Analysis of the Modern Concept of Islamic Art

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In the 19th century the modern concept of Islamic art was invented by historians, to facilitate the categorization and study of the first produced material by Muslims of the concept emerging from Arabia in the seventh century.

Today, the term of Islamic art proves that Islam is the dominant religion or governing religion. Unlike the term of Christian art, the art of the Jews, and the art of Buddhism that only refers to religious art and faith. In fact, for Islamic art is not used to show religion or architecture alone but it is also used for all forms of art used for all forms of art produced in the Islamic world.

Therefore, the term Islamic art not only refers to works created by artists, artists, and Muslim architects or for Muslim visitors. It also includes works created by Muslim artists for religious customers, including Christians, Jews, or Hindus-and works created by Jews, Christians and others, living in Islamic lands, for the customers, Muslims and others.

One of the most famous monuments of Islamic art is the Taj Mahal, the royal tomb, which is located in Agra, India. Hinduism is the majority religion in India. However, as the Islamic ruler, most famous of the Mughals, dominated modern India’s vast territory for centuries, India has a wide array of Islamic art and architecture. The Great Mosque of Xian, China is one of the oldest and most preserved mosques in China. First built in 742 CE, the current form of the mosque dates back to the 15th century CE and follows the contemporary Buddhist temple design and architecture. Actually Islamic art and architecture are many-and are still made through the synthesis of local traditions and more global ideas.

Usually the design and architecture of any building are using a tiles as a decorate or finishes a construction. Most of them were decorated with painted tiles, inside and outside. On the other hand. The art of tiles was present in almost all periods of history of Islam.

Background of Tile

A tile is a manufactured piece of hard-wearing material such as ceramic, stone, metal and glass. They are usually used for decorating walls, covering roofs and floors. Tiles come in a variety of shapes and forms. The word ‘tile’ is derived from the French word ‘tuile,’ which was gained from the Latin word ‘tegula’ that means a roof tile composed of fired clay (Menhem, 2016). A well-made and properly fired tile is able to last for a long time or almost for ever. This is why tiles are valued and cherished by many; because of their permanence and durability.

Tiles were once made by hand; wet clay was mould into shape before they were left to dry under the sun or fired. Some of artisans still craft tiles by hand, however the majority of tiles made today go through a process known as dry pressing or dust pressing. This process requires less labour and time. The raw materials used to form tile consist of clay minerals mined from the earth’s crust. Nowadays, however the clay will be produced rather than sourced from a riverbed. In order to make a clay, a form of dust made out of pulverized rock, slate or marble is chose (“How are Porcelain,” 2015).

Next, the firing will form a tile body which is known as a ‘bisque.’ While in the past this would involve using wet clay, dust-pressing between two metal dies has replaced tile-making by hand and has facilitated the mechanization of the tile-making industry. The tiles are then fired at 1060 to 120 Celsius in a kiln in order to give a fixed shape. In certain tile-making, different dust colours are mixed together during this step to make a pattern. For some tiles, this is the end of the process. However, for others, glaze decoration are added and fire in the kiln once again at 750 Celsius. Alternatively, digital printing on tile surfaces is also an option for modern tiles.

The History of Islamic Tiles

The making and decorating tiles has gone on in many ways for thousands of years. Tiles are especially meant to protect and decorate walls for some of the earliest building in Mesopotamia and the ancient Egypt. In the early days, tiles and bricks were an expensive commodity. They somehow came to symbolize the power and prestige of the rulers who had them in their house or buildings.

From the ninth AD onwards, wall tiles became a major decoration for the first time in countries where Islamic culture predominated (Lemmen, n.d.). Islamic potters then introduced lustre tiles for use in mosques and palaces. These lustre decoration were made by combining metal compounds of silver or copper with the glaze. It will next produce a thin film of metal on the surface of the fired tile. In the beginning, every tile was glazed with only one colour and a pattern built with it. However, from time to time, the designs on each tile became more complex and complicated. Mathematics, science and geometry were used to create the perfect tiles. Those exact measurement and shapes gave magical properties to buildings. This technique or way was borrowed from the older religions where priest were not just spiritual guides but were also highly advanced mathematicians, astronomers, scientists, inventors, teachers, philosophers and alchemists who understood the powers behind Creation (Lemmen, n.d.). Tilework was a favourite means of decorating architecture throughout the Islamic lands. Together with mural painting and other arts, tiles brought colour and splendid designs to buildings. Islamic tiles are found over a wide geographical region covering most of the Middle East, parts of Asia, North Africa and Southern Spain.

To begin with, the Islam religion was brought to the world by the Prophet Muhammad in the early seventh-century. Jerusalem is one of the important city for Islam as it is the site of the Dome of the Rock built around 688-691 CE (Lemmen, n.d.). The building is not a mosque but a shrine pilgrims built over a sacred stoned believed to be the place from which the Prophet Muhammad ascended into heaven.

The production of the Islamic pottery and tile started mostly in a small family operated workshop. These workshops usually located in area where raw materials for their craft and viable market for their ceramic product were available. According to Porter, the workshop then were not only a place to produce tiles but also carry out a social function as the place where the men from the village would gather together in the afternoons and evenings (1995). In these workshops, techniques and trade secrets were passed down from father to son and as such to ensure the continuity of the tradition. Once a person had finished their training, many of them will wander off to start their own business in other location. Family potters placed high value on strict adherence to the hierarchy of skills and established techniques and designs and this may also explain the inherent conservatism of Islamic pottery and tile manufacture as family potteries were inclined to resist change once proven and successful methods of production and design had been established (Lemmen, n.d.).

Techniques and Decorations

The principles techniques used in the decoration of Islamic tilework are (1) lustre, (2) underglaze painting and overglaze painting (minai and lajvardina), (3) tile mosaic and cuerda seca.


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In a ceramic context, the word ‘lustre’ describes a metallic sheen giving off multi-coloured reflections. This technique was first used in Egypt in the eight-century mainly to decorate glass. During that time, lustre tiles were found at Samarra in Iraq and at the Great Mosque in Tunisia (Porter, 1995). The most brilliant period of the production of lustre tile was between the twelfth and fourteenth centuries at the potteries of Kashan.

It is a complicated process to produce lustre tiles. It is gained by applying a mixture of silver or copper oxides to the cold surface of a glazed vessel or tile. This then will be fired again to extract oxygen from the oxides and reduces them to a pure metallic state where they become fixed to the surface. The object is then lightly rubbed to remove any earthy left over.

Underglaze and Overglaze Painting

In the twelve century, the most successful attempts at underglaze painting were achieved after the discovery of the frit body. The colours were painted either directly on the body of on a thin quartzy surface and then glazed by using a transparent colour. In Kashan, the technique was mainly used on pots rather than tiles. There are two techniques associate with this painting;

The minai technique (came from an Arabic word ‘mina’ which means glaze) where the potters would paint coloured pigments over an object as well as under the glaze. Meanwhile the lajvardina technique (came from a Persian word which means cobalt) is a technique where various colours including white, red and angular shape of gold leaf were applied over a cobalt blue or turquoise ground.

Tile Mosaic and Cuerda Seca

This technique was first adopted in Anatolia in the early thirteenth century. A century later, it appeared in Iran and Central Asia. There are various terms used to describe this technique such as cut tilework and mosaic faience.

In the early times, mosaic is said to be fragile if it is not created properly. As stated by Porter (1995), recent search in Morocco has shown that tile mosaic (or in Morocco is known as ‘zillij’) had to be cut after firing because if it is cut before, the pieces tended to shrink. In Timur’s palace in Aq Saray, there were the imprint of the pieces of tile mosaic which have fallen out of the clay panels can be clearly spotted. This is a proof that mosaic needed to be done with full care.

A technique developed side by side with tile mosaic during the fourteenth century in Central Asia was cuerda seca which came from a Spanish word meaning ‘dry cord.’ Throughout the process, complete tiles were painted with coloured pigments which were separated from each other to prevent them from running by an oily substance. This technique was used widely during the Timurid period. Persian potters were responsible for transmitting the cuerda seca technique to Turkey.

The Geometric Patterns in Islamic Tiles

Islamic art will usually avoid figurative images such as human and animal to avoid becoming objects of worship. While geometric pattern had reached a pinnacle in the Islamic world, the sources for both the shapes and the intricate patterns already existed in late antiquity among the Greeks, Romans and Sasarian in Iran (“Geometric Patterns in,” 2001). This pattern provide a visual confirmation of the complexity that can be achieved with such simple tool. In this case, according to Hays (2016), starting from a very basic assumptions, one is able to build up a remarkable number of proofs about shapes.

Islamic geometric design mixes the element of math, art and history. Consisting of such simple forms as the circle and the square, geometric patterns were combined, duplicated, interlaced, and arranged in intricate combinations, thus becoming one of the most distinguishing features of Islamic art.

Geometric patterns is an expression of faith. Every shape and pattern have their own symbolic significance (Zarah Hussain, 2009). For example, the repetition within many of the designs evokes the nature of God, with a small section of work mirroring the pattern of the whole piece. In the same way, a small part of God’s creation on Earth reflects his divine and infinite nature. Muslim artists believe that by looking at these patterns, individuals can have a better understanding of God and the world in which they live in. The use of patterns is part of the way that Islamic art represents nature and objects by their spiritual qualities and not by their physical and material qualities.

However the issues, Branstatter (2017) in her article argued that shapes and patters do not have any semilogical meaning in Islamic art. But somehow she agrees that they do have abstract meanings that may influence when they are used. For example, vegetal shape are often connected to the Garden of Paradise, circles represent infinity because they have no beginning or ending while interlacing polygons are based on the circular pattern which create some of the most complex patterns, expressing inexhaustible variety.

The more complex geometric patterns of Islamic tiles also had an impact on the field of mathematics. In this case, Stuart (2017) stated that to shape large installations of thousands of different segments, the artists had to create complex blueprints where each shape needed to be perfect and conform to exact measurements. Historian have assumed that sheer hard work with the equivalent of a ruler and compass allowed craftsmen to create the ornate star-and-polygon tile patterns that cover mosques, shrines and other buildings that stretch from Turkey through Iran and on to India (The Associated Press, 2007). A Harvard University researches argues that 500 years ago, mathematics met up with artists and began creating far more complex tile patterns that culminated in what mathematicians today call ‘quasi-crystalline designs’ (“Math in Mosaics,” 2007). The researcher added that geometric patterns are not equivalent to quasi-crystal patterns. In this case, quasi-crystals are made by fitting together a set of shapes, including five to ten sided shapes into patterns that unlike typical tile floors and don’t repeat while geometric pattern are the repetition of those shapes (Biase, 2015). Quasi-crystals can also be superimposed on themselves by rotating by a fifth, tenth or twelfth of a full circle, but that would violate the rules of geometry as polygons with five, ten and twelve sides cannot be packed together without leaving gaps. However, at one glance, geometric patterns and quasi-crystal patterns are almost the same and cannot be differentiated easily.


In conclusion, Islamic art is not the art of a particular country or a particular people. It is the art of a civilization formed by a combination of historical circumstances. With its geographic spread and long history, Islamic art was inevitably subject to a wide range of regional and even national styles and influences as well as changes within the various periods of its development. It is all the more remarkable then that even under these circumstances, Islamic art especially tiles has always retained its intrinsic quality and unique identity. In this case, Islamic art has notable achievements in ceramics, both in pottery and tiles for buildings which reached heights unmatched by other cultures. What makes it more unique is the technique used in the making of those tiles. Until today, the tilework production continue to grow and flourish throughout the world. If back then tiles were something luxury that not everyone can experience, now it has become common in every house and mall. The competition grows as the production are also getting out of hand, worldwide.

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