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What are the characteristics of Islamic art?

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Artistic traditions developed in diverse ways as Islam spread around the world, beginning in the seventh century. The characteristics of Islamic art vary considerably in different parts of the world and at different times. Several places and periods are especially significant in the development of distinctive styles. Some of the distinguishing characteristics that arose in the past are still maintained today, while others are associated only with those historical periods.

One primary characteristic of Islamic art is the avoidance of depicting living figures, especially human figures, as such depiction was considered idolatry. As such, geometric patterning and stylized naturalistic patterning tends to dominate. This tendency away from representation depends in part on the purpose of the objects of art—whether sacred or secular—and again varies depending on place and time.

Art in all media forms is well developed in Islamic cultures, again with significant variations by place and time. Spectacular examples of Islamic architecture, for example, are associated with the Muslim (Moorish) domination of Spain in the 8th through 15th centuries. The Alhambra complex and the Mosque at Córdoba (later a cathedral) are notable examples.

The text and decoration in the Qur’an is an area where extravagant lavish geometric decoration can be observed. During the Ottoman Empire (centered in Turkey), in particular, extravagant Qur’ans were produced, using polychrome inks and gold.

In the field of decorative arts, Islamic silks of the Safavid period are considered the pinnacle of weaving in Persia (contemporary Iran). These elaborate textiles, often in sumptuous velvets, frequently feature human and animal figures.