A Global Guide to Islamic Art

Written by Jonathan M. Bloom and Sheila S. Blair

Reprinted from Saudi Aramco World (January/February 2009)

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Visiting an exhibition of Islamic art for the first time? Viewers familiar with western art traditions should be prepared for a mild case of culture shock: Don’t expect ornately framed oil paintings; portraits of religious, historical and mythical figures; landscapes; still-lifes nor a distinct sense of personal expression by artists with familiar names. Don’t expect to see knickknacks produced to adorn the houses of the wealthy and powerful. Instead, expect glass cases displaying objects that are, as often as not, small and useful-carpets; books; bowls, pitchers and jugs; plates made of ceramic, glass, metal and wood-nearly all made by unnamed and unknown craftsmen and all used by the middle and upper classes in their daily lives. At this point, some confusion is understandable: Since most of it isn’t particularly religious, and it wasn’t made “for art’s sake,” then you’re entitled to ask just what, then, “Islamic art” is?

Even experts agree that the term “Islamic art” is insufficient, misleading or just plain bad-until one considers the alternatives. While some types of Islamic art, such as Qur’an manuscripts, mosque lamps or carved wooden minbars (pulpits), are directly concerned with the faith and practice of Islam, the majority of objects considered to be “Islamic art” are called so simply because they were made in societies where Islam was the dominant religion. A few, like the Freer Gallery’s famous canteen decorated with scenes of the life of Christ and saints, were clearly made in a Muslim context (in that case, 13th-century Syria) for use by non-Muslims, while others, such as the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, were probably made for Muslims by non-Muslims, because few craftsmen in Jerusalem had converted to Islam by the end of the seventh century, when it was built. In many cases, we simply don’t know the craftsmen’s faith, because the vast majority of objects are unsigned and many communities were religiously diverse. In medieval Cairo, for example, Muslims, Christians and Jews lived and worked side by side. Their taste in art was similar, but not exactly the same. Sometimes the language of the inscription gives us a clue about the identity of a patron, and sometimes the nature of the decoration is informative, but other times, we just don’t know. In short, “Islamic art” encompasses much more than religious art for Islam.

For most Muslims, the highest form of visual art – and for some, the only spiritually meaningful one – is calligraphy, the art of beautiful writing. Calligraphy gained its preeminence from the Qur’an, God’s revelation to the prophet Muhammad in the seventh century of our era. Delivered orally in Arabic and received aurally, its verses were written in the Arabic script, first by the Prophet’s associates and later by professional scribes who tried to give reverent physical form to the immutable beauty of God’s word. Over the centuries, calligraphers developed many scripts and styles, but all Islamic cultures continue to accord great importance to beautiful writing, principally and primarily of Qur’anic scripture, but also of other literary genres. This great appreciation of writing has permeated all forms of Islamic visual culture, and thus calligraphy can be found on everything from mosques, schools and palaces to humble bowls, beakers and dishes. Sentiments expressed range from verses from the Qur’an and blessings upon the owner of the object to quotations from popular poetry. The choice of text depended on the function of the object: Qur’anic texts are appropriate only on things used in the practice of the faith, whereas poetry might appear on jugs and dishes used in daily life.

Another point of frequent confusion in Islamic art is that it’s often said – quite incorrectly – that Islam forbids figural representation. This is simply untrue: the Qur’an itself has little to say about the subject, except that people should not worship idols. Over time, however, this aversion to religious images sometimes spilled over to the secular world, and so at some times in some places, some Muslims have disapproved of all images, while at other times and in other places, other Muslims use them frequently, although never in purely religious settings. For example, many examples of Islamic pottery are decorated with scenes of people and animals engaged in a variety of activities, like hunting, feasting, fighting, riding, and so on. Sometimes the scenes illustrate well-known stories, but in the vast majority of cases we don’t know what specifically the scenes are meant to represent. They might be symbolic or emblematic, but they might also be just decorative, in much the same way that tableware today is often decorated with birds or flowers that have no meaning beyond adornment.

Many examples of Islamic art are decorated with plants, leaves, stems and flowers. This vegetal decoration often grows according to the laws of geometry rather than the laws of nature: Stems scroll symmetrically and regularly around evenly spaced leaves and flowers. This kind of decoration is usually called arabesque, a term coined by 15th- or 16th-century Europeans who admired it and associated it with the Arab lands. Arabesque is often combined with geometric ornament, whether strapwork patterns that appear to interlace across a flat surface or mesmerizing tiles that subdivide a surface into interlocking segments. Again, experts are unsure whether these kinds of vegetal and geometric decoration have specific meaning. For some, some vegetation can evoke themes of paradise, described in the Qur’an as a verdant garden, while geometry can evoke the diversity in the unity of God’s creation; for others, the plants and flowers evoke the abundance of the earth and a sense of well-being, the geometry the sophistication of mathematics in the Islamic lands. It is perfectly possible that the artists and designers were deliberately ambiguous, allowing the individual viewer to interpret the decoration in the way that he or she saw fit.

Islamic art has been produced for over 14 centuries from the shores of the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea, from the steppes of Central Asia to the savannas of Africa, in lands where people spoke a myriad of languages but shared a common belief in the tenets of Islam and a common – if sometimes limited – knowledge of Arabic, the language of the Qur’an. The resources available to the artists, and the pre-existing cultural traditions, all differed so widely from one part of this vast region to another that no single style or technique or medium prevailed. For example, whereas wood was relatively common in Morocco and also in Anatolia, it was rare in Egypt, so craftsmen there developed special techniques-like the mashrabiyyah, or spoolwork grilles, made of hundreds of small pieces of turned wood – to make the most of a scarce resource. Good stone for building was available around the Mediterranean and also in India, but not in Iraq, Iran and Central Asia, where builders developed extraordinary ways of constructing and decorating with mud and clay, whether used raw as pisé and plaster or baked into bricks and gleaming tiles.

So how should the interested person approach Islamic art, especially when he or she is most likely to encounter it in a museum gallery, far removed from its original contexts and installed, uprooted, under gleaming spotlights? Museum labels, despite their good intent, often tell us everything except what we most want to know. Many of the dynastic tags so beloved of curators – from Umayyad, Fatimid, Ghaznavid, Timurid and Safavid to Mamluk and Ottoman – are helpful if you want to use art to illustrate history, but their unfamiliarity (not to mention their variant spellings) often tends to confuse the visitor.

Instead, we suggest that the curious viewer temporarily ignore the label and confront the object directly with practical questions: What is it? What is it made of? Where did the materials come from, and how were they transformed into their present state? Who – and how many people – made it? How long did it take to make? What is the decoration? Is it complete, or are we seeing only a part of something bigger? Is it unique, or were many other pieces made just like it? Does it say something? (Here the label can be useful in translating an inscription, if it has one.) For whom was it made? How did he or she use it? How was it preserved, and how and when did it arrive at this particular museum? Why did the curator put it here, next to the other objects in the case? How are the cases arranged? What messages is the gallery installation trying to convey?

In all societies and at all times, human beings have expressed themselves in different ways. Although art can be used to illustrate history, its primary function is to communicate messages that cannot be said in words. The sheer physical beauty of much Islamic art invites us to stop and contemplate what we see before us. Take the time to stop, look, and ask some of these questions. The art – by whatever name it may be called – will amply repay the effort.

Here is our list of major museums of Islamic art in the United States, Europe, and the Islamic lands. It is by no means exhaustive: One survey conducted in the 1990s found more than 300 collections worldwide, and the number has increased dramatically since then. Instead, we point to some of the world’s best, most accessible collections, and guide you to what you might expect to find in each.


The Victoria and Albert Museum, now known as the V&A, grew out of the Great Exhibition of 1851 as a showcase for the applied and decorative arts. Its collections were organized by medium: All ceramics, for example, were originally displayed together. Although the museum’s primary focus was European decorative art, from its inception it also collected the applied arts of the Islamic lands, as they were seen as key sources for improving design in mid-19th-century Great Britain. By 1876, Robert Murdoch Smith, an officer in the Royal Engineers who served in Iran as director of the Indo-European Telegraph, had acquired some 2000 objects for the museum, and in 1893 William Morris, champion of the Arts and Crafts movement, urged the museum to buy the great Ardabil carpet. Since the 1950s the museum has devoted a gallery to the Islamic Middle East, and in 2006, that was redesigned and renamed the Jameel Gallery of Islamic Art.

The designers were instructed to make the space evoke the Islamic Middle East, and the vast hall, with its arcades of massive columns, is now “reminiscent of the Mosque of Damascus,” according to the late Patricia Baker, an associate of the museum who gave frequent guided tours of the exhibition. Its centerpiece is the room-sized Ardabil carpet, which was made in 1539 for the Safavid dynastic shrine at Ardabil in northwestern Iran. For many years it hung in a dark case on the gallery’s north wall, but in the new installation it is laid on the floor, as it was originally meant to be seen, and protected by a walk-around glass case, beneath a suspended canopy containing a multitude of tiny lights that control illumination on this priceless work of art. It is surrounded by approximately 400 of the finest works in the collection, arranged thematically. The strengths of the V&A collection of Islamic art reflect its particular history. Absent are the museum’s many works from India (once the “jewel in the crown” of the British Empire), which are displayed in the adjacent South Asian galleries; similarly absent are the arts of the Islamic book, for which visitors will have go across London to the British Library. The Islamic collection, which in full comprises more than 10,000 objects, is strong in ceramics, glass, metalwares, ivories and textiles, with an emphasis on works from Iran, Turkey and Egypt. Since one of the briefs given to the designers of the new installation was to encourage learning, space in some cases is devoted to well-developed texts on such topics as the transition from Antiquity to Islam, art for religion, art for the court, and so on. One of the most successful texts treats artistic exchanges between the Islamic world and Europe. Although there are choice objects from virtually all major periods, the collection is far from encyclopedic; however, its richness effectively compensates for its gaps, and its family-friendly atmosphere makes it a great place not only to see one of the world’s great collections but also to learn about Islamic art. (For an encyclopedic collection in London, try the Addis Gallery at the British Museum, where displays cover from early archeological material to modern art in a sober but attractive chronological sequence.)


The Benaki Museum was established in 1931 by Antonis Benakis (1873-1954), a Greek cotton-merchant living in Alexandria, Egypt. Inspired by strong nationalist feelings, he amassed a large collection of art focused on the Greek heritage in the Mediterranean world. His taste for Islamic art was formed in part at the 1903 Paris Exposition des Arts Musulmans. He donated his collection to the Greek nation, and the museum, originally housed in the Benaki family mansion in Athens, opened with Islamic material-principally ceramics and textiles from Egypt and the Ottoman Empire along with gold jewelry-spread over two rooms on the first floor and one on the second. Benakis’s daughter, Irini Kalliga (1912-2000), president of the museum’s board of trustees, had long envisioned creating a separate museum for Islamic art, and her vision was realized when Lambros Eftaxias (1905-1996), president of the Benakis Foundation, gave the museum two late neoclassical buildings in the historic area of Kerameikos, below the Acropolis. The discovery of a large section of ancient ruins delayed the opening of the Islamic museum for several years, but the remains-as at the Louvre in Paris-were eventually incorporated into the building, which opened to the public a few days before the Summer Olympic Games in 2004.

Today, the Museum of Islamic Art in Athens covers 13 centuries, with focuses on Islam’s role in the Mediterranean world, its links with Greco-Roman traditions and its regular contacts with Byzantium. Benakis did not collect either manuscripts or miniatures, but only woodcarvings, metalwork, ceramics, glass and textiles. His personal collection was supplemented over the years by gifts from other donors, and in order that the new museum might present an unbroken historical sequence, the curators have borrowed from other collections, notably 17th-century Iranian ceramics from the V&A and Ottoman tiles from the Calouste Gulbenkian Museum in Lisbon.

The strength of this collection is in the material from early Islamic times, tastefully displayed in the first of four galleries. Particularly notable are the luster ceramics from Iraq and Egypt, and the inscribed textiles from Egypt and Yemen, although extraordinary examples of metalwork, jewelry, and woodcarving can be seen there as well. Highlights in the second gallery, from the 12th to the 16th centuries, include several extraordinary-and large-examples of inlaid metalware. The third gallery (above) features an inlaid marble floor from a 17th-century Cairo mansion, flanked by contemporary windows and plaster screens inset with colored glass, as well as textiles and ceramics from the Ottoman Empire that evoke the cosmopolitan Mediterranean of the 16th and 17th centuries. A final gallery is devoted to the arts (particularly enamels) of 19th-century Iran and Mughal India. The steadfast visitor who completes the tour will be rewarded at the café on the Museum’s roof terrace, which serves delightful refreshments with a spectacular view of the Acropolis.


Christian Ludvig David (1878-1960) is much less known than such other private collectors as Charles Lang Freer and Antonis Benakis, who founded museums that came to bear their names. A successful Danish lawyer, David initially collected Danish painting and sculpture, but early in the 20th century he took an interest in 18th-century European decorative arts as well as Islamic carpets and ceramics. David always wanted his collection displayed in a domestic setting, and in 1945 he set up the C. L. David Foundation and Collection in his family’s ancestral three-story townhouse overlooking Copenhagen’s Rosenborg Gardens.

After his death, the directors realized that if the small institution were to have a place in the museum world, it needed to fill a cultural gap: The one they identified was Islamic art, and under subsequent directors the David Collection of Islamic art expanded tenfold to more than 2500 objects today. In 1986 the Foundation purchased the adjacent 19th-century townhouse and in May 2006 the museum closed for expansion and renovation. When it re-opens in May 2009, it will occupy both buildings. {The Museum is now reopened and remember, it’s free!} The display of European art will be more compact, while the area devoted to display of Islamic art will double, providing room for several pieces too large to show in the original townhouse-for example, a stunning arabesque carpet made in 17th-century Iran-as well as many objects previously kept in storage.

The emphasis at the David Collection is on the finest and best-preserved examples of classical Islamic art, whether ceramics, metalwares, ivory, glass or woodwork. The David Collection is thus very traditional in scope: It treats the history of Islamic art only up to 1850, and it excludes both sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia. Its new galleries will present objects in a manner that combines chronology and geography, with special galleries devoted to subjects such as religion and symbolism. Perhaps the most unusual will be the space devoted to restoration and techniques, revivals and forgeries. What sets the collection apart is the superb quality of the objects, chosen by a series of curators over a half a century. Most recently, Kjeld von Folsach, the current director, has shown not only an especially fine eye but also good detective skills that have routed out such hidden treasures as the stunning ivory box, made in 10th-century Córdoba, that was acquired in 2002.


Many of the world’s greatest art museums that attempt to be “universal” and survey art in all media, from all places and all times, have important collections of Islamic art. Unfortunately, because of the recent surge in interest in Islamic art, most of them are, like the David Collection, closed for renovation. One exception is the Museum für Islamische Kunst, which has already completed one renovation-though another may be in the works. Founded in 1905 by the legendary Wilhelm von Bode as part of the Royal Museums of Berlin (also known as the Pergamon Museum), it attempted to show how Islamic art continued artistic traditions of late antiquity. Among its most notable acquisitions are the 30-meter (100′) carved stone façade from the palace of Mshatta in Jordan, which the Ottoman sultan Abdül-hamid II offered as a gift to Wilhelm II, and the mammoth luster ceramic mihrab (prayer niche) from the Maydan Mosque at Kashan, in central Iran.

Over the years the museum’s encyclopedic holdings were enriched with special gifts such as von Bode’s splendid personal collection of carpets, as well as thousands of artifacts from German excavations at the Abbasid capital at Samarra in Iraq and other sites. During World War II, the museum’s smaller pieces were put in remote storage in mines, but the larger pieces, such as the Mshatta façade and many carpets, were damaged or destroyed. After the division of Germany, two museums emerged: one in the old building in East Berlin, and the other in a modern building in Dahlem, a leafy suburb of West Berlin. In 1992 the divided collection was reunited, and since 2001 the most important pieces of its 16,000 works are on display once again in the south wing of the Pergamon Museum. The collections have been enriched recently by the long-term loan of the encylopedic Keir Collection, assembled by Edmund de Unger, a Hungarian-born British lawyer who made a fortune in London real estate.


The oldest of the Islamic collections in a universal museum, but one that will reopen only in 2010, is the Musée du Louvre. Some of its 10,000 Islamic objects once belonged to the French kings, such as the 14th-century Egyptian basin known as the “Baptistère of Saint-Louis.” Others, such as the 10th-century Central Asian silk known as the “Shroud of Saint-Josse” or the contemporary Córdoban ivory box known as the Mughira casket, came from European churches and monasteries where they were used to contain the relics of Christian saints.

The collection is particularly strong in ceramics, metalwares, glass and woodwork, especially from Egypt and the Levant, areas with which France had long commercial and diplomatic interests. (Oddly, there is little from North Africa, a region France colonized from the 1830’s to the early 1960’s.) The Louvre’s new display will be ingenious: The neoclassical Cour Visconti will be covered with a sail-like roof of glass disks that change color with the sky.

Architect Rudy Ricciotti, a staunch defender of natural lighting, described the roof as “floating like a flying carpet,” while his colleague Mario Bellini called it “a floating, iridescent cloud.” Prince Walid ibn Talal, nephew of Saudi Arabia’s King Fahd, was so taken with the design that in 2005 he gave the Louvre $20 million, the largest gift ever to the world’s largest museum. The French government itself is contributing $31 million, for official French policy sees Islamic art as an important bridge across cultural divides or, in the words of culture minister Renaud Donnedieu de Vabres, “an essential instrument for the dialogue of cultures and the preservation of their diversities.”

The new design cleverly allows display of 3,000 of the Louvre’s finest works of Islamic art, though objects in media susceptible to damage by light will have to be displayed in the basement, where light levels can be controlled. In any event, the Louvre has very few works on paper, for most Islamic manuscripts in France are held by the Bibliothèque Nationale; nor does it hold many textiles, which are mostly in the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, the Louvre’s sister institution, which will lend some of them to the Louvre for the new display. On the main floor, objects will be presented chronologically, but topical digressions on subjects such as the art of writing, geometry and the science of numbers, the arts of the book and the urban context all seem destined for the basement.

New York

Plans for a new display of Islamic art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the broadest and finest collection in the United States, have been kept under tight wraps. The old galleries, which opened to great flourish in October 1975 under the curatorship of Richard Ettinghausen (1906-1979), were modeled on the installation in the Pergamon Museum, where Ettinghausen had trained with Ernst Kühnel before World War II. The Met’s sequence of galleries, somewhat dim and mysterious but arranged in rigorous chronological order, displayed the largest permanent exhibition of Islamic art ever seen in the U.S. at the time and set the “gold standard” for museum exhibitions of Islamic art. Over nearly three decades, however, the galleries came to look dated, and in June 2003 they were closed as part of the Met’s renovation of its south wing.

The renovated galleries were originally scheduled to open in 2006, but the date has been repeatedly pushed back, and the most recent estimate is spring 2011. Neither details about the installation nor the names of prospective donors have been published. In the meantime, visitors can see a limited selection of highlights from the Met’s encyclopedic, 12,000-object collection, which ranges from Persian manuscripts to Mamluk carpets and everything in between, in temporary displays on the balcony of the Great Hall. (Ed. note: As of spring 2015, both the Ancient Near Eastern Art  [pre-Islamic] and Islamic Art exhibits are open.)

Washington, D.C.

The Freer Gallery of Art is the Smithsonian Institution’s museum of Asian art. Founded by Detroit industrialist Charles Lang Freer (1854-1919), who became interested in Far Eastern and then Islamic art through his friendship with the American painter James McNeil Whistler, the Freer has collected choice masterpieces since its opening in 1923. Its austere galleries present these treasures as aesthetic objects that transcend space and time. Following the gift of some 1,000 works of Asian art from the collection of Dr. Arthur M. Sackler (1913-1987), the Freer was connected underground in 1987 to the new Sackler Gallery of Asian Art next door, which the year before had acquired a trove of largely Persian manuscript paintings, unseen since before World War II, from the collection of the Parisian jeweler Henri Vever. The combined collection of Islamic art now totals more than 2,200 objects, of which manuscripts are particularly important. They range from folios from early Qur’ans to complete codices, such as the Haft Awrang (Seven Thrones) of the Persian poet Jami, made between 1556 and 1566. Also notable are the Freer Canteen and Basin, two of the finest examples of 13th-century Syrian metalwork, decorated with Christian scenes.

Los Angeles

The newest major collection of Islamic art in the U.S. is at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), which underwent extensive renovations but has since reopened. The museum began to collect Islamic art on a large scale in 1973, with the acquisition of the collection of Nasli M. Heeramaneck (1902-1971), an Indian-born dealer based in New York, who specialized in Indian and Persian art. A 1983 gift by Edwin Binney III (1925-1986) added many examples of Ottoman art, notably arts of the book and ceramics, and the 2002 acquisition of the Madina collection enhanced the museum’s holding from the Arab world, especially Egypt and Syria.

LACMA now holds about 1700 works, with strengths in Persian and Turkish glazed pottery and tiles, glass and manuscripts. Like the British Museum, it has recently also moved into modern art, adding works by contemporary artists from the Middle East to counter the idea that Islamic art ended in the 19th century. The new galleries will open in a much larger space with double the number of objects on view – around 250 – including the LACMA Ardabil carpet, a companion to the V&A’s centerpiece, presented to the museum in 1953 by oil baron J. Paul Getty. The galleries will be organized mainly along traditional chronological and geographical lines, though some will be thematic. Curator Linda Komaroff sees the installation of the permanent collection as a “work in progress,” something she can “always improve on.” She hopes to enlarge the collection in new areas, such as 19th-century photography, and to experiment with small installations, such as displays of canteens or other types of objects the museum holds in multiples. A current exhibit on Contemporary Islamic art is a major feature of the collection.


In the Muslim world, museums of Islamic art range widely in age, scope and presentation. Egypt’sMuseum of Islamic Art was set up in 1881 in the ruined mosque of al-Hakim in the old city of Cairo. It quickly outgrew the space, and in 1903 a new Gallery of Arab Antiquities (Dar al-Athar al- Arabiyyah) opened in a neo-Mamluk building that also housed the National Library. The collection soon expanded with gifts and excavated material, and in 1952 the name was changed to the more comprehensive Museum of Islamic Art. The collection now numbers more than 100,000 items, but many are small objects like coins, glass weights and shards. Nonetheless, the museum also has a substantial collection of metalwork (acquired from the Ralph Hariri collection in 1945) as well as woodwork, textiles, stone and glass, many of them Egyptian.

Closed for renovation in 2003, the museum is expected to reopen within the next couple of years. The adjacent National Library has already been renovated, and it houses an extraordinary collection of manuscripts, as well as computer workstations, an auditorium, and several galleries of masterworks. Not surprisingly, the library’s collection includes numerous Qur’an manuscripts – in particular multi-volume copies from the Mamluk period – but it also owns some superb Persian manuscripts, including the only one with illustrations indisputably by the hand of Behzad, the greatest of Persian painters.

Ed. note, April 9, 2015: Though the MIA had reopened, it was destroyed in 2014 by a car bomb. Its curators are working to restore all salvageable items. View this story for more information.


Of all the world’s venues for Islamic art, the most picturesque is undoubtedly the Topkapi Palace Museum, housed in the sprawling buildings of the centuries-old Ottoman palace amid leafy gardens overlooking the meeting of Europe and Asia. Most of its objects were once in the Ottoman imperial collection, and they include gifts, spoils of war and local production. In addition to its Turkish collections, the museum houses one of the finest collection of Persian manuscript painting anywhere, and any student of the subject needs to spend as much time here as in Iran. There are also splendid Iznik ceramics and extraordinary Ottoman velvets and kaftans. The fabulous jewels in the Treasury were a major tourist draw even before Peter Ustinov and Melina Mercouri starred in “Topkapi” in 1964, and still are. The Chamber of the Sacred Relics houses objects associated with the Prophet Muhammad that Sultan Selim I brought from Egypt in 1517. And then there are the 10,000 Chinese porcelains, one of the world’s finest collections, that used to grace the sultan’s tables. (Visitors to Istanbul should not miss three other important museums of Islamic art: the nearby Museum of Turkish and Islamic Art, and the relatively new Koç and Sabanci Museums.)


The National Museum of Islamic Art, a relatively new institution, has been closed for renovation. Until the Islamic Revolution in 1979, the Islamic collections were housed along with pre-Islamic material in the Iran Bastan (Ancient Iran) Museum, a building designed by André Godard, the French architect in charge of Iran’s archeological service. In 1996 the Islamic material was moved to the adjacent building formerly used for temporary exhibitions. The large and varied collection is mostly Iranian, and it includes everything from excavated ceramics and silverware to woodwork, stucco, and tiles from ruined mosques and palaces. The notable exceptions are the Chinese blue-and-white ceramics endowed to the shrine at Ardabil, for the Safavid shahs, like their Ottoman counterparts, preferred to dine off the world’s finest porcelain. In addition to the National Museum, Tehran has special museums dedicated to manuscripts and painting, glass and ceramics and carpets, as well as a lively Museum of Contemporary Art.


The Museum of Islamic Art (Dar al-Athar al-Islamiyyah) in Kuwait City, open from 1983 to the Iraqi invasion in August 1990, was the first comprehensive museum of Islamic art in the Gulf region. The collection was assembled in the 1970s and 1980s by Shaykh Nasser Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah and his wife Shaykha Hussah Sabah al-Salem al-Sabah. At the time of the invasion, about 100 objects from the collection were out on international tour, but most of what remained in Kuwait was looted, taken to Baghdad and, luckily, eventually recovered un-damaged. The museum building, however, was nearly destroyed by fire but has reopened after extensive renovations in 2010. Displays have been expanded to house the enlarged collection, which now numbers over 30,000 objects. Meanwhile, visitors to Kuwait can visit two museums established by Tareq Rajab: Dar el-Cid houses a comprehensive display of Islamic art and handicraft, where a new discovery lurks around every corner, and Dar Jehan is devoted to Arabic calligraphy in all its forms.


The most lavish new museum is the Museum of Islamic Art that opened with great fanfare in the Qatari capital in November (2008). Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, the previous emir before handing the throne to his son, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani in 2013, cajoled the architect I. M. Pei, known for his distinctive additions to museums such as the National Gallery in Washington (1979) and the Louvre (1989), into designing the building: He has produced a pale limestone pyramid that rises dramatically from an artificial island just off Doha’s Corniche. For inspiration, Pei looked to the traditional Islamic architectural form of the ablution fountain of Cairo’s eighth-century Mosque of Ibn Tulun, which provided him an “almost cubist expression of geometric progression from octagon to square and the square to the circle.” While the exterior exploits the play of light and shadow, the interior evokes the great domed spaces of Islamic architecture. Pei lit the interior with a huge ring 30 meters (100′) in diameter whose piercing recalls medieval Egyptian metalwork. The vast exhibit space is half again as large as the new installation in the Louvre and five times the floor space of the Benaki Museum.

Some 500 objects are dramatically displayed in enormous glass cases on massive porphyry tables spot-lit with the latest in fiber-  optic lighting. The Doha collection, which contains examples from most regions and periods, is one of the newest major  collections, acquired over the last two decades. Many of the pieces were purchased by Sheikh Saud Mohammed al-Thani, the  emir’s cousin and a flamboyant personality on the art scene since the late 1990s, and they were chosen less for  comprehensiveness than quality: They represent the finest works of Islamic art recently available on the market, and thus the col-  lection includes a range of glittering ceramics, metalwork, jewelry, woodwork, glass and textiles. Some, like the Timurid silk  carpet with a chess-board design knotted into the pattern, are unique. Others, like the inlaid brass candlestick made for the Inju  ruler of Shiraz in the early 14th century, are the finest examples of their type. Still others, such as the bronze fountain in the  shape of a doe, made in 10th-century Spain, are historically rare, and jewels, such as the 218-carat emerald amulet known as the  Mogul-i Mughal and the white jade amulet worn by the Mughal emperor Shahjahan after the death of his beloved wife Mumtaz  Mahal, were made for royalty. All are stunning, and they ensure that the museum, which will be joined by others devoted to  Orientalist paintings, photography and other arts, will make Doha a major cultural center in the region.

The Largest Collection You Cannot See in One Place

One of the most extensive collections of Islamic art is not regularly on public view. Over the last few decades, Nasser D. Khalili, a UK-based, Iranian-born entrepreneur, scholar and patron, has amassed a collection of more than 20,000 works of Islamic art, including illustrated and illuminated manuscripts, ceramics, textiles, glass, metalwork and lacquer. Given his background, it is no surprise that the collection is weighted toward Iran. Until the collection finds a permanent home, however, it can be seen only piecemeal, through traveling exhibitions and loans, and in the pages of a series of splendid, large-format catalogs with luxurious color plates. Seventeen of the planned 27 volumes are now in print, but such quality does not come cheap: each catalog costs about $300, and the full set will exceed $8,000 – a price to match the quality of many of the objects.

On the Web

For those who don’t have the time or the money to hop onto a plane, all is not lost: Web sites increasingly provide “virtual” viewing. Many museums now offer highlights from their collections on line, and many have special features as well. The Metropolitan Museum of Art online (www.metmuseum.org/Works_of_Art), for example, has links to an archive of past exhibitions and to the museum’s fine “Timeline of Art History.”

  • The Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s website provides a lengthy chronological survey of Islamic history and art.
  • Stay informed about the Louvre Islamic Arts collection.
  • The V&A’s website ) is aimed at education: It includes brief videos of palaces and mosques in the Middle East as well as online jigsaw puzzles and other games based on Islamic art.
  • And the Khalili Collection’s site shows an extensive sampling of its treasures.
  • Some web sites transcend individual museums, and the best is the Museum with No Frontiers, a Belgium-based collaborative project of museums from 19 countries in Europe and the Mediterranean that links museum collections with buildings, archaeological sites and even historically significant landscapes from the participating countries. Its website offers 18 virtual exhibitions in eight languages on a variety of dynasties and topics ranging from the Umayyads and the Normans in Sicily to women, water and the role of gardens and flowers in Islamic art. Accompanying print catalogs of some of the virtual exhibitions, written by experts in the individual fields, are also available. The website also has information on the nearly 50 participating and associated museums and their collections, ranging from the British Museum and the V&A to specialized ones such as the Rabat Archaeological Museum in Morocco and the Kairouan Museum of Islamic Art in Tunisia. Its database of 1,200 objects also includes those from many smaller collections that are not available elsewhere. The many ways to learn about and see Islamic art – however it is defined – continue to become more numerous and more accessible, wherever you are.

Jonathan M. Bloom and Sheila S. Blair share both the Norma Jean Calderwood University Professorship of Islamic and Asian Art at Boston College and the Hamad bin Khalifa Endowed Chair of Islamic Art at Virginia Commonwealth University. Together and separately they have written and edited several dozen books and hundreds of articles on all aspects of Islamic art. Their latest is the three-volume Grove Encyclopedia of Islamic Art and Architecture (2009).

Editor’s note, April 2015: This piece has been updated to reflect changes that have occurred since its original publication in 2009.

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