Islamic Carpets in History
Throughout history, certain events left their mark on the development of the Carpet industry and design. The spread of Islam and the advent of the Islamic carpets is one of those events that contributed to the beautiful patterns and colors that we enjoy today. Persian carpet design in particular was greatly influenced by Islamic traditions.
The Origins Of Islam And The Islamic World
Islam began in the Arabian Peninsula, and over several hundreds of years, it spread throughout Spain, the Byzantine Empire, the Sasanian Empire and throughout Asia. “The Islamic world” refers to countries where the rulers and people adhere to the practice of Islam. Although there is no specific criterion for inclusion, this world has expanded and contracted throughout history.
As Islam spread into new areas, it meant that local culture and political changes were impacted. This naturally includes almost every area of society and life including the arts.
Islamic Carpets: From Cottage Industry to Fine Art
Throughout the Islamic world, women had been weaving carpets for thousands of years. They passed on their techniques and designs from one generation to the next. The introduction of Islam allowed the utilitarian practice of carpet weaving to elevate to a fine art form in many areas of the world. The Islamic carpets were no longer only functional pieces of furniture. These magnificent objects were elevated into a symbol of status and wealth for their owners and were made for the royal courts of the Islamic world.
Many of the traditional rug designs were still being produced in rural areas, but the introduction of Islam meant new patterns and the standardization of production methods. This was necessary to produce the exquisite court rugs that found their way into mosques, reception halls, and audience chambers. These antique rugs became a new class of artwork that catered to the wishes and needs of the ruling class.
New Islamic Carpet Patterns Under Islamic Rule
Changes in carpet patterns reflected changes in the artwork found throughout the Islamic world. For instance, Oriental rugs began to mimic the tiled geometric patterns that were found in architecture. Carpets began to be produced with a repeated motif in an all-over pattern throughout the entire field. Another style that made its way into carpets was the “saz” style, which used flowers with stylized leaves that gracefully curved throughout the design.
The carpets began to develop into a garden of colors and shapes including a wide range of floral designs such as roses, carnations, hyacinths, tulips, lotus flowers, trees, and fruits. Secular art continued to be produced, but new forms of religious art were added to the traditional local mixture of styles. This expanded the design possibilities in both the production centers of cities and villages.
Inclusion of Calligraphy in Islamic Carpets
With the introduction of Islam, another element that appeared was the introduction of calligraphy into the carpets. Calligraphy is a stylized rendition of phrases and words in a way that makes them into a beautiful piece of artwork. Sometimes this calligraphy may just look like it is Arabic writing when in fact, it is purely decorative.
The calligraphy that actually has linguistic meaning, may include words or phrases from the Quran or perhaps a piece of poetry. Early forms of this calligraphy began to appear in the 1450’s. Words and phrases in stylized Arabic writing called “Kufic” were placed in the borders of the carpets. These would eventually be replaced by floral and saz motifs.
The inclusion of calligraphy and other highly detailed motifs required the production of Islamic carpets that were finely woven and had a high knot density. The introduction of these elements meant improvements in the quality and processes for creating these fine carpets. It also meant that rug weavers would need the ability to follow a given pattern, rather than reciting the patterns from memory. This shift represents the formalization of the artistic process that is used to create the carpets. Schools and weaving workshops were developed to teach design and weaving for the production of these magnificently fine Court carpets.
The Introduction Of The Islamic Prayer Rugs
One of the most important introductions of designs in carpet weaving under Muslim rule was the creation of Islamic prayer rugs. Prayer rugs are necessary for performing the five daily prayers that are required in the practice of Islam. These prayers are preferably performed in a mosque, but if there is no mosque available, they can take place anywhere that has a clean surface and water for cleansing. The prayer rug provides a clean surface to perform these prayers.
The introduction of Islam meant a new style of rug that is specifically designed for performing these prayers. These small size rugs that are easy to carry, have a design element known as the mihrab, or prayer niche. This type of carpet is used to represent the mosque. It has a base and minaret on top, similar to those found on the tops of mosques, where the call to prayer is issued. The top of the rug is placed towards Mecca for the recitation of the prayers. All practitioners are required to know the direction of Mecca, regardless of where they are in the world. These special carpets are an important part of the Islamic faith.
Islamic Mihrab design prayer carpets are highly ornate and have different designs that include florals, geometric, and sometimes, though very rarely, pictorial scenes. They are ornate just like the mosques that they are meant to represent. You will often recognize many elements of architecture in them, such as columns and arches. Once the prayers are said, the carpet is carefully rolled up and treated as a sacred object. This careful treatment of this special class of Islamic rugs means that we have more of them in existence from previous centuries than many other types of rugs.
A New Islamic Artistic Philosophy
One of the differences between tribal rugs and Islamic Court rugs is the representation of symbols and patterns. Many times, in the tribal carpets produced according to ancient traditions, these motifs and symbols had a specific meaning that could be understood by the viewer. It is much lik
e a primitive form of writing. However, in Islam, the motifs found in artwork do not typically have a specific meaning, but they do represent a certain philosophy.
One example of this is the use of tiled patterns in a carpet. They are meant to bring beauty and harmony into the world and reflect both the unity and diversity created by God. The symmetry reflects cosmic equilibrium and harmony. The carpet itself represents the impermanence of earthly objects in comparison to the higher order of the heavens.
Another practice that one will find in Islamic artwork is that when creating these tiled geometric shapes, there will be an intentional mistake. This “mistake” as an act of humility to indicate that nothing is perfect but God. Sometimes this mistake will be hidden, and other times, it will be quite obvious, depending on the preferences of the artist.
Representation of Plants and Animals
One of the tenants held by some of the more orthodox orders of Islam is a prohibition against making “graven” images. However, one can find many historical examples of carpets that depict plants, animals, and even people throughout areas that were under heavy Islamic influence at the time the carpet was produced. The adherence to practice depends on the attitude of the local ruler in accordance with these tenets. This brings up the point that the effects of Islam on art design were not evenly distributed and that local customs also played important roles.
Some artists used abstractions of plants, animals, and human forms as a way of adherence to this prohibition. In certain areas this was considered acceptable, and in others, even this was forbidden. However, this style gave rise to many new art forms and motifs. The influence of Islam was not uniform across all regions of the world throughout its 1400 years of history. However, one seldom finds depictions of plants or animals on objects meant to be used for religious purposes. Many of these figures are found in secular rather than religious art in the Islamic world.
The spread of Islam throughout the world meant changes in all areas of society. The degree of these changes was dependent upon the orthodoxy that was adopted by the local rulers. It is essential to understand that the introduction of Islam meant an expansion of the arts and the introduction of new tools and motifs. In many areas, this allowed the carpet weaving industry to move from a cottage industry to reach the status of fine art that it is today.
Now that you understand a little bit more about how the introduction of Islam influenced the world of carpets, we hope that you will enjoy looking around at our collection. Perhaps you will find the perfect piece for your home or office.
Take a look at some of our Islamic Prayer Rugs:
This rug blog about the advent of the Islamic carpet was published by Nazmiyal Antique Rug Gallery in NYC.
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