Islamic Art and Architecture
In any discussion of Islamic art it must always be remembered that the artistic tradition of the Muslim faith developed not only over a long period of time beginning with the Hegira in 622 AD, but also over a very wide geographical area extending from Spain and Morocco to Central Asia, India and Indonesia. Given these conditions, it would have been surprising for a single, homogenous artistic tradition to emerge. Indeed, the very richness and variety of Islamic art is due in part to the appearance of regional trends within the Islamic world, particularly once the Umayyad Caliphate began to weaken in the tenth and 11th centuries, thus allowing the formation of local political powers. The ethnic diversity of the Muslim world-which includes Arabs, Iranians, Turks, Indians, Berbers and more-the variety of pre-Islamic traditions that existed in the newly- conquered territories, and the continued presence of non-Muslim communities in those areas, all contributed to the creation of an art with strongly marked regional characteristics. This diversity was to be emphasized by the almost complete lack of any imposed directive or code concerning the work of the artist.
And yet, despite this tendency towards specific regional characteristics, other forces were at work which tended towards the development of a universal and unified art. The main force was of course Islam itself, the basis of the whole civilization.
Along with faith came an entire way of life, as well as certain attitudes and a vision of the world which were common to all regions concerned. Unlike Christianity, Islam never developed an exclusively sacred art. The proper functioning of the mosque required only a few elements (mehrab, mimbar, prayer carpet) and none of the ritual or liturgical paraphernalia present in temples of other faiths. The decorative motifs used in the mosques were by no means limited to a strictly religious context but could equally well serve as secular ornaments, on a wide range of media. Calligraphy, for example, the natural vehicle for the divine message transmitted by the Prophet, plays an important role in mosques but is also largely used on ceramics, textiles and in handicrafts in general. The almost complete absence of sculpture, with a few rare exceptions, is another universal characteristic of Islamic art influenced partly by the rejection of human representation as it appears in the Hadith (Traditions). It should be noted, however, that despite this disapproval, humans and animals have frequently been depicted on ceramics and are the favorite subject matter of miniature painting, one of the most creative art forms in Persia, Turkey and Moghol India.
A second unifying factor in Islamic art has been the great mobility of people within the Muslim world, either as individuals or in groups. There have been numerous cases, particularly in Iran, of rulers who were foreign to the region or the country they governed. It is no coincidence that these mixed courts were often the ones in which the arts flourished the most, a direct result of the interaction between the local, traditional styles and those brought by the newcomer. Artists, architects and poets travelled over great distances in their search for benevolent patrons. Other migrations were not undertaken voluntarily: large numbers of refugees and conscripts have, at various times, been compelled to start a new life in new lands. But it was particularly trade along the maritime and overland caravan routes that was behind the widest artistic exchanges. As a result, artists came into contact with new decorative motifs and new techniques which were quickly absorbed into the local artistic repertoire.
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