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Key Chapters

Chapter 14: Literature and Arts

When dealing with people of other times and cultures we almost inevitably impose our categories on them. Relevant to this chapter, there is no word in pre-modern Arabic to my knowledge that corresponds to our word and concept “art”. The word used in modern Arabic, fann, meant (and often still means) something like “craft” or “field of work” (as, indeed, “art” did and sometimes does in English). The modern word for “literature”, adab, referred earlier to a certain kind of cultivated lifestyle and the writing connected with it (Introducing Islam, p. 186). Popular literature and much religious literature would not have been called adab. Bearing this in mind can help us to avoid some misinterpretations.

Floral Arabesque in the Topkapi Palace, Istanbul. Also shown is the “tree of life”, a frequent theme from early Islamic times.

Window in the Hospital of Sultan Qalaun in Cairo (completed c. 1293). The windows present geometric arabesques arbitrarily cut off as al-Faruqi suggests.

Calligraphy: See the following websites for examples of different scripts:

Three examples of calligraphy.

Opening sura of the Qur’an in nasta‘liq script (cf. Fig. 5.1, p. 60 of Introducing Islam).

The Arabic word badī‘ (Originator, a name of Allah) written in thulūth script, in the normal direction on the right and in mirror image on the left. Rumi's Mausoleum at Konya

Shahāda in the form of a toughra, by Aftab Ahmad of Pakistan. The toughra was originally a stylised signature of the Ottoman sultan but now is used in other ways. (Courtesy: Calligraphy by Aftab Ahmad/Saudi Aramco World/SAWDIA )

For examples of Kufic script see also Introducing Islam, fig. 3.1, p. 33 and fig. 5.2, p. 61.


From a Mughal copy of Firdowsi’s Shahnameh (Book of Kings). The figure depicted is Prince Esfandiar, son of King Gushtasp (Vishtaspa), the convert and protector of Zarathushtra. The prince fought in the cause of Zarathushtra, and accomplished a number of herioic exploits but was finally killed in combat with the great hero, Rustom. (Courtesy Hussain A. Al-Ramadan/Saudi Aramco World/ SAWDIA)

“A jug of wine, a Loaf of Bread – and Thou” Wall paintings in the Chehel Sotun (forty pillars) Palace in Isfahan, capital of the Safavid Empire (Seventeenth century).

Mausoleum of Saadi, in Shiraz, Iran.
“The spider is the chamberlain in the palace of the Caesars The owl is the trumpeter on the battlements of of Afrasiyab” - Saadi
(Said to have been recited by Mehmet the Ottoman sultan when he conquered Constantinople in 1453)


The Great Mosque of Sousse, Tunisia. The open courtyard with columned area is typical of early mosques. The mihrab is approximately under the small dome at the far right of the picture.

Minaret of the Zaytuna Mosque, Tunis. The mosque was built about 700, but this minaret, which is typical of the Maghrebi (North African) style, dates from 1894.

Minarets from the Mamluke period in Cairo. The one in the foreground belongs to the mosque of Qalaun and the other to the Mosque of Sultan Barquq (1384)

The Mosque of al-Husayn in Cairo. Husayn’s head is said to be buried here. The pencil-shaped minaret is typical of Ottoman mosques ( See also below, the Mosque of Muhammad Ali).

Aya Sofia in Istanbul, formerly the cathedral of the Hagia Sophia (Holy Wisdom), then one of the main Ottoman mosques, and now technically a museum. The large medallion at the right says “Allah” and the one to the left “Muhammad”. Just behind and above them a figure of the Virgin Mary has been uncovered, (unfortunately not very clear in this picture) presumably since it became a museum.

Mosque of Muhammad Ali in the Citadel, Cairo. Ottoman style. Fig. 17.1 in Introducing Islam.

Northwest iwan (arch) of the Masjid-i Jami (Friday Mosque) in Isfahan, built about 1121 and redecorated in 1700-1. The mosque, typical of Iran, has four iwans in the walls that surround an open courtyard, one on each side. Architecturally the iwan has historical roots in the Sasanian period. (Courtesy Dorothy Miller/ Saudi Aramco World/ SAWDIA)

Jamia Masjid in Kashmir, built about 1385. (Courtesy Harold Sequeira/ Saudi Aramco World/ SAWDIA)

Another view of the mud built mosques at Pondo, Niger (1990), cf. Introducing Islam, fig. 14.4, p. 185. (Courtesy Brynn Bruijn/Saudi Aramco World/ SAWDIA)

Pesantren Pabelan, Java; ṣalāh at the mosque. Fig 19.1 in Introducing Islam

Entry to mosque in Beijing, China (1985). (Courtesy Nik Wheeler/Saudi Aramco World/ SAWDIA)

Mosque at new Bus Terminal in Konya, Turkey.

© William Shepard

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