Arabesques in Islamic Art

by Tracey Parker
The Alhambra palace in Spain features arabesques carved in marble.

The Alhambra palace in Spain features arabesques carved in marble.

The design element known as the arabesque is "the definitive characteristic in all Islamic art," according to Rachida El Diwani, a comparative literature professor at Alexandria University in Cairo, Egypt. An arabesque is a vegetal pattern that suggests an infinite extension due to its repeated geometric duplication.

The Aesthetic Behind the Arabesque

Because Muslims believe in the absolute and complete unity of God, Islamic artists developed art that did not include any symbolic representation of God. They do believe, however, that the feeling of God's glory could be represented in art, which gave birth to the arabesque. Through the geometrically exact and seemingly infinite patterns, Islamic art hints at the perfection and infinite nature of the divine.

The Development of the Arabesque

The arabesque is thought to have been invented in Baghdad in the 10th century, where Islamic culture flourished. As Islam spread throughout the world, the arabesque appeared in Islamic art and architecture from South Asia through the Middle East and to Spain. The popularity of the arabesque grew again in the 19th century when Westerners became interested in the Arab world. Arabesques are still used in contemporary art and are faithful to the traditional aesthetic.

The Arabesque in the Visual Arts

The arabesque is seen in most Islamic architecture from the 10th to the 14th century, when Chinese vegetal art and the Saz style of the Ottomans supplanted the arabesque in the 16th century. Arabesque designs were also seen in manuscripts, decorative objects and textiles. Artists also incorporated the aesthetic of the arabesque into the art of calligraphy, making letters connected and incorporating the vegetal patterns as well.

Famous Examples of Arabesques

Famous works of architecture that feature arabesques include the Great Mosque of Damascus, which was built in the eighth century by the Umayyad Dynasty. Arabesques replaced the original mosaics during a renovation. The Taj Mahal, built during the Mugal period in India, also features arabesques carved into marble. The Great Mosque of Cordoba in Spain, built during the Andalusian period, is another example of the beauty of the arabesque.

About the Author

Tracey Parker is a college-level instructor of composition, technical writing, world literature and the humanities. She has also served as a paralegal in the areas of family law, medical malpractice and civil litigation. Parker holds a Ph.D. in English, an M.A. in English and a Bachelor of Journalism.

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