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Arts of the Islamic World

Dish with eight-pointed star, 1640–1670

Dish with eight-pointed star, 1640–1670. Iran. Fritware with underglaze decoration. Gift of Cheney Cowles in honor of Phoebe McCoy, 2007.32.

Incense burner, 1700–1800

Incense burner, 1700–1800. China. Qing dynasty (1644–1911). Bronze with gold inlay. The Avery Brundage Collection, B62B31.

Umar Maya, companion to Muhammad’s uncle Amir Hamzah, approx. 1960

Umar Maya, companion to Muhammad’s uncle Amir Hamzah, approx. 1960. Indonesia; Yogyakarta, Central Java. Wood, cloth, and mixed mediums. Gift of the Mimi and John Herbert Collection, F2000.86.122.

“Garden of Happiness,” an Ottoman Turkish poem, 2004

“Garden of Happiness,” an Ottoman Turkish poem, 2004. Mohamed Zakariya (American, b. 1942). Ink and colors on paper. Gift of Anne Breckenridge Dorsey and Carolyn J. Young, F2005.73.

An illuminated illustration of the holy city Mecca, 1750–1800

An illuminated illustration of the holy city Mecca, 1750–1800. India; probably Bijapur, Andhra Pradesh state. Watercolors and gold on paper. Museum purchase, 2010.323.

Carpet with floral decoration, approx. 1620–1630

Carpet with floral decoration, approx. 1620–1630. Probably Pakistan; Lahore. Wool. The Avery Brundage Collection, 2010.316.

Islam has been an important cultural force in much of Asia for more than five hundred years, and in some parts for more than a thousand. Today, far more Muslims live in other parts of Asia than in the Arab areas of Asia such as Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Syria.

Like people of other beliefs, many Muslims contend with issues of identity and the meaning and place of religion in their lives.

The Islamic world is and always has been more diverse and complex than most outsiders have thought. A Pakistani musician, an Iraqi farmer, and a Malaysian astronaut may have little in common; they are likely, however, to be conscious of being part of a worldwide community of Muslims.

Islam expanded quickly from its homeland in Arabia after the death of the prophet Muhammad in 632. Within a hundred years it had reached Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan in the east; and Libya, Morocco, and southern Spain in the west. Sometimes Islam spread as Arab dynasties expanded, but more often populations embraced Islam after exposure to its tenets and culture through traders and teachers.

The visual arts play an important role in Muslim societies. In particular, architecture, calligraphy, painting, metalworking, textiles, and ceramics have reached heights of beauty and sophistication admired around the world. In all the areas Islam has spread, local artists have created art reflecting both this new faith and the pre-Islamic traditions of the region.

The term “Islamic art” as used in the West has sometimes been a source of confusion. While the terms “Buddhist art” and “Christian art” cover only religious art, “Islamic art” has been understood more broadly. According to the scholar Jonathan Bloom, the term covers “art not necessarily made by Muslims or for Muslim practice, but rather art made in soci­eties where most people—or the most important people—were Muslims.”

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