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Frequently Asked Questions

These frequently asked questions provide a brief overview of some of the issues that arise when teaching about Islamic art and culture. These issues pertain to the full range of places and time periods covered in this guide.

Islamic Religion and Culture

Q: How many people practice Islam today?
A: According to most estimates, about twenty-three percent of the world's population is Muslim. In 2012, this constitutes approximately 1.6 billion people.

Q: What do the words Islam and Muslim mean?
A: The word Islam literally means "submission" in Arabic, referring to submission to God. Muslim, one who practices Islam, refers to one who submits to God.

Q: The term "the Islamic world" appears frequently throughout this guide—what area does this refer to?
A: This guide uses the term "the Islamic world" to refer to regions that have historically been ruled and/or inhabited predominantly by Muslims. This term generally encompasses lands reaching from Spain to Indonesia, from the seventh century to the present.

Q: How is Islam similar to other monotheistic religions?
A: There are several similarities among the three major monotheistic religions—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The most obvious is the belief in one God. All three religions consider certain figures from biblical history, such as Abraham and Moses, to have been true prophets of God. In addition, all three faiths originated in the Middle East and have holy sites in common (for example, the Temple Mount in Jerusalem and the Cave of the Patriarchs at Hebron). The concept of pilgrimage is also common to all three.

Q: Do Muslims consider Allah to be the same God worshipped in Judaism and Christianity?
A: Yes. Allah is simply the Arabic name for God, like Yahweh in Hebrew, Dios in Spanish, or Dieu in French. However, Islam, Judaism, and Christianity each characterize God and the qualities of the Divine somewhat differently.

Q: Are there different branches of Islam?
A: Within Islam there exist many different variations of faith, including two major branches—Sunnism and Shiism.

Q: What is the difference between Sunnism and Shiism?
A: The initial schism in the Islamic faith occurred after the death of the Prophet Muhammad as a result of the disagreement over who should succeed the Prophet as the leader of the Muslim community. Some believed that only a blood relative of the Prophet could lead the Islamic community; they believed 'Ali, the Prophet's cousin, should be his successor. They became known as Shi'a, meaning "Party [of 'Ali]." Others believed that leaders within the community should elect the Prophet's successor based on merit; they became known as Sunni (meaning "way" or "path," referring to the traditions of the Prophet, whose example all Muslims are to follow). About eighty percent of Muslims today are Sunni. Over time, differences in theology emerged, but both sects believe in the basic tenets of Islam (the Five Pillars) and revere the Qur'an as divine revelation.

Q: What is Sufism?
A: Some Muslims practice Sufism, a form of Islamic mysticism. The focus of Sufism, which is practiced by Sunnis and Shi'is alike, is to attain unity with God. Its most notable practices include repeating the names of God, asceticism, and mystical dance.

Q: The numbers we use every day are called "Arabic numerals." Have Western languages also adopted words from Arabic?
A: Because of contact between the Islamic world and Europe at various junctures throughout history, many cultural and linguistic influences passed back and forth. For instance, a number of Arabic words were absorbed into the Romance languages, particularly Spanish, Portuguese, and Italian. This was because of the proximity of Europe and the Arab world and the seven centuries of Muslim rule in southern Spain and Italy. Arabic words, such as apricot, alcohol, algebra, coffee, cotton, lute, sofa, and zero, made their way into English through Romance languages.

Q: What languages are spoken in the Islamic world?
A: Arabic is the language of the holy Qur'an. Muslims and non-Muslims alike in Arab lands speak Arabic. However, not all Muslims speak this language on a daily basis. Muslims in non-Arab regions, where the vast majority of Muslims live today, use Arabic for prayer and religious purposes only. Most of the works of art introduced in this guide were created in areas where Arabic, Persian, Turkish, or Urdu were, and still are, the primary spoken and written language. Arabic is a Semitic language similar to Hebrew, while Persian is an Indo-European language, like English or French. Turkish is related to neither and is an Altaic language. Though distinct languages, both Persian and Turkish (until 1928) were written in the Arabic alphabet. Because of the interconnections within the Islamic world, the Arabic, Turkish, and Persian languages borrowed many words from each other.

Q: What countries comprise the region called South Asia in this guide?
A: South Asia consists of the subcontinental region south of the Himalayas including India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Maldives.

Art of the Islamic World

Q: How did The Metropolitan Museum of Art acquire all of these works of art?
A: The Museum started acquiring Islamic works of art as early as 1891. Since then many major collectors have donated objects or portions of their collections. The Museum's collection continues to grow through purchases and gifts.

Q: Many people say that Islam prohibits the depiction of figures (both people and animals). Why are there so many images of people in the Museum's galleries and in this guide?
A: Attitudes toward figural art in the Islamic world varied depending on period and location, and ranged from totally aniconic (no images of people or animals) to entirely accepting of figural imagery. There is no prohibition against the depiction of humans or animals mentioned in the Qur'an. However, the subject is discussed several times in the hadith (the sayings of the Prophet), in which the objections are based largely upon the role of God as sole creator. One tradition from the hadith states that Muhammad removed figural curtains from his home, saying that they would invite the temptation of idol worship. He asked his wife Aisha to turn the curtains into pillows instead, since an object on which one sits could not invite idolatry. This story illustrates the pervading Islamic attitude toward the use of figural imagery in art—that it depends entirely on function and context. In most Islamic regions throughout history, a common compromise was to use figural imagery in a secular context but not in a religious one, or to use images of people and animals on small-scale works of art intended for private enjoyment.


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Ellen Kenny: It's often thought that the presence of any kind of figural imagery is completely unacceptable in the Islamic world, but that's not what you see when you're going through these galleries.

Stefan Heidemann: What is prohibited, indeed, is the use of images in the ritual context, so that it is not mixed up with idolatry. The avoidance of images in the ritual sphere is not based on the Qur'an, but on another source, which is as authoritative as the Qur'an itself, that are the sayings of the Prophet and his deeds.

Ellen Kenny: I think in the palace context, you see figural imagery from the very earliest palaces that we know of.

Stefan Heidemann: The images are all from the secular sphere, and we have images of rulers sitting with dancers, with joy, with musicians. And they serve a decorative purpose.

Ellen Kenny: Still, in this body of work we see a prevalence of geometric and calligraphic motifs; on balance, there's a great deal of emphasis on these more abstract forms.

Q: What accounts for the Asian facial features of many people depicted in the works of art in the galleries of the Islamic department and in this guide?
A: From the eleventh century onward, the concept of human beauty in some parts of the Islamic world began to reflect Central Asian ideals, largely due to the westward migration of Turks from Central Asia. This convention endured in this region through the seventeenth century, after which new ideals of beauty emerged.

Q: There is calligraphy (decorative writing) on so many of the objects in the galleries and in this guide. Would the average person living in the Islamic world have been able to read it all?
A: Most educated people would have been able to read Arabic writing. However, some examples of calligraphy are so ornate that creativity was clearly favored over legibility. Calligraphy was, and is, appreciated above all for its aesthetic qualities and the skill of the calligrapher.

Q: Why are space and depth represented differently in works of art from many Islamic regions than they are in Western paintings?
A: Different cultures have different aesthetic values, ideals of beauty, and concepts of realism and space as represented in painting. Many Islamic paintings favor elements like color and detail, whereas many European painters and patrons of the same time were concerned with creating the illusion of spatial depth. Painters in Islamic and European countries were equally concerned with conveying stories through visual imagery. The differences derive from tradition and cultural conventions, and do not reflect fundamental differences in artistic skill.

Q: Why are there so many images of gardens, plants, and flowers in Islamic art and ornament?
A: Nature-based imagery is important in almost all artistic traditions. In Islamic art in particular you will see a broad range of garden imagery, as is evident in this guide. There are depictions of flowers and plants, sometimes abstract and sometimes naturalistic, on everything from rugs and ceramics to manuscript ornamentation. You will also encounter narrative garden scenes, like those in Mughal and Persian manuscript illustrations. Some believe the pervasiveness of garden and plant imagery in Islamic art stems from the Qur'an's description of heaven as a lush garden paradise. There are also nonreligious factors at work—it is important to remember that many regions of the Islamic world are hot and dry, making images of verdant, water-filled gardens all the more alluring.

Q: How did most artists in the Islamic world work?
A: The modern artist working today uses a very different process than an artist working in the Islamic world during the seventh through the nineteenth centuries. Most artists belonged to workshops, in which groups of skilled craftsmen worked together on multiple projects. Some workshops were commercial, creating relatively large numbers of art objects, from carpets to ceramics, for sale on the open market. Other workshops belonged to royal courts. These employed the very best artists from throughout the empire, who each often had their own specialty. For instance, in a manuscript workshop one artist might specialize in calligraphy, another in painting figures, and yet others in making decorative bindings. The workshop system was not unique to the Islamic world; it also existed in medieval and Renaissance Europe.

Q: A number of the chapters in this guide mention courts. What were these like and who lived in them?
A: Most regions in the Islamic world until the nineteenth century, as in Europe at the time, were controlled by absolute rulers—kings or other leaders who attained their position through lineage (their fathers were the rulers) or conquest. The ruler lived at a court, a large complex with a palace for the ruler, his family, and other nobility. The court also accommodated traveling guests and foreign dignitaries, and usually included a royal workshop (see question above), a mosque, and other cultural institutions. Princes, regional governors, and other members of the nobility often had their own individual courts. Additionally, many rulers led a semi-nomadic life, traveling around their realms to maintain order or fight wars and insurrections.

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