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Islamic Art and Architecture

By Levi Clancy for Student Reader on

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Nascent Era

Islamic buildings of the four Orthodox Caliphs and early Umayyads were just straightforward utilitarian communal gathering places without architectural pomp.

These were either congregational mosques such as at Kufa (c 638), Basra (c 638) and Fustats (642) or dur imara government houses such as at Kufa (c 638) and Damascus (after 644).

The second generation of Muslim governors were concerned with aesthetic and may have had a nascent Islamic style, but their architecture was still functional and simple.

A Byzantine envoy to Damascus remarked about the government house there that the upper part will do for birds and the lower for rats. This condescending remark prompted Mu'awiya to rebuild it with more durable materials. Mu'awiya's governor in Basra, Ziad bin Abihi, rebuilt the government house there in 665 with baked brick and with stone from ancient sites.

Built in 692, the Dome of the Rock was without precedent.

The fifth Caliph was 'Abd al-Malik bin Marwan (688-703), who ordered construction of the Dome of the Rock in 692. Islamic architecture's short history under the four prior Caliphs had no precedent -- if anything, it was commemorative, not functional, and had a full stylistic, structural and ornamental program.

720 - 1250


Abbasid Style


The Abbasid style emerged in Iraq between 750 and 850, when the Abbasid dynasty was at the height of its power. The Abbasid caliphs constructed huge and lavishly decorated palaces at Baghdad and Samarra and stimulated the production of many forms of luxury art. Under their patronage, art began to move way from its pre-Islamic roots, and the new techniques and more abstract styles adopted at this time had a long-lasting influence on the Islamic art of later centuries.

Spanish Umayyad Style

The Umayyad dynasty seized power in Spain in the 750s and broke away form the Abbasid empire. As a result, a local style of art developed, especially after 929 when a later ruler declared himself caliph. The Umayyads employed many Roman and Byzantine forms, probably to distinguish themselves from their Abbasid rivals, but they shared with the Abbasids the use of Arabic inscriptions and stylized leaf motifs. They died out after 1031, but the Umayyad style remained influential in Spain and Morocco.

Fatimid Style

In 969 the Fatimids conquered Egypt and founded Cairo as their capital. They commissioned many of the luxury arts favored by their Abbasid rivals in Iraq, such as lustre ceramics and carved rock crystals. But Abbasid power had now faded, so it was easy for the Fatimids to outdo them. Their art shows a well-integrated, more clearly 'Islamic' style, without obvious links to the earlier Roman and Iranian art. Fatimid rule ended in 1171.

1250 - 1500


Ilkhanid Style

The Ilkhanid style flourished in Iran. It was formed from three traditions, Chinese, Iranian and Islamic, under rulers descended from the Mongol conqueror Chingiz Khan. Chinese porcelain and silks were imported in large numbers, and local traditions such as lustre tilework flourished. At first, non-royal patrons commissioned the religious art, but once the Ilkhanids themselves became Muslim, in 1295, they too took on this role. The last Ilkhanid ruler died in 1353.

Mamluk Style

The Mamluk style developed in Egypt and Syria after 1250, and it survived there long after the fall of the last Mamluk sultan in 1517. Large, bold inscriptions featured throughout this period, but the human and animal figures became smaller and less common as time passed. The complex geometric patterns and Chinese-style lotus scrolls also appeared in Ilkhanid art, but the use of badges of rank on buildings and objects was unique to Mamluk art.

Nasrid Style

The Nasrid style of around 1300-1450 was the last form of Islamic art to flourish in Spain. Very little art with figurative images is known from this period. Instead, Nasrid art is characterized by the rich decorative schemes found at the Alhambra, the Nasrid palace in Granada, and on a variety of objects. They combine the classic forms of Islamic ornament: linear geometric motifs, abstract plant-based patterns and Arabic calligraphy.

1500 - 1700


Ottoman Style

A distinctive Ottoman style in the decorative arts had developed by the 1550s, when the Ottoman empire was at the height of its power and prosperity. The Ottomans promoted themselves as the defenders of Islam, and this explains why their public art includes a rich variety of ornamental designs but not human figures. Plant- and flower-based patterns were the most common, while calligraphic and linear geometric designs were mostly restricted to architectural decoration. This style flourished until about 1700.

Safavid Style

The Safavid style developed in Iran from 1500, when the country was re-united under the dynasty of this name. Unlike their Ottoman neighbors, the Safavids had no qualms about depicting human beings in all forms of art. These figures became an unusually prominent feature of the Safavid style, but floral scrollwork was also important. When the capital moved to Isfahan about 1600, both underwent a change in style. The Safavid state collapsed in 1722.

1700 - 1900


Late Ottoman Style

After 1700, a new style emerged at the Ottoman court in Istanbul. This Later Ottoman style lived on until the fall of the empire in 1924. Its most noticeable feature is the many elements borrowed from European art. At first, designers simply used Baroque motifs on local, Islamic forms, but from the 1820s their borrowings became more eclectic. This was also a great age of calligraphy, in which a distinctive Ottoman manner developed.

Qajar Style

The Qajar style flourished in Iran from the 1790s until about 1900. The mid 18th century had been a period of instability and isolation in Iran, and early Qajar art was simply based on late Safavid traditions that had survived the chaos. But contact with Europe soon revived, and eventually artists went to study abroad. As a result, alter Qajar art repeats many European conventions, though its forms followed local needs.




A takiya is a place for Sufis, devout Muslims and dancing dervishes to practice religious recitals ("thikir") in a special hall called "sama-khana".

مسجد masjid | Mosque

Friday prayers mean the congregation of nearly all adult men at the مسجد masjid around early afternoon.