By the fourteenth century, the social and economic context of cultural production had changed dramatically. Urban markets had come to be organized in similar fashion throughout the lands of the caliphate. Goods of similar type were typically sold in adjoining stores, and production was increasingly organized by guilds. The function of the guilds to ensure equal business opportunity for all members fostered a conservatism in style and technique that persisted for generations. Diversity of regional styles continued, but characteristics identified as “Muslim” — such as shape–concealing, draped male and female garment designs, narrow streets and covered bazaars, the ornamental use of Arabic calligraphy and interlaced arabesque patterns, and domes, archways, and minarets in architecture — conveyed a greater sense of cultural homogeneity and provided markers of Muslim identity in lands such as Anatolia, India, Southeast Asia, China, and West Africa where Muslim communities were then in their early phases of growth.
Though the preponderance of artistic goods that came to the notice of European buyers or collectors were crafted by guild–oriented artisans who were not seen in their own society to be “artists,” more and more of the highest quality products carried the names of their creators. Expression of individualism in cultural production was particularly noteworthy in fields like miniature painting, which by the end of the century was reaching a peak of excellence in Iran and Afghanistan. But the names of artists also began to appear in ceramics, metalwork, calligraphy, and rug–making. Poets, who had always been the elite among writers, sometimes included their own names in the closing lines of their verses. In comparative terms, it may well be that this sort of artistic self–consciousness arose slightly earlier in the Muslim world than it did in Europe.7
The fourteenth century also saw an increasing intrusion of creative artistry and individualized expression into the field of religion. Many of the Sufi brotherhoods that grew during this period institutionalized the use of poetry recitation, singing, dancing, and the playing of musical instruments in their rituals. This raises a question as to whether religion simply became a new venue for artistic expression during this period — another source of patronage, so to speak — or whether artists began to give greater play to their own spirituality. By and large, despite charges by certain legalistic religious authorities that some Sufis were charlatans, there is little evidence that Sufi singing, dancing, and poetry writing constituted performances for hire comparable to the paintings, sculpture, and choral music commissioned by popes and bishops in Europe. The ambiguity between individual, spiritually motivated art and art created for the marketplace continued to mark Muslim societies through the following centuries.
A final aspect of cultural production by Muslims in the fourteenth century relates to the new lands into which Islam was then expanding. In the ninth century, the process by which a congeries of pre–Islamic cultural tastes and practices evolved toward something that would eventually warrant the term “Islamic art” was still inchoate. Would the spectacular spiral minaret constructed at a caliph’s command at Samarra in Iraq become a model for later towers of faith? No. But nobody could have presumed that at the time it was built. Would the caliphally sponsored tiraz style of plain linen or cotton fabric ornamented with a band of silk calligraphy set a permanent standard for elite Muslim clothing? No. But converts to Islam who then wore the plain garments to signal their membership in the Muslim community did not know that the silk brocades of the pre–Islamic period would return to popularity and gain religious acceptance by the year 1000. No one could tell where Muslim tastes were headed. The arabesque was one of the few developments of that earlier era that persisted through the centuries.
By contrast, in the fourteenth century, Muslims everywhere recognized certain markers of Muslim cultural identity and patronized the creative craftsmen who produced them. Pottery, metalwork, manuscript production, architecture, clothing styles, Quran chanting, calligraphy, and many other features of daily life and religious ritual, all rooted in the old heartlands of the caliphate, had become integral parts of a Muslim cultural complex that spread afar as the frontiers of the faith expanded geographically. Yet this same expansion exposed new Muslim communities — combinations of immigrant (and sometimes invading) Muslims and local converts in lands that Islam did not deeply penetrate until after the year 1000 — to cultural influences that had never before been seriously encountered. On the religious frontiers from West Africa to Indonesia, cultural encounters began to produce works of combined influence, such as Sufi poetry with heavily Hindu imagery; shadow plays in which Muslim audiences followed the adventures of Indian religious figures like Rama and Sita; architectural forms that blended West African building techniques with the templates of the mosque and minaret; Indonesian devotional manuscripts illustrated with pre–Islamic images of naga serpents; and Arabic calligraphy in China that uncannily calls to mind Chinese ideographic characters.
Thus the Muslim cultural world of the fourteenth century encompassed a mix of stable and fairly uniform styles and practices in the old caliphal center, and new and dynamic trends in outlying areas where these styles and practices encountered other cultural traditions. In a sense, what was being experienced on the periphery of Islam in the fourteenth century was a replay of what had been experienced in Iran, Iraq, Egypt, Syria, and Tunisia in the ninth century, namely, the challenge of discovering within a complex of differing and competing cultural forms some combination that could be popularly accepted as appropriate for a community of Muslims. What was different in the fourteenth century, however, was that the creative community of the ninth century had had no template for “Islamic art,” whereas in the fourteenth century that template existed; and this made circumstances ripe for the development of the eclectic artistic forms and practices that are still manifest in the world of Islam today.Back to the top.