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Mon 11 December 2017

History of Islamic Art
Art and Craft
Islamic Patterns & Geometry

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  • Introduction

LampIn contrast to Western art, in which painting and sculpture are pre-eminent, it is in the so-called decorative arts that Islamic art found its primary means of expression. Through the diversity of the Islamic Empire, which linked together, for the first time in history, such varied and distant peoples as Spaniards, Africans, Persians, Turks, Egyptians and Indians, a quick dissemination of knowledge and artistic merging arose. In ceramics, as in other craft arts, such as metal and wood work as well as work in cloth, the resources which had been developed by designers throughout the region, from Coptic plaster-workers and weavers in Egypt to silversmiths in Iran, were brought together in a new art with its own traits. While Arab nomadic culture lacked a grand imperial art, aesthetics tastes contributed essential elements to Islamic art. Nomads treasured the minor arts of textiles and weapons, and lavished them with geometrical decoration which was to have a lasting impact on Islamic art.

Wood carvings with floral motifs, used in the houses of nobleties as decorationsIn metalwork, Muslim artisans crafted elaborate boxes, basins, bowls, jugs and incense burners decorated with arabesques, inscriptions, and other highly stylised plant forms, specialising also in brass and bronze, luxuriously inlaid with gold, silver and copper. In carpet making, the Islamic world is renowned for their great beauty and technical excellence, employing different motifs and favouring certain colour schemes.

Slip-painted bowl from Nishapur, Iran, 10th century. A hunting scene with a distant echo of Sassanian majesty.Similarly in ceramics, they succeeded in developing many original decorative techniques in lustre ware and tile making which were unsurpassed. During Parthian and Sasanian times, the ceramic arts had been little patronised by the wealthy, especially east of Iraq. Even in villages, the pottery remained undistinguished as compared with that of earlier centuries. But for the first time, under Islamic Abbasid rule, porcelains imported from China (in its expansive Tang period) inspired a distinct revival of ceramic art. The porcelain imports could not be duplicated, but ways were found to imitate its whiteness. They succeeded in developing many original decorative techniques including lustre ware and a method of polychrome painted ware called Minai. These same decorative techniques were utilized in tile making, in which Muslims were unsurpassed.Whether produced in a courtly or an urban setting or for a religious context, Islamic art is generally the work of anonymous artists. A notable exception is in the sphere of the arts of the book. The names of certain calligraphers are well known, which is not surprising given the primacy of the written word in Islam, as are those of a number of painters, most of whom were attached to a particular court. The identification of these artists has been based on signed or attributed examples of their works and on textual references. Given the great number of extant examples, comparatively few signatures are found on metalwork, pottery, carved wood and stone, and textiles.

Those signatures that do occur, combined with rare evidence from contemporary textual sources, suggest that families of artists, often over several generations, specialized in a particular medium or technique.Often time the artist was an artisan whose stock of patterns and technical skills were handed down from generation to generation within specialised families. Learning the techniques, the firing or glazing of the pottery, the weaving of the cloth etc., and learning the particular shapes and designs to be used, formed a single process in training the young.

  • The inner wisdom of craft

"He who knows himself, knows His Lord"
(Saying of the Prophet, pbuh)

The least artisanal work, such as woodwork, pottery, weaving, and so forth includes, beyond its material technique, a certain transmitted science, sometimes reduced to some very simple rules but always bearing an aspect of wisdom, which the artisan will more or less penetrate, according to the degree of his contemplative intelligence and his experience.

Slip painted glazed dish from Nishapur,Iran 10th century. The Kufic script on the border transcribes the following saying "The beginning of knowledge is bitter to taste, but the end is sweeter than honey. Peace be (to the owner)".It has been said that work with ones hands allows one to know oneself. In this way, manual art can be a means through which man is better able to contemplate on his Lord. Not only by recognising the bounty of materials that God has provided him/her with, but also, more importantly through recognition of ones own capabilities and limitations as an artisan, when comparing his work to the Greatest of Crafters.

From an Islamic perspective art consists in fashioning objects in a manner conformable to their nature, for that nature has a virtual content of beauty, since it comes from God; all one has to do is release that beauty in order to make it apparent. According to the most general Islamic conception, art is no more than a method of ennobling matter. And since there is no better action than the remembrance of God, according to the sayings of the Prophet (pbuh), a craft can be good only to the degree to which it aids in this remembrance, directly or indirectly.

Just as knowledge of Qur'an and hadith, according to traditional Islamic teaching, needs to be passed down through an unbroken golden chain from teacher to student leading back to the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). Similarly this wisdom and baraka (spiritual blessing) is recognised and permeates many aspects of the conscientious Muslim's life even in the domain of craftsmanship. This is best encapsulated by the following account found in Titus Burckhardt's in his book "Fez: City of Islam"

"I knew a comb-maker who worked in the street of his guild, called Abd al-Aziz (slave of the Almighty). He obtained the horn for his combs from ox skulls, which he bought from butchers. He dried the horn skulls at a rented place, removed the horns, opened them lengthwise, and straightened them over a fire, a procedure that had to be done with greatest care, lest they should break. From this raw material he cut combs and turned boxes for antimony (used as an eye decoration) on a simple lathe; this he did by manipulating with his left hand a bow which, wrapped around a spindle, caused the apparatus to rotate. In his right hand he held the knife, and with his foot he pushed against the counter-weight. As he worked he would sing the Koranic suras in a humming tone.
I learned that as a result of an eye disease which is common in Africa, he was already half blind and that, in view of long practice, he was able to 'feel' his work rather than see it. One day he complained to me that the importation of plastic combs was diminishing his business: 'It is not only a pity that today, solely on account of price, poor quality combs from a factory are being preferred to much more durable horn combs,' he said; 'it is also senseless that people should stand by a machine and mindlessly repeat the same movement, while an old craft like mine falls into oblivion. My work may seem crude to you; but it harbours a subtle meaning which cannot be explained in words. I myself acquired it only after many long years, and even if I wanted to, I could not automatically pass it on to my son, if he himself did not wish to acquire it-and I think he would rather take up another occupation. This craft can be traced back from apprentice to master until one reaches our Lord Seth, the son of Adam. It was he who first taught it to man, and what a Prophet brings-for Seth was a Prophet-must clearly have a special purpose-both outwardly and inwardly. I gradually came to understand that there is nothing fortuitous about this craft, that each movement and each procedure is a bearer of an element of wisdom. But not everyone can understand this. But even if one does not know this, it is still stupid and reprehensible to rob men of the inheritance of Prophets, and to put them in front of a machine where, day in and day out, they must perform a meaningless task."

  • The Role of futuwwah in Craftsmanship

In light of Islamic history, the role of futuwwah in craftsmanship guilds cannot go unmentioned. With the expansion of the Islamic Empire and increasing urbanisation, craftsmen were often organised into guilds, which normally formed military contingents charged with the defence of the city. These guilds were often initiatic in nature and were permeated by the ideals held among the medieval brotherhoods of futuwwah.

The term futuwwah is derived from fata or youth and is used in the Qur'an concerning Abraham (pbuh) after he broke the idols of the idol worshippers in an attempt to convince them of their powerlessness and thus the futility in worshipping them: "So he broke them to pieces, (all) but the biggest of them, that they might turn (and address themselves) to it. They said, who has done this to our gods? He must be indeed some man of impiety! They said: We heard a youth (fata) make mention of them, who is called Abraham" <Qur'an Al-Anbiyaa 21:58-60>

Thus the fata is he who breaks an idol, and the idol of each man is his ego. Futuwwah being, on the highest level, the art by means of which we become ourselves and gain full awareness of our primordial nature. This is essentially subservience to God in recognising and acknowledging the covenant made between God and man when, according to the Qur'an, God asked man: "Am I not your Lord?" and man replies "Yea!"
<Qur'an A'raf 7:172>

A cloth decorated with 99 names of God.This could perhaps explain to an extent the anonymity of much of Islamic art and in particular the arts related to craft, as was mentioned earlier. In this way the artisan in recognising his skill, sees it only as a gift from God, rather than an intrinsic characteristic that somehow classes him above others, and thus uses his craft as a means not only to glorify is Creator but also to share that awareness with others who come across his craft.

Futuwwah became the spirit and guiding principle of many guilds in Persia, Anatolia, Syria, and other regions of the Islamic world. Through it, the activities of the artisan were integrated into the religious life, and the outward activity of craftsmen became the support for the "inner work." By penetrating the everyday activities of Islamic society, art became integrated into the spiritual dimension of Islam, not only theoretically but also in practice, transforming the soul of those who in turn transformed and ennobled matter in that universal activity which is art in its traditional sense.

In one of the most famous episodes in the Mathnawi, Rumi has summarised in immortal Persian poetry what lies at the heart of futuwwah, namely selfless generosity, courage, and detached action combined with sincerity (iklhas) and dedication to God. The account involves the battle between 'Ali (RA) and a warrior who had engaged him upon a battlefield:

"Learn how to act sincerely [ikhlas] from 'Ali:
know the Lion of God ('Ali) was purged of (all) deceit.
In fighting against the infidels he got the upper hand of (vanquished)
a certain knight, and quickly drew a sword and made haste (to slay him).
He spat on the face of 'Ali, the pride of every prophet and every saint;
He spat on the countenance before which the face of the moon
bows low in the place of worship.
'Ali at once threw his sword away and relaxed (his efforts) in fighting him.
That champion was astounded by this act and by his showing
forgiveness and mercy without occasion.
He said, "You lifted your keen sword against me:
why have you flung it aside and spared me?
What did you see that was better than combat with me,
so that you have become slack in hunting me down?
What did you see, so that such anger as your abated,
and so that such a lightning flashed and (then) recoiled?……….
He ['Ali] said, "I am wielding the sword for God's sake,
I am the servant of God, I am not under the command of the body.
I am the Lion of God, I am not the Lion of Passion:
my deed bears witness to my religion…..
I have removed the baggage of self out of the way,
I have deemed (what is) other than God to be non-existence."

History of Islamic Art



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