8th c. AD. (Emirate of Córdoba period)
Mezquita in Córdoba, Andalusia, Spain
The Great Mosque was built with Syrian (Umayyad), Visigothic and Roman influences.


The principles and teachings of Islam as a way of life, a religious code, and a system of law were disseminated by Muhammad (circa 570-632 AD.) in Mecca. These teachings were revealed to him and were then arranged in the Qur’an.  The word of God, as it is described in the Qur’an and the sayings of Muhammad (known as hadith, or Traditions), form the core of the religion.

Neither the Qur’an nor the Traditions contain specific regulations against figurative representation in art. However, both sources take a clear stand against idolatry and the worship of images. These regulations were literally interpreted by early Islamic religious leaders and exegetes (interpreters) as prohibiting the depiction of human or animal figures, although numerous surviving examples of architectural decoration, objects in the various media and illustrated manuscripts contradict this literal interpretation.  

Four types of decoration can be found in Islamic art: calligraphy, figurative forms (human and animal), plant motifs and geometric patterns. These patterns, either separately or combined, decorate all kinds of surfaces, forming versatile and complex compositions.

Although geometric ornamentation may have reached its peak in the Islamic world, sources of the basic shapes and multifaceted patterns existed already in late antiquity in the Byzantine and Sassanian empires. 
Islamic artists absorbed important elements from the classical tradition, then took them further and invented a new form of decoration that emphasised the importance of unity, logic and order. Essential to this unique style were the contributions of Islamic mathematicians, astronomers and other scientists. Their ideas and technical advances are indirectly reflected in the artistic tradition.

7-8th c. AD.  (Aghlabiden period)
Luster tiles mihrab, Great Mosque of Kairouan, in Tunisia
(Photo © Tai Mab)

8th c. AD. (Abbasid period)
Inlay panel (marquetry), Egypt
This inlaid panel is the side of a funerary monument. The variations in the patterns in which the square is used illustrate a decorative freedom.
(Photo © METmuseum)

9-10th c. AD. (Abbasid period)
Glass cup, Iran or Iraq
The simple geometric pattern that adorns this almost spherical bowl is one of the most commonly used motifs that emerged during the Sassanian dynasty in Iran. The design of the discs with points in the center is commonly known as the pattern of the omphalos, Greek for ‘navel’.
(Photo © METmuseum)

1248 AD.
Facsimile of handwritten Arabic manuscript ‘Euclid’s geometry’ by Nasir al-Din al-Tusi
Photo © Worthpoint

1328 AD.
Great Mosque and Hospital, Divriği, Turkey
The carved stone facade of the northern portal is a marvel of invention. It breaks all the usual rules of architectural composition, but overcomes them through its virtuosity.

1354 AD. (post-Ilkhanid period) 
Mihrab of the Imami Madrasa, Esfahan, Iran
The most important interior element in an Islamic religious building is the mihrab, a wall niche indicating the direction of Mecca, which the believer must look at during daily prayers. There are three types of Islamic designs: vegetal, calligraphic and geometric. The calligraphic inscription at the back of the niche reads: The Prophet (peace be upon him!) said: ‘The mosque is the dwelling place of the pious.’ Calligraphy is the most respected art form in Islam because it conveys the word of God. Note the way rectilinear geometric shapes are made to fit the curved space. 
(Photo © METmuseum)

13-14th c. AD. (Ilkhanie period)
Ceramic Tile Panel, Nishapur, Iran

14th c. AD. (Mammoth period)
Doors of a pulpit, Egypt 
An example of the repetition characteristic of geometric design in the Islamic world. The stars are cut off at the edge, suggesting that the design extends infinitely beyond the limits of the actual edge.

14th c. AD.  (Mammoth period)
Glass plate, Syria or Egypt 
The decoration of this flat plate includes a combination of five circles, drawn in a continuous line with loops, which dominate the composition. And four outer circles, where a complex star pattern is created. The use of coloured enamel and gold leaf emphasises the basic elements of the geometric and plant motifs in this design.

14-15th c. AD. (Nasrids period)
Silk textile fragment, Spain
Plant patterns, angular kufi writing decorated with geometric patterns, and italic naskh writing in the cartouches above and below the kufi borders enhance the overall geometric effect of this design.
The weaver used this geometric design to play with foreground and background perception. The eye of the viewer follows each yellow band as it passes under and over each other, even though the composition has no physical depth. Apart from the geometric designs, this textile also features calligraphic decoration in naskh script, which here reads ‘Good luck and prosperity’.

1570 AD. (Saadian Sultanate period)
Ben Youssef Madrasa (Koranic school), Marrakech, Morocco
The Atlas cedar doors are carved with a pattern of banding with a 16-pointed star. The arch is surrounded by arabesques; on either side is a band of Islamic calligraphy, above colourful geometric zellige tiling with 8-pointed stars.

1610 AD. (Mogul period) 
Marble screen (jali), Agra, India
Perforated screens (jali) fulfilled several architectural functions; they allowed air circulation and provided protection from sunlight. In addition, the geometric patterns and their projected shadows created an aesthetic effect.  

18th c. AD. (Ottoman period)
Nur al-Din’-room, Syria
The floor is made of marble tiles and the wooden walls and ceiling are decorated with chalk. The decorations consist mainly of plant and calligraphic motifs. 
(Photo © MET Museum)

18th c. AD. (Ottoman era)
Qasr al-Azm palace, Hama, Syria
Fragment image right

18th c. AD. (Ottoman era)
Qasr al-Azm palace, Hama, Syria
Fragment Reception Hall (qa’a): view of the painted and gilded wood ceiling (‘ajami work).

14th c. AD.
Armenian Church, on Mount Zion
In Jerusalem, Israel
According to tradition, this place was the home of Caiaphas, where Jesus was arrested and tried.

20th c. AD.
Glazed ceramics were first introduced to Jerusalem in the 16th by the Ottomans under Suleiman the Magnificent.
After WW1, Armenian refugees applied the craftsmanship in this church.

Restoration of the Minbar of the al-Aqsa Mosque,
also known as Saladin’s Minbar.


1306 AD.
Miniature illustration from the literary and historical work ‘Jāmi ‘al-Tawārīkh’, Persia
Birth of the Prophet Muhammad.
(Photo © Edinburgh University Library, Scotland)

1306 AD.
Fragment from the literary and historical work ‘Jāmi ‘al-Tawārīkh’, Persia
Buddha offers the Devil fruit.
(Photo © Edinburgh University Library)

16th c. AD.
Fragment from ‘Aḥwāl al-Qiyāma’, Istanbul or Baghdad
The conjunction of the sun and moon on the Day of Judgment.
(Photo © Berlin State Library)

16th c. AD.
Persian miniature of five epic poems (Khamsa) by the famous 12th-century Persian poet Nizami Ganjavi

Al-Burāq (meaning ‘lightning’), is a miraculous steed, described as a creature from heaven that carried the prophets. The most commonly told story is how, in the 7th century, the Buraq carried the prophet Muhammad from Mecca to Jerusalem and back during the Isra and Mi’raj or ‘Night Journey’. Al-Buraq, is depicted with a beautiful human face, despite the fact that there are no references to an animal with human-like features in the Hadith or early Islamic references.

(Photo © Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco)

1436 A.D.
‘Apocalypse of Muhammad’, written in Herat, Afghanistan

The prophet’s heavenly journey is a centrepiece of Islamic piety. Persian poets from the thirteenth century onwards preceded their epics with a colourful description of the Mi’raj, the heavenly journey that brought the prophet into the immediate presence of God. This miniature is particularly interesting because the Prophet is shown with his face revealed, riding the mysterious horse Al-Burāq. Later pictures of Muhammad generally show him with a veil covering his face, and in more recent times even his entire body is usually symbolised by a white cloud or a rose.

(Photo © National Library, Paris, France) 

Dating unknown
Mary and Jesus (Maryam and Isa) in a Persian Miniature

Topkapi roll

15-16th c. AD. (Safavid period)
Few written sources are known about geometric patterns. The best known is a scroll that is kept in the Turkish Topkapi Palace. It is believed to be from the 16th century and to have originated in north-western Iran.
The scroll is a valuable source of information, consisting of 114 patterns that may have been used both indirectly and directly by architects to create the tile patterns in mosques around the world, including the Girih tile.
The fact that it is not worn suggests that it was not made to be used as a reference document in a craft workshop, but rather as an exhibition piece in the palace. It shows decorative ornaments found on the walls and domes of structures built between the 10th and 16th centuries in the Timurid period. It was a guide to architectural designs seen in complex muqarnas, girih, mosaic panels and colourful tiles. The scroll contains drawings but no written instructions on the construction of the motifs.

Images from the Topkapi roll

Excerpts from
– ‘Islamic Art and Geometric Patterns’, by The Metropolitan Museum of Art
– ‘The Topkapi scroll, geometry and ornament in islamic architecture’, by Gűlru Necipoğlu

© Please respect the authors’ mention and copyright.