Tile panel with picnic scene (detail), Iran (Safavid), Isfahan
17th century, fritware with colored glazes
104 x 221.5 x 8 cm (40 15/16 x 87 3/16 x 3 1/8)
© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

~What is Islamic Art?

Islamic art is a term that can be understood in several ways, all of which are equally valid: each simply emphasizes different features of an enormous body of material. Some definitions concentrate on the religious aspects of this art, giving pride of place to mosque architecture and calligraphy, especially that found in manuscripts of the Holy Qur'an. Palace and Mosque takes a broader view of the subject, treating Islamic art as the product of a culture in which not everyone was Muslim but in which Islam played a dominant role. It therefore encompasses all the art produced in the Muslim-ruled states of the Middle East and beyond, no matter what its particular social context may have been.

The time frame of Islamic art is also very broad, and its beginning and end are marked by two great events. The first of these was, of course, the rise of Islam in the seventh century A.D., and the simultaneous founding of the first Muslim-ruled state. Thereafter Islamic states succeeded one another in the Middle East until the end of the First World War in 1918, when the Allies occupied much of the defeated Ottoman Empire. This, the second of the two events, was soon followed by the deposition of the last Ottoman sultan in 1922, and the fall of the Qajar dynasty in Iran in 1924. Most of the new regimes that emerged from these changes eschewed Islam as a political system.

Over the course of the long Islamic period, the ruling elite of caliphs, emirs, shahs, sultans and viziers set the style in every aspect of civilized life, including artistic production. Their ability to mould the character of Islamic art was all the greater in the absence of a priesthood, for which there is no real equivalent in Islam. It is for this reason that Islamic art reflects a sophisticated court milieu, where such apparently un-Islamic activities as astrology, dancing to music, and drinking wine took place. Nor were the people who commissioned, designed and made this art all Muslims, since most Islamic states had significant Christian and other religious minorities who participated in many aspects of Islamic cultural life.

Excerpted from Palace and Mosque, Islamic Art from the Middle East, by Tim Stanley with Mariam Rosser-Owen and Stephen Vernoit, published worldwide by V&A Publications, ISBN 185177 430 0. The book is distributed in hardcover in North America by Harry N. Abrams Inc, ISBN 0-8109-6562-3.