The Origin of Islamic Art (part 1 of 3)

To celebrate Adam Williamson & Richard Henry’s ‘Art Of Islamic Pattern’ study trip to Granada next Thursday, we hope you enjoy this post series on Islamic Art. If you don’t have a mid-September plan yet, don’t wait! Registration is open for ‘The Art of Islamic Pattern’ workshop in Granada again from the 14th to the 17th of September. Contact now for more information.

The Origin of Islamic Art
(part 1 of 3):


‘ It is not surprising, nor strange, that the most outward manifestation of a religion or civilization like Islam- and art is by definition an exteriorization- should reflect in its own fashion what is most inward in that civilization. The substance of art is beauty; and in this, in Islamic terms, is a divine quality and as such has a double aspect: in the world, it is appearance; it is terms, is a divine quality and as such has a double aspect: in the world, it is appearance; it is the garb which, as it were, clothes beautiful things and beings; in God, however, or in itself, it is pure inward beatitude: it is divine quality which, among al the divine qualities manifested in the world, most directly recalls pure Being. ‘

– Titus Burckhardt


Moorish Calligraphy at al-Hambra (Granada, Andalusia) La ghaliba illallah: There is no victory but God’s.

Without Islam, the Arab language would not have been preserved the way it did during the 7th century. This was mainly trough conquering the thought and expressions of the taken territories by imposing the Arabic language as the language of Islam.

Even though there is a clear marriage between the Islamic and the Arabic, it is still difficult for many historians to call it Arabic art, but rather Islamic-Arab art. Because Islamic art was mainly produced by Syrian, Persian and Greek craftsmen and not by Arab people. Nevertheless, the Arabic language has an extraordinary power as a sacred language and continues to influence the Islamic art, as we know it.

Islamic art includes two basic elements that are strongly related to the Arabic language.

One well-known element is the contemplative one. Take for example the Arabesque that tries to find unity through rhythm, a direct expression of rhythm in the visual order.

The other element that stands out strongly in Islamic art and which represents a strong Arabic domination is the interlaced, nature inspired pattern motifs.



Arabesque pattern at the Alhambra, Granada, Andalusia, Spain

In many ways the plastic arts have tried to portray the language of Koran. Even though this is difficult to understand since the Koran does not obey the laws of composition. So in many ways Arab art including poetry and music loves to repeat certain forms and then to introduce sudden variants against the repetitive background. The most profound connection between Islamic Art and the Koran is not the form of the Koran but it is the formless essence, more specifically the notion of tawhid, and its unity with its contemplative characteristics. So in a way all the plastic arts in Islam tries to project a visual order of certain dimensions of Divine Unity.


Surat Al-Fātiĥah (The Opener) – سورة الفاتحة

Surat Al-Fātiĥah (The Opener) – سورة الفاتحة

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Surat Al-Fātiĥah (The Opener) – سورة الفاتحة


Bismi Allahi arrahmani arraheem

Sahih International

In the name of Allah , the Entirely Merciful, the Especially Merciful.

Yusuf Ali

In the name of Allah, Most Gracious, Most Merciful.


Alhamdu lillahi rabbi alAAalameen

Sahih International

[All] praise is [due] to Allah , Lord of the worlds –

Yusuf Ali

Praise be to Allah, the Cherisher and Sustainer of the worlds;


Arrahmani arraheem

Sahih International

The Entirely Merciful, the Especially Merciful,

Yusuf Ali

Most Gracious, Most Merciful;


Maliki yawmi addeen

Sahih International

Sovereign of the Day of Recompense.

Yusuf Ali

Master of the Day of Judgment.


Iyyaka naAAbudu wa-iyyaka nastaAAeen

Sahih International

It is You we worship and You we ask for help.

Yusuf Ali

Thee do we worship, and Thine aid we seek.


Ihdina assirata almustaqeem

Sahih International

Guide us to the straight path –

Yusuf Ali

Show us the straight way,


Sirata allatheena anAAamta AAalayhim ghayri almaghdoobi AAalayhim wala addalleen

Sahih International

The path of those upon whom You have bestowed favor, not of those who have evoked [Your] anger or of those who are astray.

Yusuf Ali

The way of those on whom Thou hast bestowed Thy Grace, those whose (portion) is not wrath, and who go not astray.

Convivencia: Three Faiths in Harmony

Convivencia: Three Faiths in Harmony

The 800-long history of Muslim Spain weaves in and out of glorious civilizations and bitter rivalries, artistic blossoming and terrible plagues, cooperation between religious groups and bloody conflicts. Yet for such a long period of time, especially in medieval Europe, it is extraordinary that Al-Andalus experienced so many extended periods of peace, prosperity and partnership.
Convivencia’ is the Spanish word used to describe the general atmosphere of mutual respect, cooperation and neighbourliness that existed between the three Abrahamic communities, Jewish, Christian and Muslim, during the ‘Golden Era’ of al-Andalus: the Cordoban Caliphate, spanning almost a hundred years, from 929 CE (311 AH) to 1031 CE (413 AH).
So what did convivencia mean in practical terms?
At its peak, in around 1000 CE, about 80% of the population of the Caliphate of Cordoba – which covered most of the Iberian Peninsula – were Muslim. The vast majority of these were converts to Islam from Judaism, or Visigothic Christianity, who did not wish to leave their original Unitarian doctrine for the new Nicean Trinitarianism. Only about 10% of these were actually of foreign origin, mostly Berbers, with a smattering of Yemenis, Egyptians and Syrians.
The remaining 20% of the population were either Christians (who were often called Mozarabes, meaning that they were culturally Arabised but retained their Christian beliefs and practices) or Jews, who shared many customs and beliefs with their new Muslim neighbours, such as honouring the Biblical prophets, sacrificing animals by bleeding them, eschewing pork, and so on. Culturally, these minority communities adopted many aspects of the Islamic culture that surrounded them, especially in the fields of art and architecture.

Horseshoe arches in Mozarabic church in Santiago de Peñalba, León. WikiCommons, Author: Lourdes Cardenal

Horseshoe arches in Mozarabic church in Santiago de Peñalba, León. WikiCommons, Author: Lourdes Cardenal

As ‘people of the book’, Christians and Jews were accorded ‘dhimmi’ status, which gave them protection of life and wealth and the right to practice their religion in exchange for a special tax, called the ‘jizya’. This tax may have encouraged a certain number of conversions, although ‘dhimmi’ peoples were also exempt from paying the obligatory Islamic charity ‘sadaqa’, so it is unclear how many conversions genuinely occurred in order to escape the this tax.
Jews continued to build synagogues under Muslim rule. What is fascinating is the style that evolved among Spanish or Sephardic Jews for decorating their place of worship: among Hebrew inscriptions are intricate Mudéjar stucco carvings, prayer spaces are defined by domes with geometric wooden beams, and holding up the traditional women’s gallery are horseshoe or foliate arches – all features that can also be found in Islamic architecture.
Synagogue 'Santa María la Blanca' in Toledo. WikiCommons, Roy Lindman

Synagogue ‘Santa María la Blanca’ in Toledo. WikiCommons, Roy Lindman

The Golden Rule
Even though the three Abrahamic faiths share a great number of tenets, it is rare to find an entire civilization in which the common ethical motto ‘Do unto others as you would have done unto you’ holds true even on a governmental level. Yet Shari’ah law forbids Muslims from prohibiting Christians living under Muslim rule from continuing their religious practices, or even from making wine or rearing pigs for food. Scattered all over the Cordoba province there were dozens of Christian villages, and new churches and monasteries were built during the Muslim period to serve these protected communities.
The town of Toledo has a fascinating history with regard to Jewish-Muslim relations: when the first wave of North African conquerors reached Toledo, with a small band of warriors and a huge swathe of land to govern, they apparently left the ruling of the newly-dubbed al-Andalus in the hands of the Jewish elders of the city while they pressed northwards. Their attitude of trust and respect kindled an intellectual interest in other faiths that lasted even into the Christian period: after recapturing Toledo in 1085 CE, Alfonso VI (despite lambasting Islam) encouraged the translation of important texts from Greek, Latin, Arabic and Hebrew into Spanish, working alongside Jewish and Muslim scholars.
Jews often found important roles in Muslim courts as doctors, diplomats, advisers, accountants and viziers. Having been persecuted by Visigothic Christian rulers, and before them the Romans, Muslim rule was a positive advance for Spanish Jews. Muslim courts gave patronage to scholars from all walks of life, including many Jewish intellectuals and artists, as well as offering positions of administrative power to learned Sephardic Jews (from Spain or North Africa).
For instance, the father of Hebrew linguistics, Judah ben Hayyuj, moved from his birthplace in Fez to Córdoba, where he worked and died, around 1000 CE. Another famous Jew from the Andalusi period was Isaac Ben Ezra, a wealthy rabbi based in Jaén in the early 10th century CE who built an exquisitely decorated synagogue in Córdoba.
West Wall of Córdoba Synagogue

West Wall of Córdoba Synagogue. WikiCommons, Hameryko

End of an Era
However, the idyll was not to last. By now a decadent, spoilt lot, the Caliphate fell prey to a succession of poor rulers, hordes of unpaid Berber and Slavic mercenaries, and unfair distribution of wealth. Discontent led the mercenaries (who constituted most of the armies) to ransack the Cordoban royal city Madinat az-Zahra, toppling caliphal rule and shattering al-Andalus into dozens of city-states. These were each grabbed by a local strong man, mostly generals from Almanzor’s army, who converted themselves into petty kings.
Reception hall of 'Abd ar-Rahman III, Ediina Azahara, Córdoba - currently under renovation. WikiCommons, Justojosemm

Reception hall of ‘Abd ar-Rahman III, Mdina Azahara, Córdoba – currently under renovation. WikiCommons, Justojosemm

The fall of the Caliphate ushered in the second Taifa period, in which each city-state presented a mixed bag of religious and cultural environments. At this point, most Christians in al-Andalus began to flee north and join the Christian kingdoms waging a war that became known as the ‘Reconquista’. The poet Samuel ibn Naghrillah (or Samuel HaNagid), fleeing the new, intolerant rulers of Córdoba, led a brilliant career as a poet, scholar and vizier in the Ziridi kingdom of Granada in the 11th century, remaining a key historical figure in Jewish-Muslim relations. Astonishingly, he even rose to the ranks of an army general, leading Muslim soldiers in battle.
The Almoravids, brought in by the petty kings to fight their battles against the Christians, were quite unlike their predecessors. A rough bunch of puritanical warriors from the deserts of Morocco, they seized control of al-Andalus in 1131 CE in an effort to purge the land of decadence. Arriving in animal skins, described as ‘barbarians’ (hence our term ‘Berber’) by the locals, they were horrified at the lives of luxury that the petty kings. They began a crusade that targeted not only Jews and Christians but also Muslim mystics. The intellectual ambience of al-Andalus ground to a halt, and Jewish-Muslim relations began to hit the rocks.
One of the most celebrated philosophers of Jewish history is Maimonides. A polymath, like many of the big names of Andalusian history, Moshe ben Maimon (his Hebrew name) was also a physician, astronomer, rabbi and Torah scholar, born in Almoravid Cordoba in 1135 CE. Although the Almoravids banished Moshe ben Maimon’s aristocratic family, Moshe seems to have faked a conversion to Islam and continued living in Spain for some years, before decamping to Fez, where he wrote his most famous commentary on the Mishnah. Finally, he left for Egypt, where he rose to be the head of the Jewish community of Cairo.
Statue of Maimonides, Córdoba. WikiCommons, Author: Wzwz

Statue of Maimonides, Córdoba. WikiCommons, Author: Wzwz

Lost Paradise?
Looking back on this golden period, when Jews, Muslims and Christians had a brief glimpse of how they could cohabit politically and practically, sharing their knowledge in a mutually respectful environment and trading together in a flourishing civilization, it is easy to be nostalgic. But as with all of history, which we only experience through the lens of our own experiences (not to mention our sources, which are notoriously difficult to interpret), what we learn is not only what the world used to look like, but what humans beings are capable of.
Al-Andalus was certainly not a perfect place or time, but it shone with gems like ‘convivencia’ that give us a glimmer of hope for a future in which all people live together in respect and harmony.

If you are planning a trip to Spain, Al-Andalus Experience can arrange for a dedicated ‘Three Cultures’ tour of cities such as Toledo, Cordoba and Granada, taking in all the most important sites, places of worship, and museums of this amazing age. Email us at for more information.

Ibn Battuta en al-Andalus ابن بطوطة في الأندلس

Ibn Battuta en al-Andalus ابن بطوطة في الأندلس

Ibn Battuta ابن بطوطة

¿Quién no conoce en Europa el nombre del célebre viajero veneciano del siglo XIII/XIV cuya aventura duró unos 24 años y llegó hasta el Lejano Oriente?

División del mundo en siete zonas climáticas según al-Biruni, siglos X/XI (Atlas de la Historia del Islam de Hussein Mu’nis):

أقاليم البيروني

¿Alguien conoce a Shams al-Din Abu Abd Allah al-Lawātī al-Ṭanŷī? Shams al-Din شمس الدين fue destacado viajero que nació en el Norte de África el 25 de febrero de 1304 y murió en el año 1368 (o bien en 1377) en lo que hoy día es el Reino Alauí de Marruecos. Conocido por su sobrenombre Ibn Battuta ابن بطوطة fue oriundo de Tánger y realizó una serie de viajes por el Mediterráneo y por el continente asiático que le hicieron famoso.

La Rihla الرحلة

El erudito Ibn Ŷuzayy fue el encargado por el soberano meriní Abū ʽInān de redactar las aventuras de Ibn Battuta. La obra titulada Tuḥfat al-nuẓẓār fī garāʼib al-amṣār wa ʽaŷāʼib al-asfār تحفة النظار في غرائب الأمصار وعجائب الأسفار, conocida también por Rihlat Ibn Battuta رحلة ابن بطوطة, es probablemente en mayor exponente literario del género de viaje.

El Reino de Granada y el Magreb en época de Ibn Battuta según el Atlas de la Historia del Islam de Hussein Mu’nis.

(مملكة غرناطة والمغرب في قرن ابن بطوطة (أطلس تاريخ الاسلام حسين مؤنس

مملكة غرناطة والمغرب

A. Miquel especifica en su entrada en la Enciclopedia del Islam, segunda edición, lo que probablemente fueran las diferentes estaciones de la ruta que siguió el viajero tangerino:

“(1) Departure from Tangiers 2 Radjab 725/13 June 1325; North Africa; Egypt; Upper Egypt; Syria; departure from Damascus to Mecca in Shawwal 726/September 1326.

(2) Departure from Mecca 20 Dhu l-Hidjdja 726/17 November 1326; Irak; Khuzistan, Fars and Djibal; Tabriz; Baghdad, Samarra, Mosul, return to Baghdad; a stay in Arabia (with three Pilgrimages) from 727/1327 to 730/1330.

(3) Red Sea, Yemen, Aden, Zayla’, Mogadishu and the trading ports of East Africa; return by ‘Uman and the Persian Gulf; a further Pilgrimage in 732/1332.

(4) Egypt, Syria; Asia Minor and the territories of the Golden Horde; visit to Constantinople and return to the territories of the Golden Horde; Transoxania and Afghanistan; arrival in the valley of the Indus on 1 Muharram 734/12 September 1333; stay at Delhi until Safar 743/July 1342.

(5) Stay of a year and a half in the Maldives; Ceylon and a second visit to the Maldives, Bengal, Assam, Sumatra; arrival at the Chinese port of Zaytun: Ts’üan-chou (it is not certain whether Ibn Battuta reached Peking).

(6) Return by Sumatra and Malabar (Muharram 748/April-May 1347); the Persian Gulf, Baghdad, Syria, Egypt; a further Pilgrimage.

(7) Egypt, Alexandria; embarked in Safar 750/April-May 1349 for Tunis; thence reached Sardinia in a Catalan ship; return by Algeria; arrival at Fez at the end of Sha’ban 750/November 1349; visit to the kindom of Granada and return to Morocco.

(8) Departure from Sidjilmasa at the beginning of Muharram 753/February 1352; journey across the Sahara; the country of the Niger; return to Sidjilmasa in Dhu l-Ka’da 754/December 1353.”

El siguiente mapa condensa los largos viajes de Ibn Battuta en tres itinerarios mayores:

رحلات ابن بطوطة خريطة

Al-Andalus الأندلس

Ibn Battuta realizó un breve viaje al Reino de Granada en al-Andalus donde parece ser que el soberano nazarí Yusuf I no pudo recibirlo en audiencia. He aquí el texto de la Rihla que dedicó a al-Andalus:


فوصلنا الى مدينة مالقة، إحدى قواعد الأندلس وبلادها الحِسان، جامعة بين مَرافِق البر والبحر، كثيرة الخيرات والفواكه.رأيت العنب يباع في أسواقها بحساب ثمانية ارطال بدرهم صغير، ورمّانها المرُُسي الياقوتي لا نظير له في الدنيا.وأمّا التين واللوز فيجلبان منها ومن أحوازها إلى بلاد المشرق والمغرب.وبمالقة يصنع الفخّار المذهب العجيب ويجلب منها إلى أقاصي البلاد، ومسجدها كبير الساحة شهير البركة، وصحنه لا نظير له في الحُسن، فيه أشجار النارَنجْ البعيدة.(….)


ثم سافرنا منها إلىالحمة، وهي بلدة صغيرة، لها مسجد بديع الوَضع عجيب البناءوبها العين الحارة على ضفّة واديها، وبينها وبين البلد ميل أو نحوه، وهنالك بيت لاستحمام الرجال وبيت لاستحمام النساء.

مملكة غرناطة

(مملكة غرناطة قرن ابن بطوطة (أطلس تاريخ الاسلام حسين مؤنس


ثم سافرت منها إلى غرناطة، قاعدة بلاد الأندلس وعروس مدنها. وخارجها لا نظير له في بلاد الدنيا، وهو مسيرة أربعين ميلاً يخترقه نهر شنيل المشهور وسواه من الأنهار الكثيرة، والبساتين والجنات والرياض والقصور والكُروم مُحْدِقة بها من كل جِهة.ومن عجيب مواضعها عين الدمع، وهو جبل فيه الرياض والبساتين لا مثل لهبِسواها. وكان ملك غرناطة في عهد دوخلي إليها السلطان أبو الحجاج يوسف بن السلطان أبي الوليد إسماعيل بن فرج بن إسماعيل بن يوسف بن نصر، ولم ألْقَه بسبب مرض كان به.(…) ولقيت بغرناطة شيخ الشيوخ والمتصوفين بها الفقيه أبا علي بن الشيخ الصالح الولي أبي عبد الله محمد بن المحروق وأقمت أياماً بزاويته التي بخارج غرناطة، وأكرمني أشد الكرام.وتوجّهت معه إلى زيارة الزاوية الشهيرة البركة المعروفة برابطة العُقاب، والعُقاب جبل مُطِلّ على خارج .غرناطة، وبينهم نحو ثمانية أميال

(من كتاب «رحلة ابن بطوطة» ص.١٨٣١٨٨، الجزء الثاني)

Más información

Un breve documental sobre Ibn Battuta en lengua árabe producido por la cadena qatarí al-Jazeera:

En el siguiente gráfico titulado A Man’s Odyssey se compara los itinerarios de los quizás más importantes viajeros conocidos: Ibn Battuta, Zheng He y Marco Polo.

La Universidad de Berkeley ha creado una visita virtual para conocer mejor los viajes del famoso tangerino: The Travels of Ibn Battuta.

La obra en árabe puede consultarse online en el siguiente enlace Rihla La traducción francesa fue realizada por Defrémery and Sanguinetti (1853–1858) y, con una introducción de Stéphane Yérasimos (1982), puede verse aquí (Libro primeroLibro segundoLibro tercero).

A Journey to Mecca es un documental que sigue los pasos de Ibn Battuta en su peregrinación حجّ a la Mecca.


Archivado en: al-Andalus, Árabe

Casa Bábili بيت البابلي

Casa Bábili بيت البابلي

El cómic Casa Bábili, que vio la luz en su versión española (Norma Editorial, 2013) coincidiendo con el 10º aniversario del comienzo de la agresión a Iraq, cuenta ya con su versión digital en tres idiomas: españolárabe e inglés.

Con el objetivo de acercar la realidad de los iraquíes de a pie durante la ocupación estadounidense, el proyecto Casa Bábili cuenta la historia de Hayat y sus compañeras en los primeros meses del Bagdad ocupado. Se trata de una adaptación de la novela Saidat Zuhal (Las Mujeres de Saturno), publicada por Dar al Fadaat (Jordania), obra que en 2012 fue elegida entre los diez títulos contemporáneos más importantes de la literatura iraquí. Su autora, Lutfiya Duleimi, ha colaborado con los ilustradores españoles Sara Rojo (autora entre otras obras del cómic “Esmeralda rumbo al horizonte”) y Javier Carbajo (caricaturista premiado tres veces en el World Press Cartoons) en la adaptación de su novela al cómic.

La versión digital es gratuita y cuenta, al igual que la versión en papel, con un material extra constituido por una serie de artículos de análisis sobre la situación de Iraq escritos por expertos. Estos documentos de consulta versan sobre temas tan diversos como la historia, la situación de la mujer, la infancia,  o la música y la gastronomía del país. Además de la versión web el cómic puede descargase en sus tres lenguas como aplicación para Android.”

Si tienes ya algún conocimiento de la lengua árabe, sabes como se conjuga el verbo en pasado, الماضي, puedes leer este atractivo cómic, o novela gráfica, en árabe y en su traducción al castellano o inglés.

Versión árabe:


Versión castellano:


Versión inglés:


Archivado en: Árabe, Cultura, Literatura