Written by Malak Nour

Hello and welcome back to Art Bits! Last time, I wrote about conceptual photography and tried to sum up what it’s about. For this article, we’re not tackling photography, but rather a very different topic. Dear readers, we’re going to talk about Islamic art.

So, What’s Islamic art?

The term “Islamic art” can be a broad one, encompassing works of art that serve both religious and secular needs. That’s why it has been a topic for debate among both scholars and curators. You see, the type or art you see at a mosque isn’t the only one that will count as Islamic art, but there are palaces, ceramics, pieces of furniture, etc…that count as Islamic art as well. So what makes all of that work fall under the same category? They all, more or less, share the following key elements: calligraphy, geometric patterns, vegetal patterns, and figural representations.

Mosaic tile panel in the form of a gateway, Iran– Photo by Tim Street Porter

The Elements – A Closer Look:

  • Calligraphy: since it’s Islamic art, the calligraphy is naturally going to be in Arabic, since it is the language of the Quran. Arabic calligraphy comes in many scripts; there are Naskh, Kūfī, and Andalusī, to name a few.
  • Geometric patterns: they include basic geometric figures, like squares, circles, etc… That are intricately duplicated, and interlaced, to create a pattern that looks as if it’s infinite; you can’t really pinpoint a starting or ending point to it.
  • Vegetal patterns: these are basically patterns made up of plants and flowers. Such patterns can sometimes look more geometric and, at other times, more naturalistic – depending on where the artwork is produced.
  • Figural representations: they’re representations of human and/or animal figures. In the case of Islamic art, these are mostly restricted to secular, not religious, spaces like palaces.
Photo by Unknown
Imamzeda Darbi Islam in Isfahan, Iran– Photo by Unknown


Cultural Influences and Diversity

Islamic art didn’t just pop out of the blue; it was influenced by many of the artistic traditions of the cultures it developed in. You can identify Greco-Roman, Sasanian, and Byzantine elements in many of the works that fall under Islamic art; for example, when you go into the complex of Sultan Qalawun at El Moez street you’ll find columns that are, originally, part of the Greco-Roman tradition. You’ll be able to see such columns in Greek and Roman temples. Also, the interior mosaics at the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem draw from Byzantine mosaic techniques, which are common in the Byzantine Christian artistic tradition. So out of the combination, reinterpretation, and addition to the already existing elements of the different artistic traditions, Islamic art emerged as something unique in and of itself.

Sultan Qalawun Complex– Photo by Khaled El Adawy


Mosaics inside Dome of the Rock, Jerusalem– Photo by Said Nuseibeh

Speaking of uniqueness, the appearance of a work of Islamic art varies from one place to another; works of art produced in Egypt look different from those produced in Persia, which in their turn, look different from those produced in India. The kind of art produced in each region, despite sharing the same basic elements, will fall back onto this region’s culture for artistic influences.

Inside of Great Mosque of Xi’an, China- Photo by Thierry B.

Speaking for myself, I’m looking forward to witnessing the development of Islamic art in the future; how future generations will interact with it, and use it to express what they care about most. If this is something that you too are thinking about, perhaps you should check out the works of Yasmine Aly Fahmy; a young Egyptian artist who is very passionate about Islamic art and the founder of Yasmine Fahmy Metalwork.


– “The Nature of Islamic Art” from The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s website.

– “About Islamic Art” from Shangrila’s (center for Islamic art and cultures) website.

– “The Dome of the Rock” by Ana Botchkareva from The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s website.

Till Next Time

What do you think? Is there a particular aspect of Islamic art that you find interesting? Let me know in the comments below!