Islamic Art and Architecture

from The New Book of Knowledge®

ART HISTORY ON-DEMAND > Cultures and Civilizations   

Islam is the religious faith preached by the Arab prophet Mohammed. During the five hundred years after Mohammed's death in A.D. 632, Islam spread far beyond its place of origin in the Arabian Peninsula. The followers of Mohammed, called Muslims, conquered the rest of the Middle East, as well as North Africa, Spain, central Asia, and north and central India. Most of the conquered people accepted the Islamic religion.

As Islam spread, a distinctive style of Islamic art gradually developed. It was used mainly for religious architecture, book illustrations, and the decoration of pottery, metalware, and other useful objects. Islamic art was influenced by the artistic styles of the conquered regions. These styles included late Roman, Byzantine, and Persian art.

The development of Islamic art was also influenced by two religious restrictions. Mohammed warned artists not to imitate God, the creator of all life, by making images of living things. Most religious art therefore consisted of ornamental designs that did not represent people or animals. The second restriction discouraged the use of costly materials. Islamic artists, therefore, worked mainly with brass, clay, and wood. They learned to decorate objects made of these less expensive materials so skillfully that they looked as beautiful as silver or gold.

Design Characteristics

The restriction on making images led to the development of one of the most outstanding features of Islamic art. Artists avoided depicting likelike forms. Instead, they developed a special kind of decoration, called arabesque. An arabesque is a very complicated design. It can consist of twisting patterns of vines, leaves, and flowers. It can be made up of geometric shapes and patterns of straight lines, or it can have curving lines that twist and turn over each other. Sometimes animal shapes were used, but they were always highly stylized and not lifelike.

Another important characteristic of Islamic art is the use of calligraphy, or beautiful handwriting. Arabic, the language of most Islamic texts, can be beautifully written in several different kinds of script. These include the straight, geometric Kufic script and the rounded, flowing Naskhi. Islamic artists used Arabic script (which is read from right to left) as part of their designs for religious books, wall decorations, and art objects. Especially beautiful calligraphy and decoration were used for copies of the Koran, the holy book of the Islamic faith.


The religious buildings known as mosques, where Muslims worship, are among the most important examples of Islamic architecture. Other kinds of buildings include madrasahs, or religious schools; tombs; and palaces.

The first mosques were simple buildings made of wood and clay. Then, as the world of Islam grew in size and power, large mosques of cut stone and brick were built. Because no Islamic building tradition yet existed, these early mosques were modeled after Christian churches. The oldest existing mosque, the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, was built in 691. It has many features of Byzantine Christian churches, including Grecian-style columns and mosaic decorations.

Muslim architects soon began to develop a new type of religious building, designed specifically for Islamic worship. An early example of the new design is the Great Mosque in Damascus, begun about 705. It is entered through a rectangular court with covered passageways on three sides. In the court is a fountain for washing before prayer. The fourth wall of the court is closest to Mecca, the holy city of Islam. All Muslims face in the direction of Mecca when they pray. The wall is marked by a small, arched prayer niche. Over the aisle leading to this niche is a dome. A tower, or minaret, is used to call the faithful to prayer.

Other architects developed variations on this basic style. Some mosques have domes over each end of the aisle leading to the prayer niche. Other mosques have a large central dome. Some domes are ridged on the outside and resemble large melons. Inside, the ceilings of domes are often covered with decorative forms that resemble honeycombs, scales, or stalactites (icicle-like formations found in caves). Many mosques, especially those in Spain, North Africa, and Persia, are covered with tiles. In the 1500's and 1600's mosques became more complex, with many domes and minarets. The Sultan Ahmed Mosque (also called the Blue Mosque), in Istanbul, Turkey, is a typical example.

Madrasahs and Tombs
Madrasahs, or religious schools, were often built next to mosques. They are four-sided structures built around a central court. Each side has a large arched hall that opens onto the courtyard. Students attended lectures in the large halls and lived in smaller rooms within the structure.

Sometimes the tomb of a ruler was part of a complex of buildings that also included a mosque and a madrasah. The tomb-mosque of Sultan Hasan, built in the mid-1300's in Cairo, Egypt, is such a complex. It is laid out like a cross, with four halls opening off a large square court.

Another well-known tomb is that of the Tatar warrior Tamerlane, which was built in the city of Samarkand about 1400. (Today Samarkand is part of Uzbekistan.) This building has a melon-shaped dome covered with brilliant blue and gold tiles. The tiles are made of glazed earthenware cut into various sizes and arranged in elaborate patterns. Perhaps the most famous Islamic tomb of all is the Taj Mahal in Agra, India. It was built in the 1600's by the ruler Shah Jahan as a tomb for his wife. The Taj Mahal is so renowned that its very name calls up images of almost unreal splendor and beauty. An article on the Taj Mahal can be found in this encyclopedia.

The early Muslim rulers, or caliphs, were used to desert life; they did not like living in crowded cities. They built palaces in the desert where they could go to relax and hunt. The palaces looked like Roman fortresses, for they were built of stone and surrounded by walls with big towers. The throne rooms, prayer rooms, baths, and living quarters were decorated with murals and mosaics.

In the 700's the capital of the Muslim world moved from Damascus, Syria, to Baghdad, Mesopotamia (now Iraq). The architecture of palaces changed as a result of the move. Domed palaces were built of brick covered with thick layers of stucco, and the interiors were decorated with stucco reliefs. In the Jawsaq Palace, built about 850 in Samarra, Mesopotamia, the stucco ornament was of three distinct styles. One type showed deeply carved vine forms, and another added patterns to the surface of the main design. The third style used more abstract patterns, as in the metalwork of Central Asian nomads. These three styles contributed to the development of arabesque decoration, which became typical of Muslim art all over the world.

Of later palaces, the Alhambra at Granada, Spain, built in the 1300's, is the best known. Its many rooms are built around three open courts. The Court of the Myrtles features a long rectangular pool flanked by hedges. In the center of the inner Court of the Lions stands a fountain supported by twelve lions. The lower part of the palace walls are decorated with colored tiles set in geometric patterns. Painted and gilded plaster designs cover the upper part of the walls. Arabic inscriptions in the midst of the ornament say that there is "no conqueror but Allah."

Book Illustration

Islamic painting developed mainly in the form of book illustration. Islamic artists produced many beautiful illuminated manuscripts (handwritten books decorated with painted pictures and designs). These paintings were created to help explain a scientific text or to add to the pleasure of reading a work of history or literature. Because of the restrictions on making images, illustrations for the Koran and other religious manuscripts often consisted of intricate ornamental designs.

Nonreligious manuscripts sometimes contained images of human and animal figures. Figures in early illustrations were simple and painted to look flat or two-dimensional. These qualities can be seen in the illustrations for a famous book of fables, Kalilah and Dimnah. Later illustrators painted more detailed and realistic works. Especially skilled were artists working in Persia from the 1300's to the 1700's. One of the best-known Persian painters was Kamal ad-Din Bihzad. This artist combined the ornamental style of Persian illustration with realistic observation of people and animals.

By the end of the 1200's, parts of the Islamic world, including Persia, had been invaded by Mongols from the East. From this time on, the influence of Chinese ink paintings, especially landscapes, can be seen in Islamic painting. The last of the great invaders from central Asia was Tamerlane. He and his followers ignored the dictates of their new religion and encouraged artists to paint pictures of people. These pictures still appeared mainly in nonreligious books, however. Most Islamic illustration remained essentially ornamental, uniting many design elements into an intricate pattern.

The Muslims greatly respected the knowledge contained in books, especially in the Koran. Their book covers nearly always include a flap to cover and protect the page edges. The covers were made of beautifully tooled leather, often with added decorations of gold and bright colors.

Decorative Arts

Many different arts were used in the decoration of Islamic mosques and palaces. Arabesque carvings in stone, wood, and plaster adorn the doorways, prayer niches, and pulpits of mosques. The borders of the decorations were often inscribed with quotations from the Koran. Both mosques and palaces were decorated with mosaics--pictures made by pressing tiny pieces of colored glass into wet cement. Painted and glazed tiles covered interior and exterior wall surfaces. Glass lamps decorated with arabesques and Arabic letters hung by long chains from ceilings.

Beginning in the 1000's, a new class of wealthy merchants arose in cities throughout the Islamic world. They traded ceramics, leather goods, metalware, and textiles as far east as India and China and as far west as Euorope. The tastes and spending power of the merchants, as well as the increased contact with other cultures, led to new developments in the decorative arts. Scenes of everyday and popular stories were realistically portrayed on all kinds of objects. These decorative scenes greatly influenced the development of book illustration.

Islamic metalworkers created beautifully worked brass and bronze objects, including pitchers, boxes, and trays. Sometimes they inlaid these objects with intricate designs of gold or silver. Arabesques, scenes with figures, and Arabic writing were all used as decoration. The designs began as detailed drawings, which were then skillfully adapted to a particular object and material.

By the 800's Islamic potters had developed many different techniques for making ceramics and pottery. A major center of pottery production was the city of Kashan, in Iran. The Kashan potters were especially skilled at making lusterware, a kind of pottery that is covered with a shining metallic glaze. Luster glaze was also used on tiles that covered prayer niches, wall surfaces, and the outsides of domes and minarets.

Luxurious rugs were made by knotting single strands of wool or silk to create intricate patterns. Fine woolen rugs have more than one hundred knots per square inch, while some silk rugs have as many as eight hundred.

Rugs were used in both mosques and homes. Muslims often kneel on rugs to pray. The designs on these prayer rugs were made to resemble the arch of the prayer niche in a mosque. Nonreligious rugs often were decorated with geometric patterns. Other designs featured arabesques of flowers and plants in imitation of gardens. Animal and hunting scenes sometimes were added to the floral patterns. Dragons and other fantastic creatures frequently were part of the design, as were such real-life animals as lions and gazelles.

Later Islamic Art

During the Middle Ages, Christians and Muslims fought wars known as the Crusades. The nations of Islam were united in religion and in their common wars against the Christian Europeans. Islamic art was also unified. From Spain to India, the art of the countries of Islam was almost identical.

By the 1400's there was less to unify the Islamic world. Many people in Islamic nations belonged to other religions. The Crusades were over, and Muslim countries sometimes fought against each other.

Artistic activity in the Islamic style continues to flourish. Mosques are still being built; objects of metal, clay, and leather are still ornamented with arabesques; books are illuminated with miniatures; and rugs are still woven in the traditional way. However, after 1500, some Islamic artists began to add elements of European art to their work. Today the art of many Islamic countries has an international character, although the scenes or subjects may relate to a single Islamic nation.

Gulnar K. Bosch
Florida State University

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