The Evolution of Style

David Wade

One would enquire in vain for the masters who brought this system to its flowering or those who later opened up new ways for its development. This art is totally anonymous and it would contradict the artist’s noblest charge, which was the liberation of the spirit from the transitoriness of worldly ties.

Ernst Kuhnel, The Arabesque
Part of an Illuminated page from a Mamluk Qu’ran; a window onto the infinite.

Consistency and variety

Islamic art has a recognisable aesthetic signature that somehow manages to express itself across an entire range of productions. The ‘language’ of this art, once established, was readily assimilated by each of the different nations and ethnicities that were brought within the Islamic sphere. Assimilated and built upon, because every region, at every period, produced its own versions of this super-national style.

This extraordinary consistency of styles and artistic preferences in the Islamic world clearly derive from a deeper, social consistency. All Muslims hold to the same basic system of belief, all are familiar with the customary religious observations, and all – despite national and ethnic differences and rivalries – felt themselves to be Muslim first and foremost. This strong sense of identity and continuity tended towards a high degree of social, and artistic, conservatism. As a result, many forms and artistic concepts remained unchanged over the centuries - on the other hand, Islamic art has constantly demonstrated its capacity for the creative reinterpretation of accepted forms.

Much of the art of Islam, whether in architecture, ceramics, textiles or books, is the art of decoration – which is to say, of transformation. The aim, however, is never merely to ornament, but rather to transfigure. Essentially, this is a reflection of the Islamic preoccupation with the transitory nature of being. Substantial structures and objects are made to appear less substantial, materials are de-materialised. The vast edifices of mosques are transformed into lightness and pattern; the decorated pages of a Qur’an can become windows onto the infinite. Perhaps most importantly, the Word, expressed in endless calligraphic variations, always conveys the impression that it is more enduring than the objects on which it is inscribed.

Symmetry and geometry

Another familiar characteristic of this art, which must also express something fundamental to the Islamic spirit, is its predilection for orderly, symmetrical arrangements in general and for purely geometrical decorative forms in particular. The influence of both religious and philosophical ideas on this aspect of Islamic art were examined earlier (in Background Notes #2 - The Religious Dimension & #3 - The Philosophical and Religious Dimension respectively), but the abstract, ideational nature of symmetry and geometry clearly fit with the Islamic taste for idealistic otherworldliness.

From a purely doctrinal viewpoint, geometrical designs, being free of any symbolic meaning (which is the case in Islamic art), could convey a general aura of spirituality without offending religious sensibilities. In addition, the purity and orderliness of patterns and symmetries could evoke a sense of transcendent beauty which, at best, would free and stimulate the intellect (rather than trap it in the illusions of mere representation).

There is a certain disregard for scale in Islamic art that derives from this perception. Similar kinds of patterning, for instance, might be found on a huge tile panel or on a bijou ornament. This is because decorative effects, in an Islamic context, are never mere embellishments, but always refer to other, idealised states of being. In this view, scale is almost irrelevant. For similar reasons Islamic ornemanistes usually opted for a-centric arrangements in patterning, avoiding obvious focal points – a preference that resonates with the Islamic perception of the Absolute as an influence that is not ‘centred’ in a divine manifestation (as in Christianity), but whose presence is an even and pervasive force throughout the Creation. A further analogy can be drawn between the patiently created repeats of the ‘infinite’ pattern (in all its varieties), and the familiar and unvarying customs of Moslem religious observances. In an Islamic context repetition is not tedious; on the contrary, it connects to the world of the spirit.

Whether in a religious setting or not, the work of Muslim artist/craftsmen always manages to convey a certain integrity, even nobility. In fact the distinction between art and craft-work is largely irrelevant in the Islamic world, but even when their works demonstrated surpassing skill and inspiration, the practitioners tended to remain anonymous. This is not surprising; in a culture whose ideal was submission to the will of Allah, it was quite natural to submit creative individuality to a perceived higher notion of beauty.

Earlier Islamic Art

Façade of the Umayyad castle of al-Mushatta
Façade of the Umayyad castle of al-Mushatta (detail of carved stone-work). The rich variety of floral and animal forms derive from both classical and oriental sources.

It was seen earlier (in Background Note #1 - The Historical Setting) that the Umayyad’s were the first dynasty to rule the newly-established Islamic Empire (from the mid 7th- mid 8th centuries; 41-132 AH). During this early period, which was marked by conquest and consolidation, such art and architecture that was commissioned drew on pre-Islamic traditions (primarily those of Christian Byzantine and Sassanian Persia). Even so, there are clear signs of the emergence of Islamic aesthetic priorities. The main elements of decoration at this time derive from late-classical traditions of stone-carving, floor- and wall-mosaic and wall-painting, but plaster decoration, introduced from the Hellenised East, is also used.

Umayadd Mosque window grill
This window-grill from the Umayyad Mosque, Damascus shows a direct continuation of the Syro-Roman tradition.
Mosaic decoration from the Umayyad Mosque
Mosaic decoration from the Umayyad Mosque, Damascus. This also shows an unbroken continuation of late-classical, Byzantine tradition of sacred architectural decoration, but the subject-matter, of a paradise landscape, is decidedly Islamic.

Baghdad, Samarra and Political Fragmentation; 8th - 10th Centuries

The replacement of the Umayyad dynasty by the Abbasid (in 750 CE / 132 AH) saw the removal of the capital eastwards to Baghdad, and later to Samarra. These two great cities were enormously important for the development of Islamic art and culture but, sadly, little has survived of either from the early period. From the fragments of architectural decoration that have been recovered there appears to have been a steady move away from naturalistic treatments, towards more abstract and repetitive forms. The long-established eastern traditions of plaster- and brick-work were adopted as the principle architectural materials in the Islamic East, and were to remain so for the following centuries.

By the early 9th/3rd century, Turks from Central Asia become an ever more dominant political force, and from this time on their tastes exerted a strong influence on Islamic art generally. At the political level, these incursions meant that the Islamic Empire began to fragment into rival factions, with local dynasties establishing themselves in various regions. Islamic art in these turbulent 9th-10th centuries (3rd-4th AH), is represented by local styles, usually based on older precedents, but always bearing the imprint of Islamic tastes and limitations.

Door panel
Door panel, Egypt
Stucco panel from Samarra
Wooden frieze
Wooden frieze, Egypt 9th/3rd century
Stucco decoration
Stucco decoration, Ibn Tulun Mosque, Egypt 9th/3rd century
Ceramic bowl with decoration from Nishapur, Iran 10th/4th century
Stucco decoration
Stucco decoration in mosque at Nayin, 10th/4th century
Decorative brickwork
Decorative brickwork, Mausoleum of the Samanids, early 10th/4th century

Stylistic Maturity - 11th - 12th centuries

As indicated above, the Abbasid Caliphate began to lose political power, and it’s Empire to fragment, at the turn of the 10th/4th century. The most serious consequences of this political turmoil, for Islamic culture as a whole, were the accompanying religious controversies and multiplicity of doctrines. In time, in a reverse of the status quo of earlier centuries, Shi’ism became the dominant creed among the various secessionist dynasties, and for a period this interpretation looked set to dominate the Islamic world. But early in the 11thcentury there began a Sunni revival, which had both religious and cultural aspects. This movement, which saw itself as a restoration of traditionalism, was accompanied by an artistic revival that established many of the enduring forms of Islamic art and architecture – in particular, its canon of decorative art.

The Sunni revival, which began in Baghdad, gradually spread through the Islamic world. As it did so, it became associated with a range of new artistic and architectural forms, which became an identifying mark, a sort of symbolic language. These new stylistic terms were adopted by the Ghaznavids in Khorasan, the Seljuks in Iran, the Zangids in Northern Syria, and the Ayyubids in Egypt. The ‘classic’ style of Islamic ornament which used distinctive epigraphic, geometric and abstract vegetal elements first came to maturity during this period. This decorative canon was eventually taken up in every part of the Islamic world.

For more on the Sunni Revival see the authors Gülru Necipoglu and Yasser Tabbaa in Bibliography.

The three elements of the Islamic decorative canon began to appear as early as the Umayyad period, but they crystallised into their classic forms during the ‘Sunni Revival’

The Islamic Decorative Canon
The Islamic Decorative Canon

Calligraphy gives a visible form to the revealed word of the Qur’an and is therefore considered the most noble of the arts. It manages to combine a geometric discipline with a dynamic rhythm. Interestingly, none of its many styles, created in different places at different periods, has ever completely fallen into disuse. In the Islamic world it takes the place of iconography, being widely used in the decorative schemes of buildings

Geometric patterns have always had a particular appeal to Muslim designers and craftsmen. They convey a certain aura of spirituality, or at least otherworldliness, without relating to any specific doctrine. In an Islamic context they are also quite free of any symbolic meaning. Above all they provide craftsmen with the opportunity to demonstrate his skill and subtlety of workmanship, and often to dazzle and intrigue with its sheer complexity

Vegetal ‘Arabesque’ compositions are as ubiquitous in Islamic decoration as geometric patterns. It is difficult, without other indications, to determine where or when a particular composition of this genre might have originated. Like geometrical designs, these too are found across the entire range of mediums from book illustration to plasterwork; in ceramics, woodwork, metalwork and ivory-carving, even in carpets and textiles

The Craft Group

As indicated earlier, there was no distinction between ‘art’ and ‘craft’ in the medieval Islamic world, just as there was no sharp division between notions of beauty and utility. The idea of the brilliant, lone individual artist was also absent. These are modern concepts. In fact, architectural and artistic productions generally tended to be the work of groups of anonymous craftsmen, whose occupations were usually hereditary and based within guilds or similar craft-groups. However, given that the subject area of ‘the decorative arts of Islam’ has such an extensive geographical and historical reach, and involved a great variety of craft skills, generalisations of any kind about this broad subject may be misleading. Among such a diverse range of artistic traditions there were bound to be huge variations in working practices, social status, and indeed of expressive intent, in so many and varied creative processes.

As I’ve indicated, by comparison with life in the modern world, medieval Islamic society was highly conservative. We can imagine that working practices, just like the designs and motifs that were used, often persisted for generations with little change. There was no formal training; skills were acquired in the workshops, and were often handed down from father to son. The apprentice/master relationship was usually regularised however, and there is evidence that craft-groups were formed into guilds (which had similarities with the trade-guilds of medieval Europe). It seems also to have been the case that some of these guilds (in some periods at least) were affiliated to religious groups. Details of this kind are naturally difficult to uncover, as they tended to be bound up with the mystique and protectiveness of what were essentially closed professions. It is of more than passing interest though, that these religious connections were usually associated with Sufi fraternities, whose mystical outlook had been imbued with Neoplatonic concepts.

The production of specialised goods, and the particular skills involved, were often localised, but these skills often took artisans far away from their home. Occasionally these movements were less than voluntary. In the turmoil of war craft-skills were generally prized as a form of booty and artisans could be carted off to the victor’s base, sometimes en masse. Since the ruling power was usually the greatest patron of arts and architecture, it often happened that new artistic movements were initiated in this way. The dynasty founded by Timurlane was perhaps the most famous example of this effect. It occasionally happened that skilled craftsmen were welcomed as refugees after fleeing invasions and wars. The relative security of Fatimid Egypt attracted many mid-eastern artisans during the turbulent 11th/12th centuries, much to the cultural benefit of Cairo.

The transfer of skills and knowledge as a result of migrations and conquest is of course a time-honoured process. Huge numbers of skilled artisans from various traditions were brought into the Islamic fold as a result of the early conquests, and in the course of time these skills became part of the background of Islamic culture. But there was one craft technology in particular that was acquired in this way that had a profound effect on the course of Islamic civilisation on many levels (including the visual arts). This was the manufacture of paper.

The role of Paper in Islamic Art and Architecture

Paper was a Chinese invention that had spread to Central Asia and Khurasan prior to the Islamic conquests of those regions. As soon as Islamic rule had been established in this eastern end of the Empire the usefulness of this product for bureaucratic and military purposes must have become obvious. The precise history of the uptake of this invention is somewhat hazy, but what is quite certain is that the relative cheapness and ease of production of paper ensured its rapid spread throughout the Islamic world during the 9th and 10thcenturies (3rd/4th AH) –  and that it transformed societies wherever it appeared. Paper was soon pressed into service by the Baghdad Caliphate, where it greatly facilitated their centralised rule, and Baghdad itself became one of many important centres of paper-making.

As paper became available throughout the Islamic world it was gradually adopted by artists and craftsmen. This usage began, naturally enough, among visual artists of higher status, calligraphers and those involved in the ‘arts of the book’. The use of paper was slower among craftsmen at a lower social position (woodworkers, stonemasons, weavers etc,), partly because of the conservatism of their working practices, but also for cost reasons. As it became cheaper and more widely available however, paper became a standard tool in most crafts, and in the process it effected a transformation of the visual arts of Islam.

In essence, the adoption of paper into craft-based work-practices introduced a certain separation of the design process from that of manufacture. This was bound to lead to a greater degree of organisation in design right across the board, from architecture through to the humbler crafts of pottery and weaving. Later this separation of design and making gave rise to a stylistic ‘centralisation’, such as that exercised by the many Royal studios and workshops that were maintained by the Royal courts. Many dynastic styles were established and maintained in this way.

Paper was a common commodity in the Islamic world as early as the 12th century (6thAH) and was already being used by various (usually high-status) artisans to produce preliminary drawings for their work. In the following centuries the use of paper designs was gradually adopted as normal practice. This development undoubtedly fostered stylistic consistency across different mediums and promoted a common currency of style. There are many examples of close similarities between decorative motifs in architecture, book illumination and craft objects.

These is some evidence that the sort of complex patterning and arabesques that are such a characteristic feature of Islamic art first appeared as decorative elements of books (as did calligraphy, of course). As the ‘arts of the book’ enjoyed the highest status among crafts it seems very likely that these designs would have gradually filtered down to other mediums. It is also clear that once pattern-books and albums of design motifs came into being their repertoire could be applied to a whole range of artefacts, in different settings and at different scales. Designs could be copied, improved upon and, most importantly, they could travel.

It would certainly appear that there was, for centuries, a broad awareness and appreciation of the aesthetic aspects of ornament and a lively interaction between different crafts. The stylistic homogeneity of Islamic art referred to at the beginning of this note may have its foundations in Islamic cultural homogeneity, but its primary medium of transmission was paper.

For the impact of paper on the Islamic world see Jonathan M Bloom in Bibliogaphy.