by Roderick Conway Morris

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Islamic Art of the Arab heartlands, North Africa, Spain, Central Asia and Iran

By Roderick Conway Morris
LONDON 1 June 1998



It is characteristic that Robert Irwin should introduce his section on Calligraphy, 'a somewhat austere discipline' which, he rightly remarks, is not easy for Westerners to appreciate, with reference to the Arabian Nights' tale 'The Second Dervish', in which a prince transformed by a jinn into an ape manages to send out distress signals and reveal his true nature by grabbing a pen and paper and scribbling out well-turned verses in half a dozen different classical scripts. And it is no surprise that he should think it worth mentioning more eccentric scripts, such as the miniature 'Ghubar' hand 'used for tour-de-force feats of calligraphy, such as writing the whole of the Koran on the shell of a hen's egg' and 'for pigeon-post messages'.

Irwin is the author of 'The Arabian Nights: A Companion', academic works on Islamic history, and original and stylish novels, including 'The Arabian Nightmare' and 'The Mysteries of Algiers'. Thus he comes to write on art with a deep understanding of Islam, a lively and imaginative manner of writing and a sharp eye for the unusual and telling detail. Indeed, one could not wish for a better introduction to Islamic art than this remarkably compact, modestly-priced and attractive tome, which could also be read with pleasure by those already with some knowledge of the subject, and should serve as a very useful handbook for travellers to Islamic lands.

The book is roughly chronological and concentrates on the thousand years from the birth of Islam to the beginning of modern times, and focuses on the Arab heartlands, North Africa, Spain, Central Asia and Iran, wisely leaving aside India and countries further east, which could fill another volume. Every art form is covered, from architecture and book illumination to metal work and ceramics, all excellently illustrated with well-chosen and intelligently-placed colour pictures. (An untypical slip in this carefully-researched visual line-up is the misidentification of Ottoman glass-blowers as 'potters'.)

A number of key themes run through the entire book, including the perennial ambivalence of Islam concerning representations of the human face and figure. The fact that this was frequently frowned upon helped elevate calligraphy to its extraordinary position of esteem and produced a wealth of abstract decorative design unparalleled in the West - though what came to be called 'Arabesques' had their origins in pre-Islamic acanthus and vine scrolls. As Irwin adds: 'It is one of the many curiosities of Islamic culture that, while proscribing alcohol, it should make use of a decorative device that had previously been employed in classical and Christian times to allude to wine.'

Equally, while figurative art was condemned down the centuries by hard-liners, cosmopolitian court cultures like those in Central Asia, Persia and Turkey, gave rise to some of the most exquisitely beautiful representational paintings ever created. In fact, a scholarly arbiter of taste's advice to an Uzbek ruler is appropriately quoted on this issue: no sultan worth his salt could afford to be without 'a group of enchanting and marvellous miniaturists' to sharpen his wit and recreate his mind.

The founder of the Savafid dynasty in Persia, Shah Ismail, was fortunate to have in his service Bihzad, one of the greatest minituarists of that or any age. And it is an index of how valued was this practitioner of an art form that in theory was alien to the purest Islam that, as Irwin notes, 'It is said that when the Ottoman Turks invaded Iran in 1514 one of Shah Ismail's chief concerns was to keep Bihzad safely hidden in a cave.'


by Robert Irwin

272pp. Laurence King. £12.95

First published: Traveller

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023