Early Islamic Art
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Early Islamic Period: History

 

Islam arose in the early seventh century under the leadership of the prophet Muhammad. (In Arabic the word Islam means "submission" [to God].) It is the youngest of the world’s three great monotheistic religions and follows in the prophetic tradition of Judaism and Christianity. In fact, Muhammad is considered by Muslims to be the last in the line of Old and New Testament prophets. He is neither a divinity nor a figure of worship, but is called simply Prophet or Messenger of God.

Muhammad (c. 570–632) was born in Mecca, in western Arabia, where he first began to receive the divine revelation and to preach a message of one god around the year 610. According to Muslim belief, the word of God was disclosed to Muhammad through the intermediary of the archangel Gabriel, who commanded him to "Recite! In the name of thy lord." These revelations were subsequently collected and codified as the Muslim holy book, the Qur’an, which means "recitation" in Arabic, the language of the Prophet and the Qur'an.

Muhammad’s message proclaiming a new religious and social order based on allegiance to one god, Allah, was unpopular among the leaders of Mecca, whose prosperity and influence were tied to their guardianship of the Kacba, a polytheistic sanctuary and place of pilgrimage. In 622 Muhammad and his followers were compelled to leave Mecca, traveling north to the oasis town of Medina. The Prophet’s departure from Mecca is known as the hijra, or emigration; the date of this event marks the beginning of the Muslim calendar. In Medina, Muhammad continued to gather support, and within a few years Mecca, too, had submitted to Islam. Upon his return to Mecca, one of the Prophet’s first acts was to cleanse the Kacba of its idols and to rededicate the shrine to Allah.

While Islam incorporates certain ideas from Judaism and Christianity, such as their prophetic tradition, it has its own tenets and system of beliefs. There are five religious duties incumbent upon all Muslims, which are often referred to as the Five Pillars: first and foremost is the profession of faith: there is no God but Allah; Muhammad is the messenger of Allah. The second duty is prayer, five times a day: at dawn, midday, afternoon, evening, and night. The third obligation is charity to the poor in the form of an alms tax. The fourth duty is fasting from sunrise until sundown during Ramadan, the ninth month of the Muslim calendar. The fifth obligation is, if at all possible, to undertake the pilgrimage, or hajj, to Mecca and the Kacba.

The Qur’an is the cornerstone of Muslim faith, practice, and law. It provides guidelines for social welfare, family and inheritance laws, and proper behavior within the framework of a just and equitable society. The Qur’an does not speak against the creation of figural images, only the making of idols. Restrictions on figurative arts are, however, found in another body of literature known as Hadith, or "tradition." Hadith includes accounts of the sayings, deeds, and thoughts of the Prophet and is superseded in importance only by the Qur’an.

The house of the Prophet in Medina was the first communal gathering place for prayer, and it served as a prototype for the earliest mosques. In congregation the act of prayer, which is intended to create a sense of unity and cohesion, is led by a prayer leader. The first of these prayer leaders was Muhammad, who served as both spiritual leader and statesman for the earliest Muslim community. After the Prophet’s death, to commemorate the place where he had planted his lance when leading prayers, a niche known as a mihrab was introduced at Medina and, soon thereafter, to all other mosques. The mihrab serves to emphasize the qibla, or direction of prayer, which is toward Mecca. Prayer ritual consists of a series of bows and prostrations, performed facing the qibla, in conjunction with praise to God, recitations from the Qur’an, and formulas of prayer. Only the Friday midday prayer service requires attendance at the mosque; all other daily prayers may be said in private.

Following his death in 632, Muhammad was succeeded by a series of four caliphs (the word caliph comes from the Arabic khalifa, meaning successor). Under the command of these caliphs – known as the Rashidun, or Rightly Guided – Arab armies brought the new faith and administration from Arabia to the shores of the Mediterranean and eastward to Iran. To the west, they won control of Syria, Palestine, and Egypt from Byzantium. To the east, the Muslim forces attacked Iraq and Iran, the heart of the Persian empire, thereby ending the long reign of the Sasanian dynasty. cAli, the last of the Rightly Guided caliphs, was assassinated in 661. His death marks the beginning of the religious and political factionalism that gave rise to the Shicite sect. It also ushered in the rule of the first Islamic dynasty, the Umayyads.

The Umayyads shifted the focal point of political power from Arabia to Syria and launched a new wave of invasions. Their armies conquered North Africa and Spain and, to the east, penetrated Central Asia and India. The Islamic empire now extended from the Atlantic Ocean to the Indus River, with Damascus as its capital, Arabic its official language, and Islam its principal religion. Within these disparate lands, which were only gradually transformed into a relatively unified empire, a new civilization began to emerge, which would generate a new manner of art.

The Umayyad dynasty was overthrown in 750, following a series of revolts, and the caliphate passed to the Abbasids, who shifted the focus of politics and culture eastward from Syria to Iraq. There, in 762, they founded Baghdad as the new capital of the Islamic state. The first three centuries of Abbasid rule are often described as a golden age in which literature, philosophy, theology, mathematics, and the natural sciences flowered, nourished by the encounter of Arab thought and culture with Greco-Roman, Byzantine, Persian, and Indian traditions. This was also a critical period for the evolution of Islamic art, one in which a distinctive style and new techniques were introduced and disseminated throughout the empire.

By the mid-ninth century Abbasid political unity had begun to crumble, and by the tenth century Abbasid authority was effectively limited to Iraq. Elsewhere in the Islamic world a series of dynasties in Egypt, North Africa, Spain, and Iran fostered the development of indigenous styles of Islamic art.

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Image in top banner:
Plaque with King on Horseback, Iran, probably Chal Tarkhan-Ishqabad, late 7th–8th century; stucco, decoration molded in relief; 15 x 12 x 1 1/2 in. (38.1 x 30.48 x 3.81 cm); Gift of Nasli M. Heeramaneck, M.76.174.250


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Text by Linda Komaroff, PhD, curator of Islamic art.
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