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History Cat Lessons: Creative and Engaging

How did the Islamic religion influence the art of 
the Middle East?
Arts and Literature

The Islamic Golden Age wasn't just about a bunch of scholars translating dusty old books. The age of learning extended to all walks of life throughout the empire. During this time, art and literature flourished.

One of the best and most respected forms of artistic expression is calligraphy, or the art of taking the written word and making it all pretty. Golden Age calligraphers turned passages from the Qur'an and Persian poetry into works of beauty. Arabic letters were engraved on swords, pottery, mosques, palaces, fountains, and in mosaics of the homes of the wealthy. To become a master calligrapher could take you years of intense practice. The best calligraphers were hired by wealthy patrons and even the Caliphs themselves had their own personal calligraphers on hand.

 

 

The Arab love of poetry runs deep. This cultural tradition still runs deep well into modern times. Contestants in Dubai compete in an American Idol
style poetry contest
Geomteric designs adorn this shopping mall in Dubai, UAE

Another expression of Islamic artistic style is the use of geometric patterns and shapes to create intricate designs. Some believe that the use of geometric design comes from a ban the Qur'an places on drawing human and animal forms. The argument goes that Islam forbids these types of works because it competes with Allah. However, the Qur'an has no such passage. Rather, this ban on human and animal drawings come from the Haddith (others interpretations of the Qur'an).

One of the most famous forms of geometric design is called Arabesque (pronounced air-eb-esk). These designs use floral patterns that begin at the center and then radiate out in a circular pattern.  Just as the pattern could go on forever, these patterns were meant to show the infinity of God.

Islam teaches its followers to avoid flashy displays of wealth. All Muslims are expected to give to charity (zakat) as part of their obligations. It also discourages people from eating from plates made of gold and silver as this is seen as wasteful. Homes of the wealthy were plain on the outside but on the inside could be as elaborate as the owner wanted. Homes were built around a central courtyard with a garden and a fountain.  Doors were carved with intricate designs. Walls were decorated with mosaics and murals.

Of course, we the greatest work of Arabic literature is hands down- The 1001 Tales of the Arabian Nights. In the days before television, people entertained themselves by telling stories to one another.

The basic premise of the 1001 Arabian Nights is that a Sultan becomes enraged when he finds his wife with another man so he has her killed. Now, he can never trust another woman to be faithful so each night he marries a new woman and then has her killed the next morning. (Talk about over-reacting) All of the women in the kingdom are understandably terrified at being chosen as the next bride-to-be. However, the crafty and beautiful Sharazad volunteers for the job! She manages to keep her life and win back the trust of the Sultan by telling a new story each night so that the Sultan keeps delaying her execution until finally he realizes how foolish he was.

These stories came from all over the Silk Road, the most famous was the story of a young thief named Aladdin, his evil dwarf uncle, and a magical lamp. The irony of all this is that no one at the time thought the Arabian Nights was a great literary work at all. Rather, they were seen as amusing stories for children. It wasn't until the 19th century when Europeans translated these tales that they became world famous.

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