Muslim art and literature reflected the diverse traditions of the various peoples who lived under Muslim rule, including Greeks, Romans, Persians, Indians, and North Africans. As in Christian Europe and Hindu India, religion shaped the arts and literature of Muslim civilization. The great work of Islamic literature was the Quran itself. Because the Quran strictly banned the worship of idols, Muslim religious leaders forbade artists to portray God or human figures in religious art. This gave Islamic art a distinctive style.
Long before Muhammad, Arabs had a rich tradition of oral poetry. In musical verses, poets chanted the dangers of desert journeys, the joys of battle, or the glories of their clans.
Many copies of the Quran were richly illustrated with elaborate designs and detailed patterns.
Their most important themes—chivalry and the romance of nomadic life—recurred in Arab poetry throughout the centuries. Later Arab poets developed elaborate formal rules for writing poetry and explored both religious and worldly themes. The poems of Rabiah al-Adawiyya expressed Sufi mysticism and encouraged the faithful to worship God selflessly without hope of reward. “If I worship Thee in hope of Paradise / Exclude me from Paradise,” she wrote in one prayer poem.
Persians also had a fine poetic tradition. Firdawsi (fur DOW see) wrote in Persian using Arabic script. His masterpiece, the Shah Namah, or Book of Kings, tells the history of Persia. Omar Khayyám (OH mahr ky AHM), famous in the Muslim world as a scholar and an astronomer, is best known for The Rubáiyát (roo by AHT). In this collection of four-line stanzas, Khayyám meditates on fate and the fleeting nature of life:
This illustration from Shah Namah shows the marriage of the three daughters of Sero, King of Yemen.
The Moving Finger writes; and having writ,
Moves on; nor all your Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a line,
Nor all your Tears wash out a word of it.
—Omar Khayyám, The Rubáiyát
Arab writers also prized the art of storytelling. Along with ancient Arab tales, they gathered and adapted stories from Indian, Persian, Greek, Jewish, Egyptian, and Turkish sources. The best-known collection is The Thousand and One Nights, a group of tales narrated by a fictional princess. They include romances, fables, adventures, and humorous anecdotes, many set in Harun al-Rashid's Baghdad.