The difference between Islamic and Muslim art

A depiction of the Zodiac at the Turkish & Islamic Art Museum

In the New Year I often sign up for a course (or two) and learn something new. This year I am combing my interest in religion and art by attending a course entitled Mosques, Palaces and Gardens in the Muslim World.  It is fascinating. The course is lecture based with colour slides and hand out sheets with glossaries, further reading and course notes. For me it is filling in certain gaps. I have read a fair few books on Islam, including it’s history. Some of those books have been rather academic but some of what I’ve read has stayed.

The course has ironed out some misconceptions that a lot of people have, including me, about what is allowed in art from a culture coming out of Western Arabia.  As our tutor tells us, the term Islamic art is a false one.  Like any other art there is a difference between religious art and secular art and should be defined as such. Our tutor (who is Muslim, but says she is not a good one!) explained that within Islam many people do not understand this because they have never been told. So the myth that you cannot have figures – human or animal – in art is both confusing and wrong.

It was interesting to see that in the early days even Muhammad was represented in art form. Later it was thought that his face should be veiled  and finally it was not thought right to have any images of the Prophet. This then has been a gradual process. Not only that but there is no problem with animals and people being featured in secular Muslim art. Only religious art (Islamic) is devoid of those images. But certainly there was a crossover and also a borrowing of art techniques from neighbouring Kingdoms including using Christian artists from Byzantium who were experts in mosaics.

This course is a real eye-opener to how Islam progressed and how like Christianity there was a lot of store set by power and wealth. It seems both these strands of the Abrahamic faith  had much in common as they began to amass a following and saw personal benefits. Each seems to get away from the roots of their religion.  If we look at Christianity, it was seen as a good thing when Constantine made  it the official religion but with it came the wealth, the power and the individual.  Constantine wasn’t even baptised until he was on his death bed. He didn’t want to give up his life to God until he had too!

I am looking forward to more weeks of learning about the art and architecture of the Muslim World, including a visit to the V&A Museum in London to see their collection of, ahem, Islamic art!

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