Islamic Art: The Past and Modern

Islamic Art: The Past and Modern

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Book Specification

Item Code: IDL203
Author: Nuzhat Kazmi
Publisher: Lustre Press Roli Books
Language: English
Edition: 2009
ISBN: 9788174365002
Pages: 142 (Illustrated Throughout In Full Color)
Cover: Hardcover
Other Details 11.3" X 9.3"

Book Description

From the Jacket

Islamic Art is a product of certain forceful factors that created a cultural milieu which was centred on the religious ethos and intellectual affinities inspired by Islam and its followers. No art can grow in isolation and nor did Islamic art. From its early manifestations to this date, it has taken from other cultural traditions and has also given to different social structures and visual languages of the world.

This book looks at the artistic output of the Islamic civilization through the centuries, from the time of its inception to its interpretations in the contemporary world. The author has brought the inclusive as well as the exclusive qualities of this great tradition of the world with the empathy and seriousness that this unique art demands.

Born in Allahabad, Nuzhat Kazmi graduated from the University of Allahabad and did her masters in Art History from the prestigious M. S. University, Baroda. She did her M. Phil from the University of Delhi, exploring the European and Mughal interaction in representational arts. From 1990 to 1993, she was a Commonwealth scholar at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. She traveled and explored Europe; with its immense art historical institutions and sites, with a passion that has never ceased for her.

Nuzhat Kazmi lives in New Delhi, where she heads the department of Art History and Art Appreciation at the Jamia Millia Islamia University.


The history of art as it developed under Islam is a wondrous phenomenon; the arts reached a level that can be compared to other canonical movements, as significant as the Renaissance. The sonsistency and continuity of the arts in the Islamic milieu produced extraordinary intellectual and aesthetical parameters that continue to engage mankind. The artistic language and its various regional dialectics as encouraged by Islamic culture and civilization produced a vibrant artistic ethos which was both eclectic and disciplined.

Islam means ‘submission’ in Arabic, and as a religion, it signifies complete surrender to the will of Allah; who cannot be seen but is omnipotent and supreme. He cannot be defined but defines everything that a human mind can perceive. Allah is merciful and benevolent – He is born of none and He is beyond time and space. Nothing moves without his knowledge or will. He is the creator who breathes life in what is otherwise a lump of clay.

A Muslim performs prescribed act of worship which significantly and categorically reject idolatry. Image making was continuously equated with idolatry and there could be no sin as grave as icon worship to a believer. There is almost no Islamic religious iconography because icon worship challenges the inherent Islamic belief that there is no god except Allah, who cannot be seen and therefore, cannot be represented. Surprisingly, however, this strong predisposition against icon making has not resulted in a deficiency of the representational in visual arts; rather it has encouraged the formation of new artistic idioms by the Islamic people to express their creative genius. Although representation of the human form was never altogether free of religious prejudice, it was consistently practiced and enjoyed by many as a valid creative indulgence. Some even advocated it as a means of realizing a higher understanding of God and His exclusive creative powers. As early as the 16th century, Mughal Emperor Akbar (1556-1605) is recorded to have said:

There are many that hate painting; but such men I dislike. It appears to me as if a painter had quite peculiar means of recognizing God; for a painter in sketching anything that has life, and in devising its limbs, one after the other, must come to feel that he cannot bestow individuality upon his work, and is thus forced to think of God, the giver of life, and will thus increase in knowledge.’ (Pg. 115, Ain-i-Akbari by Abu’I Fazl, Vol. I).

Akbar was a patron of the arts and with the encouragement given to artists a number of masterpieces were created during his reign. Volumes of Persian poetry and prose were illustrated for the first time, and the result was a large collection of paintings. As Akbar’s chronicler aesthete, Abu’l Fazl observes in Ain-i-Akbari, the detailed document recording the administration of Emperor Akbar’s empire:

‘The story of Hamzah was represented in twelve volumes, and clever painters made the most astonishing illustrations for no less than one thousand and four passages of the story. The Chingiznama, Zafarnama, this book, Razmnama, Ramayana, Nal Daman, Kalilab Damnab, Ayar Danish etc., were all illustrated. His Majesty himself sat for his likeness, and also ordered to have the likenesses taken of all the grandees of the realm. An immense album was thus formed: those that have passed away have received a new life, and those who are still alive have immortality promised them.’

A theory which attempts to explain why we find inhibited representational art from in the Islamic milieu is related to the understanding that Arabia had no art tradition to claim. However, a significant fact which cannot be ignored is that, as its territorial influence expanded, Islam displayed an overpowering capacity to accommodate and transform cultural idioms (visual and otherwise), of the communities that came directly under its control. At the local level, Islam has shown amazing potential to assimilate regional ethos and vocabulary into its growing philosophy. Indeed, it is interesting to note that within Islam too, many diverse opinions were articulated, while the role of the conformist was emphasized, there were non-conventional view points as well; both could and did co-exist. The tension between the two propositions was palpable but skillfully contained; as articulated by the eclecticism of Emperor Akbar when he was confronted by the orthodox position taken by the religious scholars present in his court.

Some of the finest paintings that illustrate the human form and contain narrative content come from the Mughal atelier founded by two Persian masters famous for their rendering of figures and portraiture. Persian painting of the 16th century was heavily influenced by other contemporary art traditions in and around Persia. The Mughals were receptive and accommodative of unconventional artistic vocabulary. They were alert to advantages that they may gain in adapting a visual language that would promote their imperial ambitions. Therefore, the Renaissance representation of the human form appealed to them and they assimilated Renaissance illusionism with diligence and intelligence. They succeeded in developing an art of painting that incorporated a visual language that was representational and powerful, effective in both cultural and political assimilation.

Persia had a rich tradition of painting and when it came under Islamic persuasions, it seems to have grown more brilliant and commanding in its imagery and colours. Many schools of painting grew in and around the region called Persia. This vibrant Islamic Persian painting, in turn, influenced other schools that in due course grew powerful and great. Of special reference are the Mughal, Deccan and Mawarannahr schools of painting and, to an extent, the Pahari and Sikh schools of painting.

In Islam, calligraphy or the art of beautiful handwriting was scientifically developed into a very exquisite art form. A deep reverence for the written word, especially Koranic text, can be seen throughout the Islamic milieu, past and present. To record the word of God as revealed by Him to his last Prophet was an honour. Great effort was made to develop styles to write beautifully and powerfully. Over a period of time, the best of talents united their creative energies to write magnificently. Today we have many systems of writing within the Islamic tradition and each has its own history, repertory and charm. They connect to one another, and sometimes they are even applied together, but each remains a specialized system of calligraphy which demands long practice and appreciation. Calligraphy became the supreme art in the very early years of Islamic culture. It continues to be considered an important art form even today in the contemporary world of Islam. It is practiced not only on paper but can be seen on diverse surfaces that include metal, glass, ceramics, leather, gemstones, textiles, carpets and in architecture, areas of artistic practice which were developed and extended into strong expressions of Islamic society all through its history. Today, we can see these art forms existing and growing so as to accommodate modern aspirations and objectives of the Islamic society. The arts of metal, glass, gemstones, textiles, carpets and architecture hold a prominent place in Islamic culture. Therefore, these remain in contemporary times, areas that are encouraged and developed throughout the Islamic cultural world. In fact agencies like the Agha Khan Foundation have conserved and revived many old historical buildings with Islamic architecture and gardens. Simultaneously, they encourage modern architectural projects to grow and function.

Islam as an expansive and eclectic civilization, as early as the 12th century AD, had acquired a distinctive character and power to set standards of aesthetics and fashion in Europe. As a rich and enlightened culture, it inspired awe and admiration in the far reaches of Europe. This is indeed an indicator of the heights the religion of Islam had scaled inn terms of cultural complexity and intellectual sophistications. It is a well known fact that during the European Renaissance, a period when its classical arts and sciences were re-established with enthusiasm, an intense intellectual and cultural vigour was seen on the rise. What is not very well known is the fact that much of that was generated because of a meaningful contact that Europe established with the Islamic world.

From the Renaissance onwards, it is easy to trace the presence of Islam and its cultural ethos on various art trends that emerged in Europe. Islam succeeded, to a large extent, in dissolving the divide between east and west. The Ottaman Empire succeeded the Byzantium Empire, but nothing of the ingenuity of this western cultural sphere was lost. Perhaps it is better to say that Islam beautifully assimilated and perfected the European classical and liberal arts, and developed them to new dimensions. It remains, to this day, a bridge that transfers elements from two ends of the world and helps create a greater cultural understanding of the two. Artists like the baroque Rembrandt, romantics like Velasquez and Delazroix, and modernists like Henri Matisse; have all been influenced by the material culture, art and cultural philosophy of the Islamic world.

In much of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, there were new standards being proposed and new art institutes were being established which in the Islamic world created an environment and demands that force the creation of drastically radical arts. This perpetuated an art milieu which has never ceased to appreciate novelty and experimentation; both within the old format and beyond. Indeed, when one looks at the arts and artists from this period in the Islamic world, one is amazed at how new wine was able to enrich the old cup.


Introduction 12
The Art of Painting 28
The Art of Calligraphy 26
The Art of Carpet and Textile Weaving 70
Decorative Islamic Arts: Pottery, Ceramics, Glass and Metal 86
The Art of Architecture 106
Islamic Art and the Modern World 122
Major Dynasties 140
Glossary 142

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