Art in the Islamic World
Art in the IslamicWorld CHAPTER 2
Art in the Islamic World
Art in the IslamicWorld CHAPTER 2
The spread of the Islamic world
Sankore Mosque,
1325 – 1433, sand construction, Timbuktu, Mali. Photo: Peter Langer/Design Pics/UIG / Bridgeman Images
The Middle East is the birthplace of Islam.

That is why we find the oldest works there, but the Islamic world is far from limited to these regions!


From the seventh century to today, its culture eventually spread across a vast area from South West Asia to Europe, including Sub-Saharan Africa.

As a result, the Islamic arts can be seen in all these areas of the world, sometimes with specific regional features!

Countries with a Muslim majority in the 20th century
Map of Muslim minorities today
In a nutshell

Far from being limited to the Middle East, Islamic culture spread over a vast area of the world.

The Djam “Minaret”

What on earth is this weird tower rising up from a valley in Afghanistan? 


Nothing less than the Djam “Minaret”, one of the masterpieces of Islamic art in Central Asia! In fact, this 12th-century tower was probably never a minaret. It is thought that it was built to identify Islam as present in this isolated territory.


With its extraordinary decorations in clay and its turquoise blue frieze with Kufic calligraphy, this 65-metre-high tower was designed to make an impression. It should be noted that it has been the inspiration for monuments as far away as India!

Djam Minaret,
between the 12th and 13th centuries, Afghanistan. Photo: Paul Dober, CC BY 3.0
Detail from the minaret.
Photo: David C. Thomas, CC BY-SA 2.5
Minaret Qûtb Minâr, Delhi, India.
Photo: A.Savin, FAL
In a nutshell

The Djam “Minaret” was built in the 12th century to mark the presence of Islam in present-day Afghanistan.

The architecture

We can see that in the islamic world, models cross continents. Some architectural features are used again and again from India to Spain. This is what unites Islamic cultures, which are highly diversified.

Muqarnas: Decorative honeycombing filling the vaults and cupolas.

Ablaq: Alternate strips of clear and dark stones

Iwan: Vaulted hall, enclosed on three sides and with a “Persian” arch opening on the fourth side

Cupola: The edifices are round-topped

Islamic architecture even influenced the seventh art! Look closely and you might notice minbar and ablaq decorations in the Lord of the Rings (we will talk about this later!).

In a nutshell

Architectural features such as muqumas, iwans, domes or ablaqs are evidence of models circulating from one region to another.

The Cordova mosque
The Islamic world reaches Europe!

Do you remember the Umayyad dynasty? When it was overturned, one of its members managed to run away as far as Andalusia, where he founded a new dynasty, the Umayyads of Spain.

In Cordova, the young monarch built a mosque on the site of a former Christian Basilica. The building was extended throughout the centuries. It displays the features of Islamic architecture.

Prayer Room,
Grand Mosque, Cordova, Spain. Photo: EmDee, CC BY-SA 2.5
Grand Mosque, Cordova, Spain. Photo: EmDee, CC BY-SA 2.5
Grand Mosque, Cordova, Spain. Photo: Amalrik, CC BY-SA 3.0
In a nutshell

It was the Umayyads in Spain who had the Cordova mosque built.

The metallic luster

Architecture is not the only thing that unites the different Islamic cultures. Some techniques also exist across the eras and the boundaries. This is true of “metallic luster”, a type of decoration that appeared during the eighth century on porcelain. This is how to do it.

  • Take a piece of porcelain that has already been fired
  • Paint the decoration on using a powder mixture of copper and silver oxides, sulphur, ochre and vinegar
  • Fire the piece again at a low temperature, in a “reducing” atmosphere, meaning in a completely closed, oxygen-deficient furnace
  • The decorations become metallic and shiny – it’s ready!
Dish with decoration portraying a drinker figure,
10th century, Iraq, pottery with metallic lustre decorations, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
In a nutshell

Metallic luster is a type of porcelain decoration used throughout the Islamic world.

Fables of Kalila wa Dimna

Some great literary texts are also found in Islamic cultures, even travelling beyond them. This is the case of Kalila wa Dimna, a collection of fables telling the story of two jackals called Kalila and Dimna.


Written in India before being translated in the Middle East, these short stories and their morals inspired a certain La Fontaine in 17th-century France!


Today these fables are still told to children in countries with Islamic cultures.

The Cat and the Rat,
13th century, Kalila wa Dimna, manuscript, French National Library, Paris. Photo: © BnF, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / image BnF
The Cat and the Rat,
1755-1759, Jean de La Fontaine, Fables, engraving by Pierre-Quentin Chedel from a drawing by Jean-Baptiste Oudry, engraving, French National Library, Paris. Photo: CC BY-SA 4.0
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In a nutshell

The Kalila wa Dimna fables are important writings within Islamic culture, which have also been an inspiration in the West.

In summary, you have discovered:

  • The spread of the Islamic world
  • The Djam “Minaret”
  • The architecture
  • The Cordova mosque
  • The metallic luster
  • Fables of Kalila wa Dimna
To train

Where is the Djam “Minaret”?

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Who initiated the building of the Cordova mosque?

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Which great French author was inspired by the Kalila-wa-Dimna fables?

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