Postscript B: Islamic Geometricism and the ‘Sunni Revival’ Thesis

David Wade

Detail of wooden Minbar from the Mosque of Sayyida Nafisa, Cairo
Fig. 25 Detail of wooden Minbar from the Mosque of Sayyida Nafisa, Cairo

It has been argued by some scholars that the strongly geometric themes in Islamic decorative art are intimately connected with the cultural changes characterised by the period of the ‘Sunni Revival’1. This term is used to designate the broad religio/political movement that actively sought to abolish the Shi‘ite hegemony that existed in most of the former Abbasid lands by the end of the 10th CE/4th AH centuries. This movement, which sponsored and fostered a renaissance in Sunni theology and jurisprudence, culminated with the ascendancy of the Great Seljuqs (1038-1194), a Turkish, Sunni dynasty that went on to rule the Iranian world (including Khurasan and Transoxania), Iraq, Syria, and parts of Anatolia.

Yasser Tabbaa, a professor at the University of Michigan has put forward a case that the transformations in Islamic architecture and ornament that occurred during this period reflected and embodied the conflict between the Abbasid and Fatimid dynasties, and that many of the forms of decorative art which are now found throughout the Islamic world, began as a sort of ‘house-style’ of this Sunni resurgence – where they were a more or less conscious attempt at self-definition. Gülru Necipoglu, in her The Topkapi Scroll, has put forward similar proposals; as part of her thesis she asserts that neither the Umayyads or the Fatimids used geometric interlacing patterns, which she believes were developed in Baghdad and had specifically Sunni associations. Other scholars have expressed difficulties with these suggestions…

Drawing of the Minbar from Tus Mosque; from Prisse D’Avennes
Fig. 26 Drawing of the Minbar from Tus Mosque; from Prisse D’Avennes

To take just three examples - According to Jonathan Bloom the taste for pure arabesque and geometry reigned supreme by the later Fatimid (Shi’ite) period, as it did everywhere else in the Islamic lands2. He is also confident that these motifs and modes of decoration had no doctrinal associations. Similarly, Terry Allen writes that there is no evidence to support the claim that geometric designs were somehow understood to be ‘emblematic’ of the Abbasid Caliphate and Sunnism3. And Sheila Blair has declared that in her view the canonisation of round scripts and geometry had nothing to do with religious sectarianism in the 10th century4. (see figs. 25-27 for three, among many, images of Fatimid geometricism coupled with floriated arabesque).

The Cenotaph of al-Husayn, Cairo
Fig. 27 The Cenotaph of al-Husayn, Cairo

The fact is that by the 10th/4th century geometric patterns, floriated arabesques and calligraphy were established features of the repertoire of Islamic art, and that this decorative canon had developed and persisted through all the fractious differences in the formulation of Islamic doctrine. ‘Sunni Revival’ or not, these forms were well into the process of becoming an international Islamic style. The particular art-historical problems concerning the mapping of the development of this style are complicated to an impossible degree by the lack of archaeological evidence of this period resulting from the disaster of the Mongol invasions (referred to above), during which enormous swathes of Abbasid art and architecture was destroyed. But there will always be more general difficulties in entering the mind-set of the artist/craftsmen/architects that actually produced the work of centuries past. Styles that resonate with cultural attitudes or weltanschauung invariably spring into being from below rather than as a calculated imposition from above – and the ‘intentionality’ of those who produced these designs throughout the Islamic world will always remain largely inaccessible. Who knows what they all actually had in mind? In the final analysis it is the work itself that counts.

  1. Notably, Gülru Necipoglu in her The Topkapi Scroll - Geometry and Ornament in Islamic Architecture; Getty; 1995; and Yasser Tabbaa in his The Transformation of Islamic Art during the Sunni Revival; University of Washington Press; 2001.

  2. Arts of the City Victorious by Jonathan Bloom; Yale; 2007.

  3. Islamic Art and the Argument from Academic Geometry by Terry Allen; Solipsist Press; 2004.

  4. Islamic Calligraphy; Edinburgh University Press; 2006.