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The Beauty in Classical Islamic Culture

The term ḥusn in classical Arabic means beauty; it is a synonymous of jamāl, which is more common in modern language. Ḥusn and jamāl with their derivatives encompassed esthetic as well as moral beauty, i.e. the beautiful and the good.

In Jāhiliyya poetry the derivative ḥisān was used to describe beautiful women al-nisā’ al-ḥisān (Vílchez, p. 83-85). The derivatives of ḥusn are used in the Qur’an in the sense of good, goodness, virtue and charity as well as excellence aḥsana kulla shay’in khalaqahu 32:7, fa-aḥsana ṣuwarakum 40:64; 64:3. The stem ḥusn appears as attribute of the names of God al-asmā’ al-ḥusnā 59:24 commonly understood as the beautiful names although it should be perhaps interpreted in the sense of good and best.

Several other terms are used in the Qur’an to refer to beauty and perfection in connection with God’s creation and with earthly beauty such as zukhruf, ṭayyib, bahīj, zīna and their derivatives.

Classical Arabic culture does not have an equivalent term for aesthetic, as was also the case in European culture before the term was coined in 18th century Germany. However, the notion of the autonomous beauty perceived by the senses and experienced for its own detectability, independently from the good, occupies a central place in the intellectual and material culture of the Islamic world. Islamic philosophers and scholars of other disciplines have dedicated great attention to the sensuous and psychological mechanisms of the perception of beauty and set the accent on the subjective factor, thus placing the individual human experience in a central position in relation to the universe, fully justifying the acknowledgement of an Islamic humanism. While Islamic culture has addressed the perception of beauty by the human being in conceptual terms, it did not articulate an all-encompassing theory of Art. Rather it produced various dispersed yet elaborate concepts of artistic experiences regarding specific subjects, such as the Qur’an text, literature, human beauty, music and the visual arts that together form a substantial corpus on the aesthetic subject.

 The Beauty of the Qur’ān

The concept of aesthetic beauty or the beauty of the form begins with the interpretation of the Qur’an, which Muslims believe to be the word of God Himself transmitted to the world by his illiterate messenger Muḥammad. The unequalled and inimitable beauty of the language and the perfection of the style of the Qur’an are considered to be a miracle (iʿjāz) and the compelling evidence of its divine essence. No human being is capable of producing a literary text comparable to it. In consistence with this concept, the notion of artistic or intellectual genius connected to a divine source as it exists in Greek thought is absent in Islamic culture. Because the language is essential to the revelation, the translation of the Qur’an is not acknowledged as equivalent to the Arabic text (Kirmani, p. 34-43, Vílchez, p. 66-77).

A whole tradition of early texts refers to conversion to Islam through aesthetic experience. The mere sound and the poetical effect of the recited Qur’an move the heart and fascinate the listener to the extent of ecstasy, revealing the divine author. In this context the words ḥusn and jamāl and other derivatives of the same roots are frequently used. The aesthetic factor here is manifested in the power of the form and its psychological effect on the soul that provides the evidence for God’s authorship. The concept of the power of beauty on the soul is a leitmotif in the Islamic aesthetic discourse.

 The Qur’ān on Beauty

The Qur’anic text itself dedicates an important place to the aesthetic beauty of the form. God’s creation is beautiful in the sense of pleasing to the senses. He has perfected all things. The term zayyana to ornament is used in connection with God’s creation; He has adorned the sky with stars. Ornament is an essential aspect of beauty (15:16; 18:7; 27:88; 32:7; 35:27-28; 37:6-7; 41:11-12; 50:6; 67:3-5). The Qur’an and other religious texts, unlike in the Christian tradition, describe Paradise in physical terms, referring to precious materials, natural and processed, such as gems and jewellery, garments, architecture and ornaments 55:54, 76 and to beautiful women (khayyirāt, ḥisān) 55:70 (See also al-Ghazālī, IV, p. 487-95).

Not only nature was created to please, but also the human being was given an excellent shape: aḥsan taqwīm (95:4). Human beings are allowed to adorn themselves with beautiful garments and jewellery for which God provided the material on earth (Qur’an 7:26; 16:14; 35:12).

The famous and often-quoted Hadith, about God being beautiful and loving everything beautiful, might not necessarily be authentic but it always had a great impact particularly on Sufism.


al-Ghazālī (d.1111)

From the perspective of Sunni orthodox thought al-Ghazālī’s discourse on beauty (using both terms jamāl and ḥusn) is paramount (Al-Ghazālī, IV, p. 272-96, 400-06). Beauty is good because it is a source of pleasure and pleasure is pursued for its own sake (idrāk al-jamāl fīhi ʿayn al-ladhdha wa ’l-ladhdha maḥbūba li-dhātihā; kullu ladhīdh maḥbūb). God’s perfect creation is like a work of art made by an artist or designer (muṣawwir), and the perception of God’s creation is comparable to the perception of art. Just as a beautiful calligraphy or a wall painting inspires the beholder to reflect upon the artist’s talent, the beauty of the world induce us to think of the Designer who created it. In long passages al-Ghazālī invites the believer to contemplate the wonders of the universe in order to find God, “pleasure being a form of cognition” (al ladhdhāt tābiʿa li ’l-idrākāt), (man dhāqa ʿarafa) [Al-Ghazālī, IV, p. 283, 285]. God created beauty for man to perceive and enjoy so that he gets a taste of the eternal bliss of the hereafter. But beauty is not merely a visual experience; it can be perceived by smell and touch as well as cognition. There is a form of beauty beyond the external aesthetic beauty sensed through sight, hearing, touch, and taste, which is the intelligible beauty of abstract subjects such as knowledge and virtue that is perceived by the “inner sight” rather than the senses. The more exalted the subject of perception, the higher the pleasure; the knowledge of God is the perfect perception of beauty and the utmost form of pleasure, surpassing all sensuous and intellectual satisfactions.

In al-Ghazālī’s view the emotional factor of perception is not bound to formal criteria but follows the affinity of the soul (tanāsub al arwāḥ) [Al-Ghazālī, IV, p. 296].

Although al-Ghazālī compares God’s creation with a work of art, reversely he does not associate the artistic achievement of the human being with divine sources, nor is the artist in his concept endowed with any super-human powers. The notion of genius is absent in the Islamic concept; artistic works ṣināʿāt belong to the realm of knowledge that needs to be acquired with endeavour.


Ibn al-Haytham (d.1039)
From the perspective of the scientist, a significant contribution to the aesthetic discourse was made by Ibn al-Haytham, a prominent physicist and mathematician, who achieved a breakthrough in the field of optics by distinguishing between the physical and the mental aspects of perception (Sabra, I, p. 200-207). The perception of the external world is achieved through the mind which interprets the visual sensations that reach the eye mechanically. Sight perceives the various properties of an object which, either individually or in conjunction with one another, produce beauty which has a pleasing effect on the soul. Sight can only perceive the external features of things without analysing them; it is the mental faculty of discriminating through analogies that perceives beauty. The perception of beauty is thus based on an intellectual process involving the ability to judge or discriminate objectively. The process of judgement leads the raw material perceived by the eye to the mind which sorts it, categorises it, and elaborates on it by associating it with other things stored in memory, before finally leading it to the heart. Ibn al-Haytham’s psychological analysis of visual aesthetics and the mental process of visual perception converge with the theories of his contemporary Ibn Sīnā (d. 428/1037), who emphasized the psychological factor, endorsed in most Arabic statements on beauty. Ibn Sīnā conceived pleasure as dependent on two factors, perfection and the perception of it. The latter is a form of knowledge and thus variable and relative. The intensity of pleasure is proportional to the degree of perfection and at the same time to the extent of its perception (Goichon, p. 470-472).


From the litterateur’s perspective, al-Jāḥiẓ (d. 868-9) emphasized the individual psychological factor in the aesthetic experience giving it priority over fixed criteria of beauty. His approach followed the principle inherited from Manichaeism that all things have simultaneously positive and negative aspects whose ultimate value and impact on the mind are determined by the quality and proportion of their mixture (Geries, p. 55). Bad and good are not absolute values, but a matter of circumstances and subjective experience. He similarly viewed the human being as a microcosm which combines all elements and attributes that exist in nature, with all their disparity and contradictions (Pellat, p. 222).

Al-Jāḥiẓ also addressed the subject of abstract beauty, which for him was too subtle to be easily or commonly perceived (Pellat, p. 420). Based on a mental process, the perception of abstract beauty requires intellectual skill to be its accomplishment.

The notion that the individual on the receiving side has to be qualified to perceive beauty is paralleled by the common concept in Arabic literature that the poet or artist can be successful only through hard work, no genius or divine contribution being involved there.

Because of the significance of poetry as the paramount form of art in pre-modern Islamic society, the elaborate concepts of Arab poetical aesthetics are relevant to the understanding of other artistic aspects of culture as well beyond poetry. Despite the Prophet’s hostility to poets and the rejection of music by some puritanical theologians, these arts were highly celebrated and cultivated. With its emphasis on formal aesthetic and stylistic criteria, its faithfulness to the ideals of pre Islamic poetical tradition and its hedonistic associations, classical poetry maintained a worldly outlook and was left to the secular domain. Classical Arabic literary criticism adopted the Aristotelian distinction between form and content. The good poet was the one who masters his art, no matter what his subject matter, and whether or not it complied with moral criteria, literary quality having here priority over sincerity (Trabulsi, p. 119-121).

According to Ḥāzim al-Qartajanni’s (1211-85) elaborate theories, poetry unlike natural sciences aims at addressing and moving the soul rather operating with logic (See ʿUṣfūr’s study on this subject, esp. p. 298, 302, 381). It is an aesthetic experience where images, imagination and fantasy are involved in reproducing, enhancing, exaggerating, and transfiguring reality, to accomplish the required psychological effect. In poetry imagination goes hand in hand with intellect.

Ibn Sīnā qualified Arabic poetry as mainly aesthetic and subjective, made to address emotions, please, and impress without being bound by moral or ethical purpose (Goodman, p. 226). With these attributes it differed from Greek narrative and epic poetry which was purposeful and engaged, intended to influence moral conduct (Dahiyat, p. 48, 74).

Al-Iṣbahānī his Book of Songs states that “not all songs have a meaning and not all that is meaningful pleases the viewer and entertains the listener” (Iṣbahānī, I, p. 2). Meanings are everywhere according to al-Jāḥiẓ, the issue is to give them an attractive formulation (Rosenthal, Fortleben, p. 35).

These aesthetic concepts were not detached from the reality on the ground, but mirrored the taste of Arab medieval society and the secular environment of poetry there. The immense success of the Maqāmāt of al-Ḥarīrī as a work of Belles-Lettres written in rhymed prose in a highly recherché style is an example. The hero of this narrative is a rather immoral person, who made his living using doubtful methods, but always succeeds to get away easily and unpunished thanks to his eloquent poetic pleadings, which earn him sympathy and forgiveness.

An extreme statement endorsing the aesthetic function of the poetry is a saying that poetry is associated with sin and if involved with morality it degenerates, (al shiʿr nakad bābuhu al sharr, fa-idhā dakhala fī ‘l-khayr fasada) (ʿAbbās, p. 38f.; Van Gelder, p. 42).

Unlike the Greeks, who considered poetry as a gift rather than a science, the Arabs emphasized the technical aspect of poetry and other arts, which need study and skill. Poetry had to be mastered professionally as any other craft (ṣināʿa) and it had to be practised with adequate technical tools (Bencheikh, p. 82-84). The poet has often been compared with a jeweller operating with precious metals (Abu Deeb, p. 368). This was reiterated by Ibn Khaldūn (d. 1406), who added that this art had its own complex methodological tools (uslūb) to serve the meaning (maqṣūd). Meaning, which is not the poet’s main concern, is like water which assumes the shape and colour of its container, the poet’s role being to shape the container. Ibn Khaldūn judged most of religious poetry as inferior because of the ubiquity of its content (Ibn Khaldūn, p. 636). Like other arts (ṣanā’iʿ) poetry has its own tools; to achieve its goal it has to follow the aesthetic canons of the discipline rather than good purposes.

However, some thinkers, rather than literary critics, adopted the Platonic concepts of beauty, such as al Rāzī (d. 925 or 935), Miskawayh (d. 1030) and Ibn Hazm (d.1064), condemned love poetry and romances as frivolous and immoral (ʿUṣfūr, p. 68; Vílchez, p. 269). Neither did the aesthetic mainstream approach of classical poetry preclude the development of an engaged poetry with political and moral associations as, for example, the poems interspersed in the chronicles or the poetry of jihād in times of warfare.


Whereas poetry was conceived to incite imagination and arouse emotion, music was the art to which Arabic literature attributed the most profound impact on the soul. Its stirring power may lead to the profound religious experience of ecstasy or to the kind of intoxication associated immorality.

Although Abū Ḥanīfa (d. 767) and Imām Shāfiʿī (d. 820) condemned music, in particular when performed by slave girls, al-Ghazālī contradicted them with the argument that there is no statement in the Qur’an or in the Prophet’s traditions to justify such hostility. One of his arguments in favour of music was that it is perceived by one of our five senses which, together with the mind, were created to be used. He mentions the musical performances of the Patriarch David and the singing of birds which flatters the ear and refers to a Hadith saying that all prophets sent by God had a beautiful voice (mā baʿatha Allāhu nabiyyan illā ḥasan al ṣawt); a preacher should have, therefore, a pleasant harmonic speech to move his listeners. He divided the influence of music into two categories, a spiritual and a physical.

Al-Ghazālī’s opinion was endorsed by other theologians, especially among the Sufis who, referring to the biblical David tradition and to a Hadith, believed music to be attribute of Paradise. In Sufi rituals, the samāʿ or musical performances, including singing and dancing have been universally practised although the debate over its permissibility never stopped. Al-Ghazālī viewed the samāʿ as an encounter with God that leads the mystic to ecstasy, uncovering hidden emotions and purifying the heart. Other advocates of music and poetry argued that music like poetry or even language cannot per se be wrong; their moral value depends rather on their context and use (Al-Ghazālī, II, p. 245 80; III, p. 120; V, p. 110 23). Al-Ghazālī, however, condemned the use of certain musical instruments that were used in frivolous contexts. He approved of love songs because they arouse desire, strengthen feelings and excite pleasure, all of which are permissible on the condition that the relationship between the lovers is lawful; the Prophet having authorized music, singing and dance as a natural expression of pleasure. Music performances should be allowed on festive occasions and celebrations, for pleasure is laudable (al surūr mamdūḥ). He criticises the antagonists of music as being incapable of perceiving the beauty of God’s creation.

The Ikhwān al-Ṣafā (10th century) adopted the Pythagorean principle of mathematical proportions as defining the beauty of all things and as the basis of universal harmony. Earthly art is a reflection of the heavenly superior world. The principle of earthly beauty reflecting the heavenly was adopted in Sufism, and its poetry which expresses the love of God with the terminology of erotic love and depicts the ecstasy of the union with Him as drunkenness. Music is an echo of cosmic music produced by the movement of the celestial bodies reflecting the harmony of the universe. It can produce a perfect emotion which can exalt the soul and repel ugliness. It generates pleasure to the soul like wine does to the body. Ikhwān al Ṣafā distinguished two aspects to the art of music the art itself and its psychological effect (Ikhwān al Ṣafā, I, p. 289).

In Arab “Mirrors of princes” the authors refer to the sages of Greece, India, and Persia, who described music both as a serious subject and a useful pleasure that educated and cultivated the mind, improved the character, and revived the spirit; that is why it was used by Christians and others in their religious ceremonies. It is therapy for melancholy, and it soothes and inspires children. Music is essential to the well being of kings because of its healing powers. The belief in the therapeutic effects of music, or the influence of musical modes on the mind, was based on the Greek doctrine according to which the elements and humours are in relation to particular notes and rhythms, reflecting cosmic order. Al Kindī (d. 9th century) was one of the great protagonists of this doctrine; he analysed the soothing combination of music, colours and perfumes (Farmer, p. 37).

The encyclopedist al-Masʿūdī (d. 956) considered the study of music to be the noblest bequest of Greek culture because music ignites and transports the soul; it is the highest of all pleasures. Music was not only art but also science, pleasure, and therapy, a prescription for physicians to administer to the mind or body of the diseased. As many other authors, he believed that there was a correspondence between the human body and the universe and that the humours of the body were tuned to the vibration of music (Masʿūdī, II, p. 591).

For the musician and musicologist al Kātib (10-11th century), the true enjoyment of music is not that of immediate emotion, which is the easy access to music, but rather that perceived by a combination of the faculty of audition with that of judgement.

Ibn Khaldūn regarded music as the most sophisticated form of art because it could only subsist in a highly civilized and urbanized society as an expression of leisure and luxury, devoid of any function other than that of pastime and enjoyment. It therefore perishes when its cultural environment declines (Ibn Khaldūn, p. 469 475). In the visual arts and material culture of the mediaeval Muslim world music occupies a prominent place as a sign of auspiciousness. It is often associated with representations of courtly scenes, showing musicians and musical performances along other pastimes. The juxtaposition of good wishes inscriptions to these scenes reiterates this message.

Islamic culture has in general been in favour of the association of beautifying practices also in religious matters. The reading of the Qur’an follows rules regarding not only the accents that define the meanings but also the mode of intonation and style of recitation. The melodious recitation of the Qur’an has been treated as a musical art, being performed with great virtuosity by celebrated reciters. Shaykh ʿAbd Bāsiṭ ʿAbd al-Ṣamad (d. 1988) was a famous virtuoso who earned several competition awards for his artful chanting. Umm Kulthum (d. 1975) the famous Egyptian singer was trained and began her career as a Qur’an reciter. There are also melodious interpretations of the call to prayer adhān, particularly in Egypt. Waqf documents of the Mamluk period for instance, stipulate that the preachers and mu’adhdhins should have a nice voice. Like the ornamentation of the mosque or the illumination of the Qur’an book, such embellishments were opposed by some ultra-orthodox. However, the evidence of practice reveals a clear vote in favour of aesthetic and artistic expression as a form of religious veneration.

In the pre-modern decorative arts of Islam music scenes have played a major role as decorative motifs on pottery, metal and glass wares as well as architectural decorations. It was also an integral part of courtly life.

 Human beauty

Islamic culture has emphasized the aesthetic appearance of the human being. The Qur’an states that God has perfected the form of the human being and requires the worshipper to be well dressed when going to prayer. The only truly narrative text in the Qur’an 12:30,32, which tells the story of Potiphar’s wife with Joseph, powerfully expresses the fascination with human beauty. When Potiphar’s wife introduces Joseph to her female friends, these get so mesmerized at the sight of his beauty that they cut themselves with the fruit knives they are holding.

Several Hadiths praise human beauty as a virtue, describing the handsome believer as the utmost perfection, or saying that handsome people are auspicious: uṭlubu al-khayra ʿinda ḥisān al-wujūh. Al-Ghazālī describes physical beauty as blessing and power (niʿma, qudra) (Al-Ghazālī, IV, p. 99-100; Behrens-Abouseif, Beauty, p. 63-65). The notion of beauty being auspicious is also found in the visual arts (see below).

A rare phenomenon in the history of religions is the abundance of descriptions of the Prophet’s physical features and of how he dressed and perfumed himself. Following this tradition, the Arabic medieval chronicles often describe the physical features of monarchs. Verbal portraiture substituted for effigies.

In the classical age of Arab civilization, in Baghdad and Cordoba, a sophisticated urban society flourished that dedicated attention and care to the aesthetics of physical appearance and social demeanor. The culture of adab at the court of Baghdad created the concept of the ẓarīf meaning the refined person. Al-Muwashsha (meaning the Embroidered Gown) is a manual of the 9th century authored by a man called al-Washshā (meaning the embroiderer), describing in detail the rules and etiquette and social aesthetics that also include a section on the hygiene of the body as well as a section on the female counterpart, the ẓarīfa. The zarīf has a pleasing appearance with a slender figure, dresses with taste but without ostentatiousness, cultivates a refined life-style and selects carefully the objects he surrounds himself with. He has good manners while eating and drinking and engaging in conversations. The musician Ziryāb, educated in Baghdad and having served at the court of Harun al-Rashid, was a zarīf, who became famous at the court of the caliph ʿAbd al-Rahman II (822-852) in Cordoba, where he introduced his own fashions in music, dress, cosmetics and cuisine.

 The Visual Arts

The aesthetic approach prevailed in the visual arts as it did in poetry, both arts being rooted in the secular domain. The Islamic visual arts flourished mainly under the patronage either of the ruling establishment or the urban elites. Unlike Christian Europe, there was no ecclesiastic art to be shaped by the equivalent of a church, neither were the visual arts shaped by any theoretical concept. The flourishing of a sophisticated urban culture under Islam created a wide range of secular arts and crafts, where the pleasure of beauty for its own delectability prevailed.

The art of architecture, however, occupies a peculiar place, as symbol of the political power. When referring to architecture the Qur’an speaks of the ruins of ancient cities and the vestiges of bygone civilisations that should provide an example of the futility of earthly life and serve as a lesson in humility, in the same sense as the tower of Babel in the Bible exemplifies the ostentatious aspect of architecture. The Qur’an’s disdain for worldly architecture is reiterated in the Prophet’s tradition. This notwithstanding, the ruling establishment, whose duty was to establish and oversee the religious institutions in their realm were the major patron of religious institutions and their monuments. Historiography, therefore, gave the rulers the credit of being the primary designers of imperial buildings, thus emphasizing the political meaning of architecture rather than its artistic achievement. In absence of any dictate from theologians, the design of the mosques adopted a variety of forms, largely following regional traditions. The only religious precept that had to be followed was the orientation towards Mecca dictated in the Qur’an.

Almost as cliché, numerous statements and sayings in Islamic literature describe monuments as witnesses of the grandeur of their patrons. By the same token some scholars have taken a suspicious attitude towards ostentatious monuments and the lavish decoration of sanctuaries, among them Ibn Ḥazm and al-Ghazālī (Al-Ghazālī, II, p. 380; Vílchez, p. 257-260). However, the mainstream of Islamic culture saw in the lavish architecture and decoration of the mosques a glorification of Islam as religion and as political force. This attitude is definitely confirmed by the architectural legacy of the Muslim world.

The patron expressed his piety and legitimized his rule with the foundation and endowment act of the religious institution, which was traditionally documented in monumental calligraphic inscriptions on its walls. The endowment of a mosque with accomplished architecture and elaborate decoration was a testimony to religious devotion. Inscribing God’s word on the walls of the mosque is an act of worship, a written recitation, which at the same time bestows blessing and holiness to the mosque or to any other object. The belief that the Qur’an is the word of God transmitted to humanity in the form of an accessible book has played a decisive role in the visual arts by bestowing on the written word supremacy and priority over any other visual sign. Islamic patterns of decoration, whether geometrical or vegetal, are not associated with a canonical symbolism but are universally and indiscriminately applied to religious and secular objects. Architectural and other artistic styles evolved along the lines of regional, chronological and individual patronage rather than ideological or sectarian associations. In the pre-modern art of the Muslim world no stylistic categorisation can be made between Sunni and Shiʿi art and architecture. Along the same line, pre-modern Islam was not identified by one specific symbol like the cross in Christianity (the crescent is a modern creation), although the text of the shahada or tenet of Muslim faith might often fulfil this function.

Although calligraphy due to its association with the writing of the Qur’an had a unique and exalted status, as an artistic discipline it was traditionally developed in the political domain of the chancellery. It was the only visual art in medieval Islam to have a written canon based on precisely established rules of proportions and to be considered a truly scholarly discipline. Unlike the craftsmen or the manual artists, calligraphers, who belonged to the intellectuals, have been highly honoured in literature and biographical encyclopaedias.

Alongside calligraphy, the art of illumination created to decorate the early Qur’an lavish manuscripts, was henceforth universally adopted to adorn secular books as well. Due to the eminence of the art of the book and its courtly patronage, the decorative repertoire of illumination became a treasure trove of designs and a source of inspiration to all other crafts.

Calligraphy was not confined to books and monuments, but became a major ornamental motif in itself, applied on all kinds of objects. Ornament and text were combined in the Islamic artistic vocabulary. Decorated surfaces have been one of the earliest expressions of Islamic history art. The Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem built in 691 was decorated with glass mosaics not only on its inner walls following Byzantine tradition, but on the outside as well. The decoration of the entire inner walls of the Umayyad mosque of Damascus completed in 721 were the largest surface ever to be decorated with glass mosaics. Surface decoration in stucco and other materials also characterised Abbasid architecture. The far-reaching spread of glazed pottery from 9th century Iraq was an unprecedented phenomenon in the world at that time. The qualification of Islamic art by some Western scholars as horror vacui, although highly debatable, is a reaction to the significance of surface decoration in Islamic art and the development of geometrical designs, including their arabesque interpretation, where the two-dimensional linear movements unfold infinitely.

Unlike in medieval European art, it was a characteristic feature of Islamic art and material culture that great skills were invested to adorn objects made of common or base materials, turning them into works of art for princely patrons, such as stucco on brick in architecture or inlaid copper alloys.

The persistence of pre-Islamic traditions and the requirements of an urban refined and often multicultural lifestyle often proved stronger than orthodoxy when it came to figural representations. As was the case with wine poetry, which persisted throughout despite the prohibition of alcohol, figural representations have an uninterrupted tradition with varying emphasis across regions and periods. While they remained absent in the domain of the mosque, figural representations held a prominent place in courtly art as well as on objects of daily use and in the art of the book.

It has been argued that the exclusion of figural representations from the religious domain led artistic creativity to unfold in the direction of abstract and geometric designs. Abstract designs were indeed cultivated at an early stage alongside calligraphy to create an artistic vocabulary for the illuminations of the Qur’an manuscripts and the decoration of mosques. However, the inclination towards stylised and abstract rather than naturalistic motifs cannot be explained alone with the ban of figural motifs in the religious context. Landscapes as they are represented on the mosaics of the Umayyad mosque of Damascus and nature-morte, which are permissible, did not appeal much to the Islamic artists of the following periods. Instead, the artists of the Abbasid period introduced the high stylisation of vegetal motifs, which combined with the classical heritage of geometric patterns widely used on mosaic pavements, created the endless arabesques and geometric stars that brand Islamic art.

Associations of Islamic Art with Paradise have been often made indiscriminately and cliché-wise. Although the after-life cannot be the main source of inspiration in Islamic art, one may speculate that the physical and almost secular features of the Muslim Paradise where the believer’s felicity is a sensual experience of various forms of beauty, may have inspired an artistic culture that links luxuriance and embellishment with auspiciousness and pleasure, and as al-Ghazālī wrote: al-surūr mamdūḥ (pleasure is laudable).



Selected Primary Sources:
al Farābī, Iḥṣā’ al-ʿulūm, ed. ʿU. Amīn (Cairo 1949); Al Ghazālī, Iḥyā’ ʿulūm al-dīn, 16 vols.,(Cairo 1357/1938 39); al Ḥarīrī, Sharḥ maqāmāt al Ḥarīrī, commented by Ibn al Khashshāb and Ibn Barbarī, (n.p. 1326/1908 9); Ḥāzim al-Qartajannī, Minhāj al-bulaghā’ wa sarāj al-udabā’ , (Tunis 1966); Ibn Ḥazm, Ṭawq al ḥamāma, (Beirut 1992); Ibn Khaldūn, al Muqaddima, (Beirut n.d.); Ibn al-Nadīm, al-Fihrist, (Cairo n.d.); Ibn Sīnā, Fann al-shiʿr min kitāb al-shifā’, ed. ʿA. Badawī (Cairo 1953); Ibn Qayyim al Jawziyya, Rawḍat al muḥibbīn, Cairo n.d; al Iṣbahānī, Kitāb al aghānī, 24 vols., (Cairo 1963); al Farābī, Kitāb al musīqī al kabīr, ed. Gh. ʿA. Khashaba (Cairo 1967); al Jāḥiẓ, al Ḥayawān. eds. ʿA. Hārūn & M.B. Ḥalabī (Cairo 1948); al Jāhiẓ, (attributed to), al Kitāb al musammā bi-l maḥāsin wa-l-aḍḍāḍ. (Le Livre des Beautés et des Antithèses), ed. Gerlov Van Vloten (Leiden 1898); (repr. Amsterdam 1974); al Jurjānī, ʿAbd al Qāhir, Asrār al balāgha fī ʿilm al bayān, (Beirut 1995); al Kātib, al Ḥasan Ibn Aḥmad, Kitāb kamāl adab al ghināʾ, ed. Gh.ʿA. Khashaba, (Cairo, 1975); al Masʿūdī, Murūj al dhahab, Beirut 1982; al Nawājī, Ḥulbat al kumayt fī l-adab wa-l nawādir al mutaʿalliqa bi-l khamriyyāt, (Cairo 1299/1881 82); al Washshā, ʿAbū Ṭayyib Muḥammad Ibn Isḥāq, Kitāb al muwashshā, ed. R. Brünnow (Leiden 1886).

Secondary sources :
The basic secondary sources for the concept of this article: Doris Behrens-Abouseif, Beauty in Arabic Culture, (Princeton 1999) and José Miguel Puerta Vílchez, Historia del Pensamiento Estético Àrabe, (Madrid 1997). Both works are based on Arabic texts.
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How to cite:
Doris Behrens-Abouseif, «Ḥusn: The Beauty in Classical Islamic Culture », in Houari Touati (ed.), Encyclopedia of Mediterranean Humanism, May 2015, URL =