In order to better appreciate the examples of Islamic architecture and ornament being presented in this unit, it is important to begin with a look at Islamic religion itself, and the very substantial influence on all aspects of life of the people who became Muslim, especially their relationship with nature and society.
The religion of Islam emerged in Arabia during the first decades of the seventh century, and very quickly spread and developed into not only a powerful state but also a great and diverse civilization. Richard Ettinghausen, in his chapter, “The Man-Made Setting” (part of the well-known collection of essays, entitled “The World of Islam,” 1976) describes how the “normative force of Islam” served as the foundation on which the whole civilization was built (p.59). Islam was able to create a way of life and fostered general attitudes that Muslims from all regions of the Islamic sphere universally accepted. As an Islamic believer, one carried with him a strong sense of belonging to the whole Muslim community and of sharing certain distinct, common rituals and beliefs. The Muslims held a deep faith in the message of the Arabic Quraean (recitation) revealed directly by God to the Prophet Muhammad for the clear guidance of man-kind. They accepted implicitly all of the clear-cut duties entailed in being a believer and shared with all other Muslims a common image of the whole cosmos. Islam, thus viewed as a whole culture, had a profoundly formative influence on Muslim sensibilities. In “Islamic Art and Archeology: Collected Papers” (1984), Ettinghausen explains in detail how Islam “deeply influenced its architecture, the range and character of its iconography, the treatment and type of ornament, and the choice of material everywhere in its domain” (p.51).
Islamic religion posited three important ideological pre-dispositions which would determine the characteristic form of its artistic manifestations: the need to express unitive belief in the setting of communal, social practice; ‘the negative requirement that this expression not take the form of visually mimetic imagery (i.e., either sculpture or figurative representation, both of which appeared to Muslims as idolatrous, if not brazenly magical); and, finally, the positive inclination to represent the most essential reality of Islamic religiosity, which is the sound and the meaning of the Arabic Quraean, in the written word.
The gathering place as basic forum: The immediate practice of Islamic religion required that there be at least one place of gathering in every community which was able to accommodate most of the inhabitants for Friday communal worship. The cathedral-mosque, which Oleg Grabar refers to as “the heart of the city” (“Cities and Citizens” in “The World of Islam,” p.114) was both in early and late times, the most important social and political center in any urban setting.
Religious injunction as ‘negative space’: Due to Islam’s unconditional monotheism and the view of God as the unique and only-Creator, with Whom no one could possibly compete, representations of living beings in religious art were effectively prohibited. Figurative representation in the view of Muslims, were obvious efforts to replace reality and to infringe on Divine prerogatives. As a result, secular art would come to develop at the expense of religious art.
The written word as ‘positive space’: Even more sacred than the mosque, Arabic writing became the primal visual manifestation of Islamic religion, science and culture. After the more abstract phenomena of recitation and memorization, Arabic writing, with its characteristic, beautifully flowing script became the worthy vehicle of the glorious Quraean, inclining Muslims to bestow a particular sense of holiness and dignity upon any written text. Calligraphy went on to become the most original and complex aesthetic expression in Islamic art.
Besides these features of Islamic aesthetic culture, there are a number of other, externally-imposed factors which served to preserve the unity and homogeneity of art and architecture in Middle Eastern and North African countries. The predominantly arid or semi-arid climate of these regions greatly influenced the focus of Islamic architecture. In an effort to provide the all-important access to water and protection from the heat, Muslim architects were primarily concerned with providing large, covered spaces with courts, and were less concerned with problems of interior light. Many buildings were erected around cistern-pools or fountains. Symbolically, water was always associated with gardens and paradise. Such architecture came to represent an ideal world, providing a sustaining refuge from the harsh climate and surrounding terrain.
Islamic artisans were not hesitant to use and modify the forms of those countries that were conquered by Muslim forces: Iranian, Indian, Greco-Roman, and Byzantine. Cosmopolitan Islam also encouraged the blending of themes from different regions, and when certain themes could not be adopted in their original form due to the restrictions against figurative representation, they were easily changed to abstract, decorative patterns. A common practice was to transfer a particular technique or pattern from one medium to another. For example, a design in one country where stucco or wood was the medium was often adapted in another region for use in silverwork or tile inlay.
Islamic art has often been referred to as “the art of artisans,” and Grabar in his article on “Islamic Art and Architecture” (“Encyclopedia Americana,” 1982, p.505) describes it as “an art whose creators were more often fascinated by the technical possibilities of their media than by ideologies or by purely formal considerations.” It was in workshops that early Muslim artisans learned their skills. Masters of detail, these artists freely competed with each other in their attempts to create the most striking combinations of forms and themes of various origins. Grabar considers the greatness of Islamic art to be the result of this “endless virtuosity” (ibid.). Unlike the Western artist, who is viewed as a hero almost isolated from society, in Islamic art, creation and production was essentially non-individualistic. The artist had a generally anonymous character, which served to have an equalizing effect on artistic endeavors.
One final feature of Islamic architecture which we might mention is the lack of a sharp division between the sacred and the profane, as aptly evidenced in the prevalence of eyvaned structures (buildings with a high vaulted hall, usually in the center of a building complex whose entire front opened to an adjoining courtyard). These same edifices were adapted as mosques, theological schools, palaces, caravanserais, or even hospitals. Let us now take a more in-depth look at what has been called the most original and characteristic creation of Muslim genius;—the mosque.