Umayyad art: no people or animals
The first big difference between Roman art and Islamic art was that Islamic artists didn’t draw people. That’s because the followers of Islam, like the Jews, took seriously the commandment that you should not make graven images. The idea that it was wrong to make images of gods or humans, or even of animals and plants, was very common all over the Eastern Mediterranean.
What did Abbasid art look like?
By the Abbasid period, even plants and buildings were frowned on. Most of the art was geometric designs. We call this rule – only geometric designs – iconoclasm. Iconoclasm had a long history in the Eastern Mediterranean. People from Egypt, Israel, and Arabia had been nervous about making art that showed people for about two thousand years already.
Persian carpets and the Silk Road
A lot of the geometric designs Islamic artists used seem to be from fabric patterns. Central Asian knotted carpets, sold on the Silk Road, were very expensive and fashionable. They used abstract patterns. The Abbasids got rich selling these Persian carpets to people in China, India, East Africa, and Europe.
Islamic calligraphy and paper
So Islamic artists also used those same familiar patterns when they made art in stone or tile. They also often used calligraphy (beautiful writing) of verses from the Quran to decorate buildings, plates, and vases.
When Islamic artists began to buy paper from the Silk Road traders in the 700s AD, that let them do a lot more painting. Paper was so much cheaper than papyrus or parchment that it was easier for artists to buy.
Iranian and Chinese influence
In this period, also, the focus of the Islamic Empire shifted from Damascus and the old Roman territory east. Now the center of power was Baghdad and the old Sassanian territory. So Islamic art also became more Iranian and Central Asian and less Roman.
The Silk Road also exposed Islamic artists to a lot of Chinese art, especially fine porcelain. Many Chinese motifs and imitations of Chinese techniques started to show up in Iranian painting and vases.
The Islamic Empire breaks up
By about 1000 AD, the Islamic empire was breaking up into smaller states, and each state developed its own art style. There are individual styles for Spain, the Maghreb, Egypt, the Ottoman Empire, Iran, and northern India.
In some of these places, the iconoclastic rules against using pictures of things or people were relaxed as time went on. In Iran and India, painters made beautiful little miniature paintings of people at court, and of famous people from history.