Art from Islamic Lands
The Middle East and North Africa
From its seventh-century origin in the Arabian Peninsula, Islam expanded outward with extraordinary speed, through conversion and conquest. Within a scant two centuries, it had spread eastward and westward across ancient cultural centers to establish dominions linking southern Europe, northern Africa, and southern and central Asia in the new faith.
The visual arts of Islam have been colored by a profound reverence for sacred texts, especially the Qurʾan, which Muslims consider the literal word of God, revealed to the Prophet Muhammad in the Arabic language. As the primary vehicle for preserving and disseminating this text, the Arabic script was elevated to the level of calligraphy and became Islam’s quintessential visual expression. Through its ability to state meaning literally, Islamic calligraphy obviated the need for a complex pictorial symbolism.
Over the centuries, a wealth of decorative modes developed in Islamic art. A deep interest in abstract order is evidenced by Islamic contributions to mathematics and by the proliferation of geometrically structured vegetal and interlace patterns in art and architecture. Although Islamic prohibitions against idolatry discouraged the representation of living creatures for religious purposes, artists in various lands developed a rich repertoire of figural imagery to illustrate secular texts, to represent the personalities and activities of the court, and to embellish utilitarian objects.
Despite decades of usage, the term “Islamic art” remains ambiguous. It is used here to designate works of art made by or for Muslims, or works of art produced in lands where the rulers or the majority of the population followed or follow the faith of Islam. This installation offers a glimpse of Harvard’s holdings of Islamic art, ordered according to a flexible chronology: the early Islamic era (650–1050); the medieval era (1050–1450); and the early modern era (1450–1800). Selected to demonstrate continuity, these objects nevertheless speak eloquently of the cultural diversity in Muslim lands.