Islamic Textiles: History & Designs

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Few art forms have been as important to the Islamic world as textiles. In this lesson, we'll talk Islamic textiles across history and see how changes in style reflect major changes in the global role of Islam.

Islamic Art

Can you guess who was, historically, really into Islamic art? Muslims. Also, non-Muslims of Asia. Also, Christian Europeans. Also, societies of the Americas. Basically, Islamic arts have found their way around the world, and have become important parts of societies both within and outside the sphere of Islam. This makes Islamic art pretty interesting to study. It is often created by Muslims for Muslim communities, but is also created by non-Muslims for Muslim communities and by Muslims for non-Muslim communities. It is perhaps one of the most diversely-appreciated artistic traditions in the world. Why is that? Perhaps it has something to do with being a rising art form in some of the most formative years of modern human history. Perhaps it has to do with the role of Muslim merchants in the largest international trade networks of the ancient world. Perhaps those geometric patterns just go well with any décor. Whatever the reason, Islamic arts are something we can all get into.

Islamic textiles are recognizable around the world

Overview of Islamic Textiles

It is difficult to categorize any Islamic art form since the religion and adherents to this aesthetic are found around the world and across centuries of history. However, there may be no better place to start than with their textiles. In Islamic societies, textiles were amongst the most valued of arts. They were portable, which made them accessible art forms for an originally desert-bound people, and later helped them spread around the world.

Depending on where you are, Islamic textiles will look very different in both texture and style. This is largely thanks to how Islam spread around the world. While Islam was moved out of the Arabian Peninsula through military means, its global rise was really thanks to international trade networks established by enterprising Muslim merchants. These merchants brought with them Islam and the arts of Islam, which blended with local arts to create distinct styles around the world. So in some places, Islamic textiles will be mostly made of linen or cotton, while in others, wool is dominant, and in others, silk is preferred. It all depended on which materials were valued by the people who adopted Islam and Islamic aesthetics.

Within this diversity, however, are common themes. Islamic art maintains a characteristic preference towards intricate geometric patterns, an aesthetic that emerged in the Middle East. Islam itself prohibits pictorial representations of Muhammad and discourages representative images of earthly objects in general, so Islamic designs tend to be abstract, featuring complex patterns of symbolic colors and shapes. Where we do see something somewhat representative is in the use of calligraphy. Carefully stitched words are an important part of many Islamic textiles, most notably the tiraz, garments inscribed with names or titles to denote a position of honor.

10th-11th century tiraz

Islamic Textiles by Periods

The Early Islamic Period

Since Islamic textiles do tend to change over time and distance, let's at least look at some major periods within Islamic history. The Early Islamic Period began with the travel of Muhammad from Mecca to Medina in 622 CE and the rise of the Islamic Empires that stretched across West Asia and North Africa. These empires were the first to begin unifying their artistic programs and spreading them along with Islam itself. Art and textiles from this period show a lot of influence from other major powers, like the Byzantine Empire in what is now Turkey, but also the rise of Islamic motifs like swirls and geometric patterns. Overall, textiles from this period are much like Islam itself-- slowly codifying all the rules as its ascent begins.

The Medieval Period

The fall of the first military dynasties of the Islamic empires and the rise of new dynasties around the 10th century introduced the Medieval Period. Islam political, military and social presence spread across the Mediterranean, at times reaching from Turkey along the coast of the Middle East and North Africa and even up into Spain. This was the era of Europe's Holy Crusades, when Islamic empires reached new heights of dominance. The textiles of this time show an unusual rise in representative objects, largely animals, and a rise in calligraphy. Many canons of Islamic style were set in this time period, and were spread across the Islamic empires.

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