Later versions filtered into Europe, where children heard about “Aladdin and His Magic Lamp” or “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves.”
The main purpose of early mosques was to serve as community centers for the faithful. These simple buildings were hubs for social interaction, Islamic study, and group prayer. Later, domed mosques and high minarets dominated Muslim cities. Adapted from Byzantine buildings, domes and arches became symbolic of Muslim architecture.
Just as Islam is an important part of the daily life of Muslims, so too is it integral to Muslim architecture. While Islamic religious buildings had some elements borrowed from Christian building styles, they were designed to meet the needs of Muslims, with places to call people to worship and large halls for prayer. Each mosque also featured a mihrab, an indented wall that faced toward Mecca. Completed in 715, the Great Mosque of Damascus includes minarets, a large area for prayer, and a mihrab.
Early Muslims believed that God should be worshiped directly, not through representations. Early artists avoided picturing God or Muhammad, believed to be God's messenger. Instead, they emphasized the importance of God's word.
They used calligraphy, the art of beautiful handwriting, to add physical beauty to the spiritual words of the Quran. Religious artists decorated the handwritten pages with borders containing geometric shapes and arabesques, or flowered patterns.
The Muslim style of religious art could be seen in mosques across the empire. Inside, the walls and ceilings of mosques were decorated with elaborate abstract, geometric patterns. They worked the flowing Arabic script, especially verses from the Quran, into decorations on buildings. The Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, completed around 692, provides exquisite examples of early Muslim art.
Some Muslim artists painted human and animal figures in nonreligious art. Arabic scientific works, including those of the human body, were often lavishly illustrated. Literary works sometimes showed stylized figures. Later Persian, Turkish, and Indian artists excelled at painting miniatures to illustrate books of poems and fables.
Which traditions influenced Muslim literature, art, and architecture?
This courtyard is in the Umayyad Mosque, or Great Mosque of Damascus, which was built in the early 700s.
Although Muhammad could neither read nor write, his respect for learning inspired Muslims to make great advances in philosophy, history, mathematics, and the sciences. Wealthy families might educate their boys and even allow their girls to learn to read and write in order to study the Quran. Most people, however, were illiterate, and they memorized the Quran. Institutions of higher learning included schools for religious instruction and for the study of Islamic law.
The caliph Al-Mamun and his successors established Baghdad as the greatest Muslim center of learning. Its libraries attracted well paid and highly respected scholars. Other cities, like Cairo, Córdoba, and Timbuktu, were also known as centers of learning. In these places, scholars made advances in philosophy, science, mathematics, medicine, and other fields. They also preserved the learning of earlier civilizations by translating ancient Persian, Sanskrit, and Greek texts into Arabic.
Muslim scholars translated the works of the Greek philosophers, as well as many Hindu and Buddhist texts. Scholars tried to harmonize Greek ideas about reason with religious beliefs based on divine revelation.