what it did in the 19th century, representing works of art from the Mediterranean to Southeast Asia over 1,400 years. So, what makes a work of art “Islamic”? In this WAM Update, we will look at a few factors.

Fig. 1 Flowering Plant Beside a Pond, Iran,
Safavid period, 17th century; cut silk, voided satin
velvet, with brocading. Museum Purchase, 1938.2

1. Although there are Muslim monuments and objects such as mosques and decorated Qur’ans, respectively, a vast portion of Islamic art has little, if anything, to do with the Islamic faith. There are many examples of secular works, such as textiles, ceramics, and illustrated manuscripts. Above is an example of a textile produced in a royal workshop under the Safavid Persian ruler Shah ‘Abbas I
(r. 1588-1629). It features a repeat pattern of a flowering plant at the edge of a swirling pond. The lavish work, with its background comprised of gold-wrapped threads, would have been used to either decorate an interior space of a palace or fashioned into a garment.

Fig. 2 Basawan, “Birth of Ghazan Khan”, folio from a copy of
 the Jam’i al-Tawarikh by Rashid al-Din, India, Mughal period,
 ca. 1596; opaque watercolor, ink, and gold on paper. 
Jerome Wheelock Fund, 1935.12

2. “Islamic art” refers to works not only created by Muslim artists, craftsmen, and architects, for Muslim patrons, but also works of art made by non-Muslims for Muslim patrons. For example, Hindu artists were employed in the royal ateliers of the Mughal emperors, who comprised the greatest Muslim dynasty in South Asia. The work above is a folio from an illustrated copy of the Jami’ al-tawarikh (Compendium of Chronicles) by Rashid al-Din, commissioned by the Mughal emperor Akbar (r. 1556-1605) in the late 16th century. The painting was executed by Hindu artist Baswan, one of Akbar’s two most esteemed Indian masters. Baswan’s work is characterized by brilliant colors, well-rounded figures with flamboyant gestures, and compositions that explore the effects of depth and space.

3. “Islamic art” also concerns works of art created by Muslims and non-Muslims for non-Muslims. “Islamic” in the term “Islamic art” cannot completely reflect the Muslim faith; it is not comparable to “Christian” or “Judaic” in the terms “Christian art” or “Judaic art” respectively. For instance, there are examples of Christian Islamic art, such as a 9th lectionary, or a collection of scriptures, housed at the Monastery of St. Catherine in Sinai, Egypt, written in Arabic.

4. “Islamic art” is different from, for example, Chinese art, because it is not bound to a single place. Islamic empires and dynasties reflect great geographic and regional diversity and controlled territory from Spain to western China at various points in history.

5. “Islamic art” is not a monolithic style or movement, like Renaissance art or Baroque art. It fluctuated with the rise and fall of Muslim empires and dynasties across large geographic areas for nearly 1,400 years and was constantly changing shape.

To put points 4 and 5 into perspective: in 500 CE, Cordoba and Granada in Spain, and Samarkand in Uzbekistan, probably had very little contact. However, by 661 CE, they belonged to the Umayyad Empire (661-750). By 1236, Cordoba was part of the Catholic Kingdom of Castile, and Granada part of the Islamic Nasrid dynasty (1232-1492), despite being only 124 miles apart. Samarkand, by this time, was under Mongol rule.

The evolution of Muslim empires and dynasties allowed for a symbiosis between local and pre-existing artistic traditions and pan-Islamic modes of artistic behavior and expression, resulting in different forms of Islamic art. Below are a few examples from the Islamic empires of the Ottomans of Turkey (Fig. 3a), the Safavids of Iran (Fig. 3b), and the Mughals of India (Fig. 3c). Although all three illustrations were contemporaneously produced, one can see the difference in the execution of the figures. Safavid Persian paintings commonly show figures with Central Asian features, such as round faces, almond-shaped eyes, and fair skin, while Mughal Indian ones depict figures with physical features indigenous to the region.

Fig. 3a: “Bayezid I, ‘The Thunderbolt’, Routs the Crusaders at the Battle of
Nicopolis”, folio from a copy of the Hunernama Sayyid Luqman, Turkey,
Ottoman period, 1584, opaque watercolor, ink, and gold on paper;
Jerome Wheelock Fund, 1935.13

Fig. 3b: Muhammad Qasim, Young Woman in a Landscape, Holding a Wine 
Bottle and Cup, Iran, probably Mashhad, Safavid period, 17th century, 
opaque watercolor, ink, and gold on paper; Jerome Wheelock Fund, 1935.14.

Fig. 3c: Portrait of a Nobleman, India, Mughal period, ca. 1630-40,
opaque watercolor, ink, gold, on paper; Bequest of Charles B. Cohn
in Memory of Stuart P. Anderson.

With these factors in mind, what then has been a far more common and more recognized interpretation of the term “Islamic art” is that it refers to a culture or civilization in which the majority of the population, or at least the ruling body, practice the Islamic faith. Yet, many art historians of this field are still unsatisfied with this definition, and thus it is still being developed as we try to further understand this genre. The field of Islamic art history is only about 200 years old, which is relatively young when one considers how long other genres, like Renaissance art, have been studied and analyzed.

In addition, Islamic art grew from western perspectives, especially that of Orientalism. Currently, the field is experiencing a period of self-reflection and revision, which is impacting how museums are approaching the galleries and displays of these artworks. However, while the field continues to evolve, we can continue to admire and appreciate the dynamism, beauty, and depth that it brings.

—Rachel Parikh, Assistant Curator of Asian and Middle Eastern Art

May 8, 2020

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