Islamic art is perhaps the most accessible expression of a complex civilization that often seems enigmatic to outsiders. Through its brilliant use of color and its superb balance between design and form, Islamic art creates an immediate visual impact. Its strong aesthetic appeal transcends distances in time and space, as well as differences in language, culture, and creed. Islamic art not only invites a closer look but also beckons the viewer to learn more. For an American audience a visit to the Islamic galleries of a museum such as the Los Angeles County Museum of Art can represent the first step toward penetrating the history of a religion and a culture that are often in the news but are little understood.

This website is conceived as a companion to the Islamic galleries at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Intended as a general introduction to Islamic art, it draws upon examples from the museum’s comprehensive collection, which includes works from an area extending from southern Spain to Central Asia, ranging in date from the seventh century up to the present day. The text is designed for readers who seek to go beyond the obvious surface beauty of Islamic art to discover the rich historical and cultural traditions from which this art emerged.

The term Islamic art may be confusing to some. It not only describes the art created specifically in the service of Islam, but it also characterizes secular art produced in lands under Islamic rule or influence, whatever the artist’s or the patron’s religious affiliation. The term suggests an art unified in style and purpose, and indeed there are certain common features that distinguish the arts of all Islamic lands. Although this is a highly dynamic art, which is often marked by strong regional characteristics as well as by significant influences from other cultures, it retains an overall coherence that is remarkable given its vast geographic and temporal boundaries. Of paramount concern to the development of this singular art is Islam itself, which fostered the creation of a distinctive visual culture with its own unique artistic language. 

Calligraphy is the most important and pervasive element in Islamic art. It has always been considered the noblest form of art because of its association with the Qur’an, the Muslim holy book, which is written in Arabic. This preoccupation with beautiful writing extended to all arts – including secular manuscripts; inscriptions on palaces; and those applied to metalwork, pottery, stone, glass, wood, and textiles – and to non-Arabic-speaking peoples within the Islamic commonwealth whose languages – such as Persian, Turkish, and Urdu – were written in the Arabic script.

Another characteristic of Islamic art is a preference for covering surfaces with patterns composed of geometric or vegetal elements. Complex geometric designs, as well as intricate patterns of vegetal ornament (such as the arabesque), create the impression of unending repetition, which is believed by some to be an inducement to contemplate the infinite nature of God. This type of nonrepresentational decoration may have been developed to such a high degree in Islamic art because of the absence of figural imagery, at least within a religious context.

Contrary to a popular misconception, however, figural imagery is an important aspect of Islamic art. Such images occur primarily in secular and especially courtly arts and appear in a wide variety of media and in most periods and places in which Islam flourished. It is important to note, nevertheless, that representational imagery is almost invariably restricted to a private context. Figurative art is excluded from the decoration of religious monuments. This absence may be attributed to an Islamic antipathy toward anything that might be mistaken for idols or idolatry, which are explicitly forbidden by the Qur’an.

In Islamic cultures the so-called decorative arts provide the primary means of artistic expression, in contrast to Western art, in which painting and sculpture are preeminent. Illuminated manuscripts, woven textiles and carpets, inlaid metalwork, blown glass, glazed ceramics, and carved wood and stone all absorbed the creative energies of artists, becoming highly developed art forms. These works include small-scale objects of daily use, such as delicate glass beakers, as well as more monumental architectural decoration, for example, glazed tile panels from building façades. Such objects were meticulously fabricated and carefully embellished, often with rare and costly materials, suggesting that the people for whom they were made sought to surround themselves with beauty.

Royal patronage played an important role in the making of Islamic art, as it has in the arts of other cultures. The construction of mosques and other religious buildings, including their decoration and furnishings, was the responsibility of the ruler and the prerogative of high court officials. Such monuments not only provided for the spiritual needs of the Muslim community but often served educational and charitable functions as well. Royal patronage of secular art was also a standard feature of Islamic sovereignty, one that enabled the ruler to demonstrate the splendor of his court and, by extension, the superiority of his state. Evidence of courtly patronage is derived from the works of art themselves, but an equally important source of information is the extensive body of historical texts that attest to royal sponsorship of the arts almost throughout the Islamic period. These historical works also indicate that only a fraction of such court-sponsored art has survived; objects made of precious materials are particularly rare. From the fourteenth century onward, especially in eastern Islamic lands, the arts of the book provide the best documentation of courtly patronage.

Of course, not all works of Islamic art were sponsored by the court; in fact, the majority of objects and manuscripts in museum collections originated elsewhere. Such works of art – including pottery, base metalware, carpets, and textiles – have often been viewed as the products of urban, middle-class patronage. These objects nonetheless frequently reflect the same styles and make use of the same forms and techniques employed in courtly art.

Whether produced in a courtly or an urban setting or for a religious context, Islamic art is generally the work of anonymous artists. A notable exception is in the sphere of the arts of the book. The names of certain calligraphers are well known, which is not surprising given the primacy of the written word in Islam, as are those of a number of painters, most of whom were attached to a particular court. The identification of these artists has been based on signed or attributed examples of their works and on textual references. Given the great number of extant examples, comparatively few signatures are found on metalwork, pottery, carved wood and stone, and textiles. Those signatures that do occur, combined with rare evidence from contemporary textual sources, suggest that families of artists, often over several generations, specialized in a particular medium or technique.

As this discussion may suggest, Islamic art forms a large and complex subject. While there are several different means of classifying Islamic art, the text that follows adheres to the four-part chronological division used in the Islamic galleries at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. This system of classification is intended to emphasize the overall unity of Islamic art within each of the four chronological periods, while also taking into account the numerous dynasties whose successive reigns punctuate Islamic history and whose patronage had an important impact on the development of Islamic art. The early Islamic period, seventh through tenth century, covers the origins of Islam; the creation of a religious, political, and cultural commonwealth; and the formation of a new style of art. In the early medieval period, from the eleventh through the mid-thirteenth century, and the late medieval period, the mid-thirteenth through the fifteenth century, various regional powers emerged, which promoted diverse forms of cultural expression. Finally, the late Islamic period, the sixteenth through the eighteenth century, was an age of great empires, in which powerful dynastic patronage, more than ever before, helped to promote and shape artistic styles.

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.

Early Islamic Period: Art


While the Islamic period has a fixed starting date, signaled by the emigration of the Prophet Muhammad and his followers from Mecca to Medina in 622, the birth of Islamic art is far more difficult to single out. Instead, we can consider its genesis during the first century of Islamic rule. Although relatively little is known about material culture in Arabia at the time of the Islamic conquests, the Byzantine and Sasanian lands newly absorbed within the Muslim commonwealth had their own indigenous artistic traditions. It seems likely that the art of the preceding period persisted for a time, as artists who had lately worked under Byzantine or Sasanian patronage initially continued to follow preexisting conventions, but under Muslim patronage. It is therefore difficult at times to distinguish between early Islamic and pre-Islamic art.

Plaque with king on horseback
fig. 1 Plaque with King on Horseback
fig. 6 Textile fragment
fig. 6 Textile Fragment
fig. 7 Bowl

Characteristic of this transitional period is a stucco relief plaque, depicting a king hunting on horseback, from a small palace in northern Iran, datable to the end of the seventh or the first half of the eighth century (fig. 1). The technique (the relief decoration was produced in a mold), style (for example, the rigidity of the figures despite their implied movement), and form of this object, as well as its subject matter, belong to the tradition of Sasanian art. The king wears a large, carefully detailed crown, typical of Sasanian royal imagery. In this instance, however, the crown, in the form of a crescent and globe set between a symmetrical pair of wings, is not intended to distinguish a particular king. The entire image was probably meant as a generic symbol of kingship or royalty, rather than as a depiction of a specific Sasanian ruler. Thus, a theme derived from pre-Islamic courtly tradition in Iran was simply continued, although the image had begun to lose some of its former meaning. The Sasanian crown, once an insignia of royal power, was abstracted and removed from its original context, becoming an important motif in early Islamic art, as can also be seen on an eighth- to ninth-century textile fragment (fig. 6) and a ninth-century ceramic bowl (fig. 7).

The assimilation and imaginative adaptation of pre-Islamic decorative themes and motifs – as well as techniques, styles, and forms – characterize much of the art of early Islamic times. Glass from this period, of which the museum has an excellent collection, demonstrates the use of late Roman techniques and forms adapted and transformed to suit a new taste or to meet new needs. An example of a rare type of bottle (now missing its neck) in the museum’s collection is decorated with applied, mold-pressed masks in the form of smiling faces (fig. 2). These masks or grotesques were probably derived from somewhat larger-scale molded decoration on late Roman glass flasks (so-called head flasks). Here, however, the faces, with wide eyes and gashlike mouths, have been reduced to stylized decorative elements, far removed from their classical prototypes.

Base of a bottle
fig. 2 Base of a Bottle
Cosmetic container
fig. 3 Cosmetic Container
Two leaves from a manuscript of the Qur’an
fig. 4 Two Leaves from a Manuscript of the Qur’an
Page from a manuscript of the Qur’an
fig. 5 Page from a Manuscript of the Qur’an

Another glass object in the collection, a cosmetic container in the form of a bottle mounted on the back of a horse or a donkey, cleverly recasts a type of late Roman glass vessel while retaining the same technique and function (fig. 3). In the Islamic version – which was known over a wide area, including Egypt, Syria, Iraq, and Iran – the Roman balsamarium, a tube-shaped unguent flask, is typically transformed through the addition of one or more lively pack animals, who now transport the flask. Like their late Roman prototypes, vessels of this type are often elaborately decorated with trailed or applied glass thread.

Other examples of glass, metalwork, carved wood, and textiles in the collection reflect a mixed artistic heritage. Even Umayyad religious monuments – such as the well-known Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, whose function and meaning are clearly Islamic – demonstrate this formative process, which combined and transformed classical, Byzantine, and Sasanian elements. Gradually, as the Muslim faith and the nascent Islamic state became more established, a uniquely Islamic art began to emerge.

The revelation of the Qur’an and its subsequent codification in written form had an incalculable impact on the development of Arabic writing and on book production in the first century of the Muslim era. By early Abbasid times the Qur’an had achieved a standard arrangement, which prevailed for several centuries. Following the tradition of classical antiquity and Byzantium, the codex, or book, was adapted as the format for the Qur’an, which is made up of 114 chapters.

Although several styles of writing were practiced in the seventh and eighth centuries, by the ninth century so-called Kufic had supplanted these in the production of Qur'ans. Named after the city al-Kufa, in southern Iraq, this is a remarkably diverse, rectilinear script, written, like all Arabic scripts, from right to left. Early Qur'ans, copied in the Kufic script (fig. 4), were generally written in black or dark brown ink. Short vowels were usually indicated by red, green, or gold dots, and diacritical marks distinguishing certain consonants were denoted by diagonal strokes. (This system was in common use until the eleventh century.) Gold illumination sometimes signaled the beginning of each chapter, and gold medallions were often used to denote groups of five or ten verses.

Parchment, which is made from cured and scraped animal skin, was the preferred material for early Islamic and early medieval Qur'ans. The horizontal format of the parchment page works particularly well with the angular Kufic script, in which certain letters are written in broad, horizontal strokes. A few rare Qur'ans were produced on dyed parchment, and the museum’s collection includes a page from one of these sumptuous manuscripts, which was copied in gold Kufic on parchment dyed blue (fig. 5). Although papermaking was already known in the early Islamic period, parchment seems to have been preferred for Qur'ans for as long as Kufic script remained in popular use, up to the twelfth century. Not only was Kufic script an ideal partner for the parchment page, but its rectilinear form was also well suited to inscriptions in a variety of media, such as wood, stone, textiles, and ceramics. In these instances the script is often embellished by palmettes or leaves that sprout from the tops of the letters; this type of writing is known as foliated Kufic.

Of the many diverse arts that flourished in the early Islamic period, textiles played an especially significant role in society, one that continued in subsequent periods. Textiles were ubiquitous in Islamic lands, serving as clothing, household furnishings, and portable architecture (tents). The manufacture of and trade in textiles were highly sophisticated and profitable industries that built upon Byzantine and Sasanian traditions. Often made with costly materials such as silk, and gold- and silver-wrapped thread and decorated with complex designs, textiles were luxury goods signifying wealth and social status. Islamic textiles were also widely exported to the West, where their prominence is underscored by their impact on European languages. For example, the English words cotton and mohair derive from Arabic, while taffeta and seersucker come from Persian.

Despite their prevalence, comparatively few textiles have survived from the early Islamic period. Textiles are inherently fragile, and because of their value Islamic fabrics in all periods were cut down and reused over and over again until they literally wore out. Many of the extant early Islamic textiles were found in Egypt, primarily in graves, where the dark and dry conditions helped to preserve them. The fragments that have survived are fabricated from cotton, linen, silk, and wool, often dyed vivid colors. They demonstrate a well-developed textile technology notable for its use of complicated and richly colored designs.

One of the most common types of early Islamicand early medieval textiles is decorated with a long band inscribed with the name and titles of the ruler, as well as the date and place of manufacture. Such inscribed fabrics, of which a number are preserved in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, are known as tiraz, from the Persian word for embroidery. As this name suggests, the epigraphic decoration (rendered in Kufic script) was often finely embroidered (see Early Medieval Art [fig. 16] ), but the inscriptions could also be woven directly into the cloth, a technique known as tapestry-weaving.

Other types of early Islamic fabrics were also tapestry-woven, for example, a fragment in the museum’s collection, whose colorful decoration reflects the influence of Sasanian art (fig. 6). This textile dates from the eighth or ninth century and was likely produced in Egypt, where tapestry-weaving had existed since Pharaonic times. Its linen ground bears a silk decorative band of rather ungainly birds, perhaps ducks, each enclosed by a medallion. The medallions alternate with twin pairs of wings, an abstracted version of the Sasanian royal crown motif, discussed above (fig. 1). The beaded border above and below, a common means of decoration in early Islamic textiles, was also inspired by Sasanian design. Although the textile’s once-brilliant colors have been dimmed by time, and we can now only imagine the larger garment, wall hanging, or cushion it may once have been, it nonetheless enriches our visual perception of early Islamic civilization.

The art of pottery was greatly advanced in the ninth century with the development of the technique of luster painting. Luster painting is a spectacular means of decorating pottery, perhaps in imitation of precious metal, which was first developed in Iraq and subsequently spread to Egypt, Syria, Iran, and Spain. The production of luster-decorated pottery was complicated, costly, and time-consuming, indicating that such objects were regarded as luxury wares. This technique combines silver and copper oxides with sulfur and other materials, which are applied in liquefied form to the surface of a previously glazed and fired object. The ware is then refired in a muffled, or reducing, kiln, so that the oxygen is drawn out from the metal oxides, producing a dazzling metallic surface. Lusterware can vary in color from a rich gold to a deep reddish brown.

In the earliest phase of this technique, two or more luster colors could be applied to a single object, but it was extremely difficult to produce such polychrome lusterwares successfully, and monochrome luster became the norm. An excellent example of polychrome luster is a bowl painted in yellow and brown luster and decorated with vegetal and abstract designs (fig. 7). The prominent split-leaf motif on the four quadrants of the bowl is another abstracted, vegetal version of the pair of wings from the Sasanian royal crown.

Based on textual accounts, Chinese porcelains are known to have been exported to, and admired by, the Abbasid court; they have also been excavated at a variety of sites throughout the Abbasid empire, suggesting a widespread taste for these costly imported wares. In order to satisfy that demand Islamic potters in the ninth century began to imitate the whiteness of high-fired porcelain by covering low-fired earthenware with an opaque white glaze of tin oxide.

fig. 8 Bowl
Panel with
fig. 9 Panel with
Abstract Decoration
Bowl with epigraphic and vegetal decoration
fig. 10 Bowl with Epigraphic and Vegetal Decoration

Although the shapes of these ninth century tin-glazed wares also frequently follow Chinese prototypes, their decoration demonstrates greater originality. In contrast to the pure white surface of the originals, potters in Iraq painted into the raw glazed surface in cobalt blue, copper green, or manganese purple, which was fixed in a single firing. Both geometric and vegetal designs are common, as seen, for example, in a bowl decorated in cobalt blue that combines the two types of motifs (fig. 8).

One of the most important arts of the ninth century is architectural ornament, rendered in stucco, wood, or stone. The museum’s beautifully carved wood panel of this period (fig. 9), for instance, comes from Egypt, where wood, on account of its rarity and cost, was decorated with care and used in contexts generally reserved for luxury materials. Although it is impossible to say how this wood panel was used originally – perhaps it once formed part of a door – it is possible to assign it to the late ninth century on the basis of its distinctive decoration. Decorated in the beveled style, so called on account of the characteristic slant of the carved design, the panel depicts highly stylized leaves that have been transformed into abstract motifs. As is typical of this style, it is impossible to distinguish between background and foreground or between natural and abstract forms. The beveled style may have first been developed at Samarra, in northern Iraq, which briefly replaced Baghdad as the Abbasid capital, from 836 to 892. This style was soon adopted by artists in many parts of the Islamic empire, including Egypt.

The first two centuries of Abbasid rule saw the emergence and dissemination of a new Islamic style of art – as exemplified by the objects described above – in which pre-Islamic themes were fully assimilated or transformed and purely Islamic forms and techniques were introduced and further refined. With the dissolution of Abbasid authority, regional modes of expression began to develop, using this newly created idiom.

The Samanids were one of several Persian dynasties that established independent control over the eastern Islamic provinces of Khurasan and Transoxiana in the late ninth and tenth centuries. The age of the Samanids witnessed a rebirth of Persian culture, marking the rise of modern Persian literature. To this period belongs a distinctive slip-painted ceramic ware featuring elegant black Kufic inscriptions set against a white ground. This type of ware is associated with the two preeminent ceramic centers of the tenth century: Nishapur, in Khurasan, and Samarqand, in Transoxiana.

fig. 11 Ewer
fig. 12 Ewer
Container in the form of an animal
fig. 13 Container in the Form of an Animal

The collection includes several such slip-painted epigraphic vessels. They were made from humble earthenware, disguised and beautified through the application of a (white) slip, a semifluid colored clay used as a means of coloring and decorating the object, which was then covered by a colorless, transparent glaze. On one of these (fig. 10), the black inscription encircles the interior of the bowl, while the spaces between the letters are filled by abstract decoration that is augmented by the color red. The inscription is read by turning the bowl counterclockwise. As is typical of the epigraphic slip-painted wares, the Arabic inscription presents a proverb that retains some resonance even today: "Frugality is a symptom of poverty." On a rare spouted ewer (fig. 11) the bold inscription, perfectly suited to the vessel's contours, announces its function: "Drink from it/May it be to your health!"

The art of pre-Islamic Iran had a particularly strong impact on the development of early Islamic metalwork, in which traditional forms and techniques were carried on. Gilded silver was a favorite material in Sasanian times, and such precious metals also seem to have been used in the production of luxury wares in early Islamic Iran, based on evidence from historical and literary texts. The silver and gold objects described in the textual sources have not survived in any quantity and were perhaps melted down in times of need. A large number of bronze and brass vessels and utensils are preserved, however, attesting to the high degree of skill and sophistication among Islamic metalworkers.

One such object, perhaps dating to the tenth century, is a bronze ewer with a bull’s head (fig. 12). Bronze vessels of this type should probably be regarded as luxury wares, and they follow a long-standing practice in Iran of creating zoomorphic vessels. Here the metalworker has surmounted the body of the ewer with a bovine-headed spout, which must have provoked delight and even mirth whenever liquid was poured from it. Animal forms are frequently employed in the design of utilitarian objects in Islamic art, not only in metalwork but in pottery and glass as well. One particularly notable example in the museum’s collection is a charming glass perfume container in the form of a kneeling quadruped, possibly a camel, whose long, elegant neck serves as the vessel’s spout (fig. 13). Here, in order to transform the animal into a functional vessel, it has been reduced to its most basic yet recognizable forms. The elegant, curved neck of the camel has been further elongated to serve as the vessel's spout, the hump is reconfigured as the handle, and the tiny, almost vestigial feet represent the legs folded beneath the beast.




The Arabic word for God.

Byzantine Empire
The eastern division of the later Roman empire, dating from the foundation of Constantinople in 330 until its capture by the Ottomans in 1453.

From Arabic khalifa, meaning deputy or successor (to the Prophet Muhammad); the title used by early Islamic rulers.

cuerda seca
Literally, "dry cord," a technique of glazing ceramics in which a greasy substance mixed with manganese is used to separate the different colors to prevent them from running during the firing process.

A type of artificially created ceramic body combining silica, glass frit, and fine white clay.

The Arabic term for the pilgrimage to Mecca and the Kacba required of all Muslims.

The emigration of the Prophet and his followers from Mecca to Medina in 622; this event also marked the beginning of the Muslim calendar.

Arabic word meaning submission (to God) and the name for the religion founded under the leadership of the prophet Muhammad; it also denotes the Muslim community.

Cube-shaped shrine in Mecca (within the central courtyard of the Great Mosque), which is the focal point of Muslim prayer and pilgrimage.

From the Persian lajvard (lapis lazuli), a type of overglaze-decorated ceramic ware characteristically glazed deep blue.

A decorative technique in ceramics in which compounds of silver and copper are applied over the glaze of a previously fired object, which is then refired, resulting in a glittery, metallic surface.

Prayer niche in a mosque or other religious structure, emphasizing the direction of prayer.

From Persian, meaning "enameled"; polychrome overglaze-decorated ceramic ware.

A tribe originating in the eastern part of modern-day Mongolia, which in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, under the leadership of Genghis Khan and his successors, controlled an area extending from Korea to Hungary.

Any place of Muslim communal worship.

Stalactite- or honeycomb-like units used as a decorative device in Islamic architecture.

Literally, "one who submits"; someone who adheres to the faith of Islam.

Direction of prayer in Islam, toward Mecca and the Kacba.

Literally, "recitation"; the holy book of Islam.

Pre-Islamic dynasty that ruled greater Iran, 224-651.

The Iranian national epic, completed in 1010 by Firdawsi; it tells the stories of the pre-Islamic kings and heroes.

Spiritual head of the Sufi order, or tribal leader.

Members of the heterodox sect of Islam, Shicism, who recognize cAli and his descendants as the rightful successors to the Prophet.

Islamic mystics, both Sunni and Shicite.

Followers of the "tradition," who believe that the Prophet’s successor should be elected; approximately 85 percent of all Muslims are Sunni.

Imperial monogram of the Ottoman sultans.