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Mosaic from the Great Mosque in Damascus (about 710 AD)

Islamic art: Mosaic from the Great Mosque in Damascus (about 710 AD)

Umayyad art: no people or animals

As soon as the Islamic Empire formed, under the Umayyad dynasty, artists began exploring the new ideas of Islam.  What did these new ideas mean for Islamic art?

Who were the Umayyads?
All our Islamic Empire articles

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.

The Ten Commandments
The religion of Islam

Umayyad mosaics like the elaborate mosaics on the Dome of the Rock mosque in Jerusalem and on the Great Mosque in Damascus show plants and buildings. But they do not show people or animals.

What is a mosaic?
Umayyad architecture

Abbasid wooden carving (800s AD)

Abbasid wooden carving (800s AD)

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.

What is iconoclasm?
Persian carpets
The Silk Road

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.

Islamic pottery
What is the Quran?

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.

Who invented paper?
History of parchment

Iskander (Alexander the Great), Persian miniature from Herat, 1400s AD

Iskander (Alexander the Great), Persian miniature from Herat, 1400s AD

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.

Who were the Sassanians?
Sassanian art history

Mamluk vase

Mamluk vase

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.

What is porcelain?
Tang Dynasty pottery
Chinese Tang Dynasty art

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.

Learn by doing: making paper
T’ang Dynasty Chinese art

Bibliography and further reading about Islamic art:

Islamic pottery
More about the Islamic Empire home