Early Islamic Art: The Emergence of an Islamic Aesthetic Sensibility

May 2022

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. 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 center of administration (661 CE). 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 aristocracy. 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.

It is not surprising then that the earliest important Islamic architectural projects, notably the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem and the Great Mosque in Damascus, 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 Christian. 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 (Al-Khalili, 2010; Freely, 2009; Kennedy, 2005).

One of the most striking features of both of the monuments mentioned above is their use of large areas of finely detailed wall mosaics. 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 15 years after the Dome of the Rock, are somewhat more representational and include exotic buildings among resplendent gardens, with flowing rivers and graceful trees. 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.

The impression that is conveyed by this art and architecture is, however, distinctly spiritual, essentially that of an orderly otherworldliness. This sense of repose is achieved by the use of architectural and decorative symmetries which, pointedly, are not reliant on overt symbols of any kind. 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. 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 distinctive 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 interesting architectural details, again based on earlier forms, that appear to reflect the new Islamic sensibilities, the window grills of the Great Mosque of Damascus, for example (Fig. 2). 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 derive. Oleg Grabar 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 by the use of symmetrical arrangements (Grabar, 1973).