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Learn/ Educators/ Curriculum Resources/ Art of the Islamic World/ Resources and Glossary/ Glossary


al-Andalus / Andalusia – the region of southern Spain under Muslim rule from the eighth to the fifteenth century. Today this region is still known as Andalusia.

Anatolia – the region also known as Asia Minor, comprising most of present-day Turkey.

arabesque – an Islamic decoration employing abstract intertwining vine, leaf, and plant motifs.

assemblage – a collection of objects grouped together.

Berbers – the indigenous people of North Africa living west of the Nile valley.

bismillah – the phrase, "In the name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful," repeated before all but one chapter in the Qur'an (also sometimes spelled basmala).

blazon – an emblem similar to a coat of arms; in Mamluk art a blazon indicates an individual's status in the court hierarchy.

boss – an ornamental projection on both decorative objects and architectural surfaces.

Buraq – the celestial steed that carried the Prophet Muhammad on his miraculous night journey (mi'raj).

caliph – the title of the Prophet Muhammad's immediate successors who were the political and spiritual leaders of the Muslim community. Many subsequent Islamic dynasties continued to use this title. The term "caliphate" refers to the dominion of a caliph.

calligraphy (adj. calligraphic) – decorative writing prized for its aesthetic qualities. (See examples of Arabic calligraphy and descriptions of key scripts: figs. 11, 13, 14.)

Caucasus – the region to the east of the Black Sea, generally acknowledged to include Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, and parts of Russia.

Central Asia – the region between Iran and China comprising present-day Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and sometimes Afghanistan.

chasing – a decorative technique in which the front of a metal surface is indented with a tool (usually a hammer) to create depressed patterns. This technique is most often used in conjunction with repoussé, in which the same metal surface is hammered from the other side.

cloud bands – stylized scrolling bands representing clouds. Derived from Chinese art, cloud bands were used extensively in Persian, Ottoman, and Mughal art after the fourteenth century.

dado – the lower part of an interior wall, often decorated.

div – a Persian term for a demon.

enameling – a decorative technique in which melted and fused glass (often multicolored) is applied to the surface of an object.

folio – a page belonging to (or formerly a part of) a manuscript.

gesso – a white plasterlike substance used to prepare a surface for painting.

Greater Iran – the region historically within the Persian cultural sphere, comprising present-day Iran, Afghanistan, Iraq, and parts of Central Asia.

hadith – a pronouncement on a religious topic ascribed to the Prophet Muhammad.

hijri – the Islamic calendar (al hijri, abbreviated A.H.). The first year of the hijri calendar corresponds to the year 622 A.D. in the Christian calendar and marks the Prophet Muhammad's hijra, or emigration, from Mecca to Medina (in present-day Saudi Arabia).

illumination (adj. illuminated) – the practice of embellishing manuscript pages with gold. In Islamic art the term refers to the gold decoration applied to paintings, calligraphy pages, and manuscripts of the Qur'an.

imam – a Muslim prayer leader.

incised – in an artistic context, incised decoration consists of shallow lines cut into the surface of ceramics or metalwork.

Indian subcontinent – the region comprising present-day Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka.

juz' – a section comprising one-thirtieth of the Qur'an.

Ka'ba – Islam's most sacred building; the cubical structure at the center of the Haram Mosque in Mecca (in present-day Saudi Arabia) used as the focus of prayer.

Levant – the region along the eastern coast of the Mediterranean Sea, generally considered to include present-day Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, and Syria.

madrasa – a school in the Islamic world, especially one offering instruction in Islamic law and theology.

Maghrib – the northernmost region of North Africa comprising the countries bordered by the Mediterranean Sea, including present-day Algeria, Morocco, Libya, and Tunisia.

mausoleum – a tomb with an above-ground architectural structure, built for a family or individual for the purpose of burial and remembrance.

mihrab – a niche in a mosque indicating the direction of Mecca and of prayer.

mina'i – the modern term, derived from the Persian word for enamel (mina), used to describe ceramics with multicolored underglaze and in-glaze painted decoration produced through several firings in a kiln.

minaret – one of the integral architectural elements of a mosque; the tall tower attached or adjacent to a mosque from which the call to prayer is announced.

minbar – a raised platform reached by a set of steps, usually situated in a mosque to the right of a mihrab; speakers address an assembled group from the minbar.

mi'raj – the Prophet Muhammad's night journey to the heavens.

Mongol – a nomadic people of Central Asian origin who swept through Asia and the Islamic world in the thirteenth century, conquering and establishing rule over a vast territory (see map).

motif – a design or shape, often repeated, used decoratively in a work of art.

muqarnas – honeycomblike and stalactitelike architectural decoration, often used in portals, cornices, and domes in the Islamic world (see, for example, the muqarnas in the Damascus Room).

palmette – a decorative motif used extensively in Islamic art, as well as in many other artistic traditions; it usually features broad leaves fanning out from a central stem.

parchment – a writing surface derived from animal skin. Paper replaced parchment in most parts of the Islamic world by the tenth century, though parchment continued to be used in Spain and North Africa until much later.

qibla – the direction Muslims face when performing ritual prayers, toward the Ka'ba in Mecca.

Qur'an – the holiest book in Islam, believed to contain God's revelations to the Prophet Muhammad.

rahla – a stand used to hold a Qur'an; usually made of wood or stone.

Ramadan – the holy month during which Muslims abstain from food and drink during daylight hours. It is the ninth month of the Muslim calendar, and marks God's first revelations to Muhammad.

saz – an artistic style, popular in Ottoman Turkey and developed by the court artist Shah Qulu; it is characterized by blossoms and serrated leaves.

shah – the title given to rulers in several regions of the Islamic world, most notably Iran and Central Asia. Shah means "king" in Persian (the Iranian language).

Shahnama – literally, "Book of Kings"; an epic poem recounting the history of Persian kingship from legendary times to the advent of the Arab conquests of Iran. It was compiled and versified in the eleventh century by the poet Firdausi.

Silk Road – the name given to the interconnected trade routes that reached from China to the Middle East; the Silk Road was the major route of cultural and mercantile exchange in Asia for almost two thousand years (see map).

Sinai Peninsula – a peninsula in Egypt that geographically unites the Asian and African continents.

slip – semifluid clay used to decorate a ceramic vessel or to cover its surface with a solid (usually white) background to which further decoration can be applied.

stonepaste – a white ceramic material that combines clay, quartz, and ground glass, and approximates the qualities of porcelain; also known as frit.

stucco – a durable plasterlike coating applied to architectural surfaces that can be decoratively carved.

sultan – a title for a ruler used widely in the Islamic world, including in Nasrid Spain, Mamluk Egypt, and Ottoman Turkey. The term "sultanate" refers to a dynasty or kingdom established by a sultan.

sura – a chapter of the Qur'an; the Qur'an contains a total of 114 suras.

talisman – an object thought by its owner to possess supernatural or magical powers, including, typically, the ability to protect the owner against bad luck or malevolent forces.

tiraz – literally "embroidery" in Arabic; describes both inscribed textiles and the royal textile workshops where they were produced.

tughra – a stylized royal insignia containing the name of the Ottoman ruler, names associated with his lineage, and the phrase "May he reign forever".

umma – the Muslim community.

vizier – a high-ranking political advisor, usually serving a sultan or shah.

zilij – architectural tilework used primarily in Morocco and Southern Spain.

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