Haley Jones: Islamic Art at the AMAM

The small but diverse collection of Islamic art at the Allen Memorial Art museum is an excellent sample of the core principles governing this genre. Spanning from the late 7th century to the 20th century, as well as from Egypt to India, the collection represents a great variety of objects as well. Weapons, silverware, glassware, bowls, tiles, and a Persian rug are all included. It is immediately clear that these are all considered “decorative” objects by Western standards, rather than “fine art” as we conceptualize it. However, they do in fact represent the fine artistic tradition of Islam, merely with an entirely different set of aesthetic criteria and worldview. They accurately demonstrate the three most important decorative forms in Islamic art, according to Rabah Saoud: “floral, geometrical, and calligraphic.”1

Before describing what constitutes Islamic art, it may be more effective to explain what it is not. Western artistic tradition has been defined (until the advent of modernism in the 20th century) by a nearly inescapable preoccupation with the human figure. Portraiture, sculpture, historical painting, and religious art (from ancient Greek to Christian) feature humans as the central. With such a human-centric standard for art, Islamic art has been traditionally dismissed as inferior simply because portrayals of men and gods are entirely absent. The Muslim perception of the universe is emphatically focused on the oneness of God and his inimitability, making it an insult to God’s eminence to try to represent the human form in painting or sculpture.2 However, Islam is a religion that celebrates natural beauty, and the Qur’an is a highly poetic and inspirational text. Therefore, Islamic art expresses itself through rich ornamentation of decorative objects, the passionate rendering of holy text, and the insistence on geometric perfection. Its disuse of portraiture, yet its obvious capability to inspire and unify society, should speak to the strength of Islamic art rather than some weakness.3

Perhaps one of the most visually striking and recognizable features of Islamic art is the floral motif. This famous pattern of interlaced, abstract flowers and branches is known as the arabesque.4 It is featured predominantly in the Allen as the decorative basis for the Persian rug. Made in Tabriz in the 19th century, this silk and cotton rug features contrasting colors of red, beige, and blue. Although it is faded with age and wear, the intricacies of the arabesque are stunning, as a seemingly infinite variety of blossoms and leaves expand symmetrically outward from a central point. The Allen also showcases the beauty of the Turkish floral motif via two 17th century plates and one 16th century tile fragment. The Turkish painting tradition is internationally renowned for its use of tomato red, cerulean blue, and ultramarine against a white background. These floral designs are more abstract and graphic than those of the Persian rug, but share a similar attention to visual harmony.

The geometric impulse that guides Islamic art can best be observed in architectural forms, although it is not lacking in the Allen’s collection. The arabesque is not only a floral design, but one with highly geometric principles governing it. Arabesques can be made up of geometric shapes rather than flowers, and the underlying symmetry of an arabesque is rooted firmly in a pattern of rectilinear or curvilinear lines.5 Most of the Allen’s objects exhibit some degree of geometric regularity, particularly with patterns of concentric circles or borders with polygonal embellishment. Geometry has an important place in Islamic art not only because it refers to the perfection of God, but also due to the eminent role that scientific thought has played in the development of Muslim society.

Finally, the most persistent and meaningful element of Islamic art is calligraphy. Titus Bruckhart writes without any overstatement that “the noblest of the visual arts in the world of Islam is calligraphy, and it is the writing of the Quran that is sacred art par excellence. It plays a part more or less analogous to that of the icon in Christian art, for it represents the visible body of the Divine Word.”6 Islam is a religion fixated on the Qur’anic text, and the Qur’an frequently makes references to writing, even in Mohammad’s first revelation from the angel Gabriel.7 In fact, it is thought that the Pen was the first thing God ever created, with which he endeavors to record the good and bad deeds of all human beings so that they may be measured upon their entry into the afterlife.8 The fact that the Qur’an was originally written in Arabic elevates this writing system to a sacred level, and it has been reconfigured in a variety of different styles, such as the Kufic script.

To an unfocused eye, the calligraphy that is actually rampant in the Allen’s Islamic art collection may not be visible at first. The Arabic script is almost a decoration in itself due to its continuous horizontal lines and natural flow.9 It can be seen on the surface of teaspoons, on the curved edge of a scimitar, and tracing the circular border of a 19th century Persian astrolabe. Calligraphy even features on a Persian bowl from the 9th century, but to most viewers, the highly geometric Kufic script painted in its basin would not appear to be writing at all. The presence of calligraphy unites the sacred word of God with even the most mundane objects, and lends them both spiritual potency and visual beauty. A more direct example of calligraphy can be seen in the Allen’s Iranian frieze fragment from the 15th century. This tile features enormous calligraphic script in relief with subtle beige floral details in the background. Such a work is evidence of a ubiquitous usage of calligraphy: as decoration for mosques. In the Muslim worldview, it would make perfect sense to embellish such holy buildings with the holy words of God.


I affirm that I have adhered to the Honor Code in this assignment – Haley Jones



1 Saoud, Rabah. “Introduction to Islamic Art.” Muslim Heritage. 2010. Accessed November 27, 2016. http://www.muslimheritage.com/article/introduction-islamic-art.

2 – Ibid, Introduction – Comparison with Byzantine Art

3 – Ibid, Comparison with Byzantine Art

4 – Ibid, Vegetal and Floral art – Geometrical Art

5 – Ibid, Geometrical Art

6 – Chittick, William C. The Inner Journey: Views from the Islamic Tradition. Sandpoint, ID: Morning Light Press, 2007.

7 – Schimmel, Annemarie. Calligraphy and Islamic Culture. New York: New York University Press, 1984. 77-78

8 – Ibid, 78-79

9 – Chittick, 80