"The Art and Architecture of Islam" is yet another in a series of affordable Penguin books on the art and architectural histories of the world that is familiar to students as well as to most interested readers. While in the past the series has included histories of most major art traditions, a book on the history of the art and architecture created by the various Islamic cultures of Asia, Africa and Europe was long overdue.
This particular volume, therefore, is all the more welcome, even though it covers only the early period (650-1250) of Islamic civilization. Presumably, a second volume will follow, though this is not indicated either in the preface or in the publisher's blurb on the back cover.
The volume has been gestating for a little less than two decades, during which one of the two eminent authors, Dr. Richard Ettinghausen, has passed away. There is no way to determine how much was written by him, but no matter. The co-author, Oleg Grabar, is an equally well-known authority, especially on the early Islamic art and architecture, and it would have been difficult to find two greater scholars of Islamic art to pool their expertise.
The book is a broad survey of the art and architecture created by and for a wide variety of peoples living in a vast geographical region stretching from Spain to India, including all of what is known as the Middle East, Soviet Central Asia, Egypt and northern Africa. With few exceptions, the creators, the patrons and the users of the books, the objects and the buildings had Islam in common, even though linguistically, ethnically and culturally they were different peoples. While this common denominator did impose a sense of homogeneity, the aesthetic manifestations are as richly varied as is the landscape of the regions covered. The task of achieving a comprehensive as well as a comprehensible survey within the limitations of a volume small enough to be easily picked up and even read in bed is to say the least daunting. In this, the authors have admirably succeeded.
Considering the complexity of the subject, the book is coherently and sensibly organized. The first part covers the first three centuries (650-950) of the rise and expansion of Islam under the Umayyad and Abbasid Caliphates when the caliph was the central authority in the Islamic world. The second part is somewhat less cohesive in that there are both chronological and historical overlaps, but it is not incoherent.
Apart from discussing the Islamic arts of Spain and North Africa, this part concentrates on the great Fatimid period (910-1171) of Egypt and lucidly discusses the synthesis of Pan-Islamic culture of the Arabs and the ancient and spectacular heritage of Iran during the period of the Islamicization of that country and neighboring Central Asia. The third part is organized by national entities such as Iran, Iraq, Syria and others that will have a more familiar ring to today's readers.
Within each part, the material is organized first by architecture, divided further by the three major types of buildings, the mosque, mausoleum and structures for secular use, and second by the principal forms of Islamic art, viz. textile, ivory carving, ceramics, metalwork, and the art of the book, which includes both calligraphy (especially prized in the Islamic world as expressing both truth and beauty) and painting.
The chapters on architecture are particularly well-written and informative, providing us not only with discussions of their forms and aesthetics but also their decorative material and techniques. Mosques are, of course, the best-known of all Islamic structures and they have their counterparts in the Christian church and the temple of the Jews, Hindus, Buddhists and other religions. More interesting, however, are the mausoleums, which mushroomed in the Islamic world from about the 10th Century and have remained, if not unique, certainly a distinct manifestation of the visual heritage of Islam.
Although they recognize the sudden emergence of the cult of the dead, the authors do not discuss the phenomenon at length. "Why," they state, "the earliest consistent group of Islamic mausoleums should appear in 10th-Century Iran is not altogether clear. Dynastic pretensions, heterodox movements, worshiping the burial places of descendants of Ali, and attempts to attach a Muslim meaning to traditional holy sites must all have played a part in a phenomenon which may well have spread westward from Iran, where it took permanent root, especially to Fatimid Egypt."