With the spread of Islam outward from the Arabian Peninsula in the seventh century, the figurative artistic traditions of the newly conquered lands profoundly influenced the development of Islamic art. Ornamentation in Islamic art came to include figural representations in its decorative vocabulary, drawn from a variety of sources. Although the often cited opposition in Islam to the depiction of human and animal forms holds true for religious art and architecture, in the secular sphere, such representations have flourished in nearly all Islamic cultures.
The Islamic resistance to the representation of living beings ultimately stems from the belief that the creation of living forms is unique to God, and it is for this reason that the role of images and image makers has been controversial. The strongest statements on the subject of figural depiction are made in the Hadith (Traditions of the Prophet), where painters are challenged to “breathe life” into their creations and threatened with punishment on the Day of Judgment. The Qur’an is less specific but condemns idolatry and uses the Arabic term musawwir (“maker of forms,” or artist) as an epithet for God. Partially as a result of this religious sentiment, figures in painting were often stylized and, in some cases, the destruction of figurative artworks occurred. Iconoclasm was previously known in the Byzantine period and aniconicism was a feature of the Judaic world, thus placing the Islamic objection to figurative representations within a larger context. As ornament, however, figures were largely devoid of any larger significance and perhaps therefore posed less challenge.
As with other forms of Islamic ornamentation, artists freely adapted and stylized basic human and animal forms, giving rise to a great variety of figural-based designs. Figural motifs are found on the surface decoration of objects or architecture, as part of the woven or applied patterns of textiles, and, most rarely, in sculptural form. In some cases, decorative images are closely related to the narrative painting tradition, where text illustrations provided sources for ornamental themes and motifs. As for manuscript illustration, miniature paintings were integral parts of these works of art as visual aids to the text, therefore no restrictions were imposed. A further category of fantastic figures, from which ornamental patterns were generated, also existed. Some fantastic motifs, such as harpies (female-headed birds) and griffins (winged felines), were drawn from pre-Islamic mythological sources, whereas others were created through the visual manipulation of figural forms by artists.
Department of Islamic Art. “Figural Representation in Islamic Art.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/figs/hd_figs.htm (October 2001)
Allen, Terry. "Aniconism and Figural Representation in Islamic Art." In his Five Essays on Islamic Art, pp. 17–37. Sebastopol, Calif.: Solipsist Press, 1988.
Grabar, Oleg. The Formation of Islamic Art. Rev. and enl. ed. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987.