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Art and Architecture >
Aniconism: The Absence of Figures

It is often said that the depiction of living things is forbidden in Islamic art, but this is simply not true. The Quran has very little to say on the subject of figural representation, although it does explicitly forbid idolatry, divination, drinking, gambling, and other vices, which seem to have been commonly practiced at the time of the revelation. Making pictures of people was apparently not a topic of paramount importance in Arabia in the late sixth and early seventh centuries. Furthermore, there is no reason to depict people in Islamic religious art, because Muslims believe that God is unique and without associate and therefore that He cannot be represented, except by His word, the Quran. God is worshiped directly without intercessors, so there is no place for images of saints as there is in Christian art. Muhammad was God's messenger, but unlike Christ, Muhammad was not divine. His deeds—not his person—represent the ideal to which Muslims aspire. Unlike the Bible, little of the Quran is narrative, so there was little reason to use illustrated stories to teach the faith.

In time, this lack of motive and opportunity hardened into law, and the absence of figures (technically known as aniconism) became a characteristic feature of Islamic religious art. Thus, few, if any, depictions of people can be found in mosques and other buildings intended for religious purposes. Palaces, bathhouses, and locales designed for other activities, however, may well have had figural decoration, although in later periods the aniconism of the religious milieu often spilled over into the secular realm. According to the hadith (traditions of the Prophet), even Muhammad was aware of the difference; he ordered all the idols removed from the Kaaba in Mecca, but he is recorded to have used curtains and cushions decorated with figures in his house.

Aniconism: The Absence of Figures

Muslims disdained pictures or sculptures of living beings in religious settings, but they often used them in palaces and other secular settings. The entrance to the bath at Khirbat al-Mafjar near Jericho, a palace erected for the Umayyad prince al-Walid II in the eighth century, was decorated with stucco statues of bare-breasted dancers.

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Representations of people and animals were used, often exuberantly, within private settings. One example from early Islamic times can be seen in the ruins of the Umayyad palace known as Khirbat al-Mafjar near Jericho. Destroyed in an earthquake in the 740s, the building was the retreat of the playboy prince al-Walid ibn Yazid, who partied with his friends for two decades waiting to succeed his elderly uncle, the Umayyad caliph Hisham ibn Abd al-Malik (r. 724–43). The palace contained an elaborate music hall, complete with swimming pool, hot bath, and private audience room. All that remains intact is the enormous mosaic floor, decorated with an extraordinary array of geometric patterns that resemble stone carpets. From the many fragments of stone and stucco that litter the site, the excavators were able to reconstruct much of the building's superstructure. The doorway, for example, was elaborately decorated with a stucco statue, presumably representing the patron, and inside the portal more stucco statues of half-naked voluptuous dancers suggested the pleasures that lay within. The dome over the small audience room culminated in a cap of luscious acanthus leaves from which protruded heads of handsome young men and women, who peered down over other carvings of birds and winged horses. Clearly, what one did in private could be quite different from what one did in public.

In the same vein, German excavators in the early twentieth century found thousands of fragments from wall paintings that once decorated the houses, bathhouses, and palaces at Samarra, the site north of Baghdad that served as the Abbasid capital in the mid-ninth century. The excavators were able to reconstruct some of the scenes from the palace, which included cornucopia scrolls inhabited with wild animals and naked ladies, hunting scenes, and one mural showing a pair of dancing girls. The two figures have interlocked arms; while they dance, each pours from a long-necked bottle into a cup held by the other. The liquid must surely be wine, because fragments of painted wine bottles also littered the site. Official histories may chronicle the official acts of the great and powerful, but art, like poetry and song, often shows aspects of private life that are at variance with the official ideal.

Aniconism: The Absence of Figures

Paintings of people decorated the walls of the ninth-century palaces at Samarra, the Abbasid capital north of Baghdad. Excavators found one mural in the caliph's private quarters that shows two dancing girls with interlocked arms, pouring wine.

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The same distinction between the religious and the secular stands for book decoration. Manuscripts of the Quran were often embellished with geometric or floral designs. Scholars do not know of any Quranic manuscript that was decorated with paintings of people, as were contemporary Christian manuscripts of the Bible. By contrast, pictures were often included in other kinds of books made in the Islamic lands, including scientific treatises, literary works, epic poems, and histories. In some cases these pictures were necessary to make the text understandable, in others, they made it pretty.

Only fragments of illustrated books survive from the period before 1000 c.e., but there is no reason to doubt their existence, particularly because they are described in other books. One of the earliest illustrated manuscripts to survive is a copy of Abd al-Rahman al-Sufi's treatise on the fixed stars. The work, ultimately derived from classical writings, particularly Ptolemy's Almagest, was composed around 965 by the astronomer al-Sufi (903–86) of Rayy for the Buyid ruler Adud al-Dawla (r. 949–83). The oldest suriving copy was made from the original by al-Sufi's son, and its illustrations show how classical traditions of representing the constellations were adapted to Muslim taste. The figures, for example, wear turbans and robes with long flowing drapery.

From this time, books of all kinds, including illustrated ones, have survived in greater numbers and represent a wider range of subject matter. One of the most unusual is the Maqamat (Assemblies), written by the Arab writer al-Hariri (1054–1122), who lived in Basra. The Maqamat contains the merchant al-Harith's witty account of the rogue Abu Zayd's fifty adventures throughout the Islamic lands. Linguistically inventive and punning in style, the work was immensely popular among the educated bourgeoisie of the Arab lands. The verbal pyrotechnics of the text did not lend themselves easily to illustration, but the demand for illustrated books was so strong that the work was repeatedly illustrated. Eleven illustrated copies produced before 1350 have survived, suggesting that there were once many more. The illustrations provide rare glimpses of daily life in medieval times, showing such scenes as markets and libraries.

Aniconism: The Absence of Figures

Manuscripts of the Quran were never illustrated with human figures, but in addition to the beautiful calligraphy used to transcribe God's word, many manuscripts are decorated with plant and geometric designs, as with this fabulous thirty-volume copy made for the Ilkhanid ruler Uljaytu at Hamadan in 1313.

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While books such as the Maqamat would have been an appropriate possession for a bourgeois bibliophile, under the Mongol rulers of Iran who were known as the Ilkhanids, books were transformed into a major art form for royalty, particularly after the Mongol rulers converted to Islam at the very end of the thirteenth century. Books became physically much bigger, probably because larger sheets of finer and whiter paper were available, and these large surfaces provided more room for elaborate decoration. Sumptuous manuscripts of the Quran were produced. These were often presentation sets comprising thirty volumes, which would have been given to a mosque, shrine, or tomb complex, where one volume would have been read aloud each day during the holy month of Ramadan. The largest manuscript to survive (each page measures 72 x50 centimeters) was copied at Baghdad and endowed to the mausoleum of the sultan Muhammad Khudabanda Uljaytu (r. 1304–16) at Sultaniyya. It took eight years to copy; each page has three lines of majestic muhaqqaq script in gold outlined in black, alternating with two lines of a more fluid thuluth-muhaqqaq script in black outlined in gold—one of the most spectacular examples of monumental Quranic calligraphy. Like the other thirty-volume sets, it has magnificent double frontispieces containing geometric designs.

Aniconism: The Absence of Figures

Islamic art transformed many of the subsidiary elements of pre-Islamic art into major themes. The mosaics on the walls of the Great Mosque of Damascus, erected by the Umayyad caliph al-Walid in the early eighth century, show a paradisial riverside landscape of fantastic buildings separated by trees. In earlier times, such landscapes would have been peopled with figures.

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Large manuscripts of other works were produced in the Ilkhanid period. Histories, for example, were extremely popular, probably because the foreign Mongol rulers were interested in fitting themselves into the long traditions of Islamic and Persian history. The Mongol sultan Mahmud Ghazan (r. 1295–1304) commissioned his vizier Rashid al-Din to write a history of the Mongols, and Ghazan's successor Uljaytu expanded the commission to make it a universal history, the first known of its kind. Rashid al-Din's Jami al-tawarikh (Compendium of chronicles) was a multivolume work, comprising histories of the Mongol and the non-Mongol Eurasian peoples, a genealogy of ruling houses, and a geography. To make his book more attractive and comprehensible, Rashid al-Din had it illustrated. His painters drew from the wide range of sources available in this cosmopolitan society. Sections on Chinese history, for example, were illustrated following Chinese models, and sections on biblical history followed Byzantine manuscript prototypes.

Perhaps most interesting and unusual in this multivolume work is the set of illustrations showing events from the Prophet's life. As there was no earlier tradition of representing Muhammad in Islamic art, and as Rashid al-Din's text provided only the most skeletal details of events in Muhammad's life, the painters had to look elsewhere for inspiration. One painting from the work shows Muhammad mounted on a horse leading the Muslims in battle against the Banu Qaynuqa, a Jewish tribe of Arabia. The Prophet is depicted against a ultramarine blue background and surrounded by white clouds and angels. Behind him are the Muslim forces, including his uncle Hamza, identifiable because he has a red beard and carries the Prophet's banner. The angels have bare heads with tight curls and wear long garments derived from the chiton, the basic garment worn by Greek men and women. In Mongol Iran, there seems to have been quite a bit of interest in depicting the Prophet, and several surviving manuscripts illustrate scenes from his life. These depictions of Muhammad are not religious images; they are historical illustrations not intended for devotional use. Somewhat unusual in the larger scheme of Islamic art, these images nevertheless show the continuing distinction between the religious and secular realms of Islamic art.

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