Early Islamic Art: The Emergence of an Islamic Aesthetic Sensibility

David Wade

Floor Mosaic
Fig. 4 Floor Mosaic from Hisham's Palace, Jericho
Mosaic pavement, Khirbat al-Mafjar
Fig. 5 Floor mosaic from Khirbet al-Mafjar

The first impressions of surviving examples of Islamic art and architecture from the earliest period, that is to say from the time of the first Islamic dynasty, the Umayyads, can appear unfamiliar and have few of the features that most would associate with later Islamic Art (figs 4 -8)1. This is because the cultural and artistic values of Islam were far more gradual in their development than its purely religious aspects. In the early years of its conquests the Umayyads had moved north from the Al-Hejaz region in Arabia, to Syria, and established Damascus as their capital and centre of administration (661 CE/41 AH). Here they soon adopted the administrative and civil practices of the previous, Byzantine, authority, and in a very short time made the transition from rough conquerors to a sophisticated military aristocracy2. Contemporary accounts indicate that the new Muslim regime, confident though it was in its own religious mission, was deeply impressed by the civilized sophistication of the Byzantine territories that had fallen into its possession – in particular by the opulence and beauty of the Christian art and architecture of the region.

Khirbet al-Mafjar stucco
Fig. 6 Stucco panel from Khirbet al-Mafjar
Mashatta castle stonework - MIK 025
Fig. 7 Exterior stone-work panel, Mashatta castle (MIK 025)

It is not surprising then that the earliest important Islamic architectural projects, notably the ‘Dome of the Rock’ in Jerusalem3 and the Great Mosque in Damascus4, were intended to stand comparison, even outshine, the most impressive of Christian holy places. They were, of course, also intended as symbols of Islamic ascendancy, and in building these monuments the Muslims were clearly developing their own ideas concerning the function and appearance of sacred precincts. But the new rulers were still a small minority at this time, so the architects, builders and artist/craftsmen who were commissioned to build and decorate these monuments are likely to have been predominantly Christian5. The decorative aspects of these and other buildings in the first decades of Muslim rule are therefore particularly interesting for indications, such as they are, of the emergence of distinctive Islamic aesthetic preferences.

Mosaic panel from the Dome of the Rock, Jerusalem
Fig. 8 Mosaic panel from the ‘Dome of the Rock’, Jerusalem
Mosaic panel from the Great Umayyad Mosque
Fig. 9 Mosaic panel from the Great Umayyad Mosque in Damascus

One of the most striking features of both of the monuments mentioned above is their use of large areas of finely detailed wall-mosaics (fig. 8). The significance and meaning of the subject-matter of these panels, which in large part consists of luxuriant plant-forms, is not entirely clear, but in both cases the decoration probably refers to Muslim notions of the Paradise promised to Believers in the afterlife. The elaborate, stylized vegetal forms in the Dome of the Rock are drawn from the repertoire of Late Antique forms, and are enclosed within extended bands of jewel-like ornaments and calligraphy. The mosaics of the Great Mosque, which was built some fifteen years after the Dome of the Rock, are somewhat more representational and include exotic buildings among resplendent gardens, with flowing rivers and graceful trees (fig. 9). But there is no iconography, in the Christian sense, in either monument – in fact there are no portrayals at all of humans or animals, subjects that Muslims clearly considered as entirely inappropriate in religious settings such as these (see fig. 10)6.

Floor mosaic from the Acropolis Church
Fig. 10 Floor mosaic from the Acropolis Church, Ma’in; c.720 CE/101 AH. The crude alterations to this mosaic (which left part of an ox’s back legs clearly visible), are almost certainly the result of an intervention instigated by the iconoclastic Umayyad Caliph Yazid II
The Ambulatory area of the Dome of the Rock
Fig. 11 The Ambulatory area of the ‘Dome of the Rock’

The impression that is conveyed by this art, however, is distinctly spiritual; essentially that of an orderly otherworldliness. This sense of repose is achieved use of architectonic and decorative symmetries and, pointedly, is not reliant on overt symbols of any kind7. The mosaic panels of the Dome of the Rock conform to the buildings strong overall symmetries, and together with the deliberate architectonic duplications in the building as a whole, might seem calculated to induce a sense of dissociation in the pilgrims ambulating around its interior (fig. 11). Here, as in later Islamic architectural decoration, there is a feeling of the dissolution of the buildings physicality. The Damascus Great Mosque mosaics project a different vision, but again, its panels seem to depict an ideal, paradisiacal state of being. Both monuments present unique artistic approaches, but also clear evidence that there were conscious attempts at an Islamic self-definition – and what is particularly interesting is that these aesthetic preferences, particularly in their use of strong symmetries, seem to be influenced by the sort of Neoplatonic attitudes that had already been absorbed by Christian thought in this region (see below).

There are other architectural details, again based on pre-existing forms, that appear to reflect the new Islamic sensibilities; the window-grills of the Great Mosque of Damascus for example (figs. 12-15)8. It is intriguing, to say the least, that the possibilities of purely geometric decorative effects should appear at such an early stage in Islamic architecture, particularly as these examples seem to be rather more adventurous in their design than the late-antique models from which they obviously derive9. Oleg Grabar10 has observed of these and other examples of the early use of ornament in Islam that they appear to show a conscious selection of previous forms, together with an avoidance of obvious, rigid constructions and a preference for decorative motifs that are capable of infinite extension.

Window grille from the Great Mosque of Damascus
Fig. 12 Window grille from the Great Mosque of Damascus
Analytical drawing of window grille
Fig. 13 Analytical drawing of window grille from the Great Mosque of Damascus, by K.A.C. Creswell
Window grille from the Great Mosque of Damascus
Fig. 14 Window grille from the Great Mosque of Damascus
Analytical drawing of window grille
Fig. 15 Analytical drawing of window grille from the Great Mosque of Damascus, by K.A.C. Creswell
Open-work window from the palace at Khirbet al-Mafjar
Fig. 16 Open-work window from the palace at Khirbet al-Mafjar
  1. See also the illustrations accompanying ‘Early Islamic Art’ in Background note #4 - The Evolution of Style

  2. In fact the conquered territories retained its Christian majority, ruled by Muslim Arabs (whose principal role was that of administrators and tax-collection), virtually up to the time of the Crusades.

  3. The ‘Dome of the Rock’ in Jerusalem, built in 692 CE, on the ancient holy site known to Muslims as the Haram ash Sharif (The Noble Sanctuary), commemorates the Isra and Miraj (Muhammad’s ‘Night Journey’ into Heaven). It seems to have been based on the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, whose dimensions it closely resembles. The mosaics referred to here, dating from the Umayyad period, are those on the inside of the building; the present external decoration dates from a 16th c. Ottoman restoration, but it is thought likely that it originally resembled that of the interior.

  4. The Great Mosque in Damascus had originally been a Roman Temple, dedicated to Jupiter; it was converted to a Christian Basilica by the Emperor Theodosius in the 4th century, and was reconverted as a Mosque by the Umayyad Caliph Al-Walid between 706-714 CE.

  5. It is very possible that the mosaicists, for instance, were brought from Constantinople.

  6. Interestingly, the rise of Islam was coincident with the Iconoclast period in Byzantium, an internal controversy, against which Islam was able to demonstrate its principled opposition to the use of holy images and relics. In a slightly later period of Umayyad rule, the Caliph Yazid II ‘ordered the destruction in his Empire of all the images and figure’, according to a contemporary Christian historian (see fig.10 for a curious example of this policy)

  7. There is a parallel here with the Islamic determination to avoid many of the rituals of Christian worship.

  8. Caution is required here since it is uncertain how much of the present structure dates from later refurbishment and restoration, but the window grilles analysed by K.A.C. Creswell (in his Early Muslim Architecture) are believed to be original.

  9. A similar sense of artistic exploration is expressed in other, non-religious, Umayyad architecture. The mosaic floors and open-work windows of the famous ‘Desert Palace’ at Khirbat al-Mafjar for instance (see figs. 5 & 16)

  10. In his Formation of Islamic Art, Yale, 1973.