Niches of Islamic art

Published 14.05.2016 00:00

Spreading over a vast geography, Islamic arts have been represented in various crafts, and there are features as well as techniques that form its unique and mesmerizing qualities

Hafiz Osman

There is a famous saying that goes: "The Quran was revealed in the Hijaz, is best recited in Egypt and best written in Istanbul." This is because while the Quran was revealed in Mecca and Medina, the reciters of Egypt recited it very beautifully and the calligraphers of Istanbul wrote it very beautifully.

The Qurans reproduced in Ottoman Istanbul attracted the attention of local and foreign scholars and art lovers because of their beauty.

What, then, was the secret of Istanbul? Certainly, it was in part the court's respect for the Quran and its inclination toward art. Sultan Bayezid II had his calligraphy teacher Sheikh Hamdullah brought to Istanbul from Amasya and specially supported his calligraphic work. After Bayezid II, Istanbul transformed into the home of calligraphy and calligraphers with the work of Sheikh Hamdullah. Thus, after its flourish in Baghdad, Islamic calligraphy experienced a second and more prominent golden age in Istanbul.

With this age came many renowned calligraphers. One of the greatest among them was Hafız Osman. Born in Istanbul in 1642 the son of Ali Efendi, muezzin of the Haseki Sultan Mosque, Hafız Osman learned the Quran by heart at an early age and became a hafız. This title transformed into a name and so he was known as Hafız Osman.

It was the renowned Suyolcuzade Mustafa Eyyubi who taught calligraphy to Hafız Osman, and it is rumored that Hafız Osman, to make it to Suyolcuzade's lecture on time, walked barefoot from Haseki to Eyüp on a snowy winter's day. Hafız Osman's love for the Quran and his willingness to become a calligrapher alongside that love was eventually realized. First he mastered the style of Sheikh Hamdullah and then developed a calligraphy that came to be named after himself.

The calligraphers called their style of writing "mashq." It was not possible to become a calligrapher without the lengthy mashqs that stretched certain letters out across the page. This was especially the case for those who sought to become a calligrapher on a level that could be deemed inventive and innovative rather than just imitative. Success, after all, calls for practice.

Having his style and talent recognized despite objections and jealousy, Hafız Osman, starting from his 30s, taught calligraphy to sultans and princes such as Ahmet II, Mustafa II and Ahmet III. Alongside being a hafiz, calligrapher and teacher, Hafız Osman was at the same time a dervish devoted to Seyyid Alaeddin Efendi, one of the heads of the Sünbüliyye order.

Hafız Osman's style is built on delicacy and variety. Apart from the "mushafs" (codices) and manuscripts he reproduced, he is known for his stanzas, muraqqa plates, fragments and hilyas embodying variations on Thuluth, Naskh and Riqah calligraphy. Hafız Osman came up with the hilya-i sharif, in which the qualities of our Prophet Mohammed are recounted and by preparing many beautiful hilyas, contributed to the spread of the hilya as a unique kind of artwork.

He died on Dec. 3, 1698 at the mere age of 56, Hafız Osman was so devoted to the art of calligraphy that even during his long journey of pilgrimage he did not stop practicing calligraphy.

Herat School

History is not shaped just by the deeds of states and sultans. Art and artists too make their mark on history. A time comes when a fertile artist makes a name in history far greater than a grand vizier or even a sultan. Sometimes a city or region is referred to with the name of the artists rather than the political character.

Many names have come and gone from Herat: Alexander the Great, Tamerlane, the Sassanids, Ephthalites, Umayyads, Abbasids, Samanids, Ghaznavids and Timurids. Herat is a city of many conquerors and no possessors. It is one of the most ancient centers of civilization of the steep, resistant Afghan lands.

Today, when the name Herat is uttered, what springs to mind is – instead of the great sultans such as Timur and Shahrukh –artists like Abd al-Qadir Maraghi and Bihzad and the music and painting movements referred to under the title of "the Herat School."

The Herat School of Painting was first patronized after its foundation by Shahrukh, son of Timur. Shahrukh's son, Baysungur Mirza, also patronized the School and helped its further development. As Shahrukh and his wife Gowwhar Shad adorned Herat with palaces, yards and gardens, mosques and madrasas, the city steadily became a center of arts and civilization.

Literature and poetry quickly blossomed, as did the fine arts depiction and illumination. Since the heritage of Shahrukh and Baysungur were maintained during the time of Husayn Bayqara as well, a tradition was formed. The Herat court patronized all sorts of arts. Baysungur established a large workshop in which over a hundred artists practicing in different fields worked. Thus, Herat transformed into an important center of culture and arts within the Islamic world. A new style called the Herat School emerged in the arts of calligraphy, illumination, binding and miniature. From this school, which experienced its brightest period during the time of Husayn Bayqara, emerged calligraphers that include Sultan Ali Meshedi, deemed the greatest master of Nastaliq calligraphy, as well as Mir Ali Haravi, Cafer-i Tebrizi and Sultan Muhammad Nur. There also came master depicters and painters, among which Bihzad, Agha Mirek, Kasım Ali, Mevlana Ali, Emir Halil and Hace Gıyaseddin are the most renowned, as well as the first masters of binding, such as Mevlana Kıvamüddin.

The detailed, colorful and partially perspectival miniature art pursued first by Bihzad granted a completely new personality to the artistic depiction in Islamic. Bihzad is the most globally renowned master of the art, known as miniscule-painting in the past and today called miniatures. The centuries that have gone by have only added to admiration held for Bihzad and miniature.

And then there is the Herat School in Turkish music. This too emerged during the time of the Timurids, during which it also experienced its brightest era. It should be stated that the understanding of the form, maqam and style of this School, as represented by Abd al-Qadir Meragi and Gulâm Şâdî', was influential in the Ottoman musical milieu starting from the late 14th century until the early 16th century.

Compositions called "kar" and "karçe" by Abd al-Qadir Meragi, some of whose compositions are preserved owing to his own notation, and his diwans made up of taqsims and peşrevs are still performed today by the Turkish Classical Music milieu. The Meragi style displays the bravery, grandeur, pleasure and greatness of court diwan in all its delicacy.

The art rising in Herat has continued to shine upon all communities of Islam that have reigned over Asian lands, from the Ottomans to the Mughals. It would not be an exaggeration to call Herat the capital of the classical Islamic arts.


Islamic architecture is full of wonders. Mihrabs covered in perfectly glazed tiles; portals, deemed the "poetry of stone;" geometrically engraved minbars of wood and marble; domes that give a sense of eternity and much more.

There is one thing, though, which we are far from comprehending. And that is the "muqarnas."

The architecture of muqarnas, together with the dome, is like a gate to the heavens. It is an amalgam of stalactites and corbels designed in the form of hollowed out honeycombs or cells. We encounter it on the dome of the Alhambra Palace, the masterpiece of al-Andalus, on the grand entrance gate of the Shah Mosque in Isfahan, on the concave inner portion of the portal, called kavsara, of the Karatay Madrasa in Konya, on the corbels of the şerefe balconies of the mosques erected in the name of sultans in İstanbul.

The mystery of muqarnas starts with its name. There are many theories on the meaning of the word "muqarnas". According to the late Ottoman, Arabic and Persian dictionaries, muqarnas means "the geometric subdivision of a squinch, or cupola, or corbel, into a large number of miniature squinches, producing a sort of cellular structure," "dome," "a type of cap" or "colorful, lively embroidery." However, these are meanings that were retained afterward and do not provide clues on the origin of the word.

The most reasonable opinion on the origin of muqarna suggests that this name was adopted during the period of Westernization and is derived from the German word "karnies," meaning "hollow, backside of floors or domes."

The mysteries of the muqarnas are too many to name. Opinions on when and where it emerged vary as well. Baghdad, Cairo or Nishapur are each put forward as the place where the muqarna was born. For the time of its birth, on the other hand, the 10th or 11th centuries have been mentioned.

Whatever the case, it is clear that muqarnas appear in different sizes and forms in the Ilkhan, Timurid, Seljuqid, Safavid and finally Ottoman structures. From the 11th and 12th centuries up until the end of the 17th century, the progression of muqarnas follows a path from simplicity to complicity, from roughness to delicacy.

While the muqarnas adorning the portals of Seljuq mosques, palaces and madrasas were achieved by the simple engraving of stone, in the classical period Safavid buildings, it is seen that they are decorated with colorful tiles offering grandeur. Konya, the royal capital of the Anatolian Seljuqs, is at the same time the capital of the stone muqarnas. The portal of the Karatay Madrasa reflects a pleasant form of Seljuq stone work. The two-color marble, knots, tenons and mainly the muqarnas, worked kavsara on top of the plainly woven entrance, as an example of 13th century art is worth seeing.

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