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Islamic Art  
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The artist Riza-i Abbas, who worked for Shah Abbas, specialized in scenes of young men inhaling the perfume of flowers or being pursued by older men. His scenes varied from the delicate to the crude. One critic goes so far as to say that they "may well have been . . . 'pin-up' boys for homosexuals." In later life Riza began painting female nudes and was known to consort with wrestlers.

The skill of the painting, combined with the beauty of the calligraphy, would have made these illustrated books treasured items. Topics were often intriguingly titled. In the Haft Awrang (Seven Thrones, 1556-1565) commissioned by Sultan Ibrahim Mirza, for example, there are scenes entitled The Fickle Old Lover is Knocked from the Rooftop, in which a young man rejects the advances of an older man.

In The Dervish Picks up His Beloved's Hair from the Hammam Floor, a Sufi mendicant so adores and abases himself for a beautiful young male that he eventually dies, and the young man who rejected him is moved to become a dervish for his sake. Each highly detailed illustration is seen in full space, a worm's and bird's eye view combined.

A depiction of two female lovers from the Koka Shastra, a lesbian allegory from seventeenth-century India with a Hindu influence, shows one figure holding a bow, armed with an arrow, aimed directly into the other's displayed vagina. Attached to the arrow point is a dildo, an image that Pier Paolo Pasolini made startling use of in his film of The One Thousand and One Nights (1974).

Patrons may have commissioned artists to make lascivious pictures, often illustrating stories, for their private collections. One illustrated book of nineteenth-century Turkey, the Khamsa (Quintet) by Nevi Zade Atai depicts the routine sodomizing of a boy while other men stand around idly masturbating. But this kind of explicit depiction of male sex is rare in Islam.

Arabesque Motifs

Central to the Islamic sense of design was an intricate, both simple and complex, repeated pattern of woven strand. The basis of this design is the Arabesque, a principle of reciprocal repetition. The Arabesque is usually manifested as undulating stalks, split and curled leaves that fill the surface with ornament.

Its precursors were the Greek and Roman acanthus and cornucopia motifs, but Arabesque became a standard design feature that was also paralleled in music and poetry and influenced European designers from the late eighteenth century onwards, including Art Nouveau.

This recurrent motif is perhaps a result of the fact that until the seventeenth century Islamic thinkers led the world in astronomy, algebra, trigonometry, and pharmacy. Even in their geometry they were profoundly un-Hellenic.

Whereas Greeks preferred closed circles and polygons, Islamic artists chose open-ended geometric forms such as the ever interlacing polygon. The emphasis was more algebraic than geometric, showing the immateriality of all forms.


Islamic Art is considered to have declined as a result of modern Western influences. A separate, but allied, strand of art produced by Westerners influenced by Muslim culture is termed Orientalism. The value of this work, which was mainly scene painting, but also influenced architecture and music, is debated. However, in recent years, there has been some reappraisal of the fixed binary view of East versus West as underscored by critic Edward Said.

While not demeaning the importance of geopolitical bias, the reassessment now focuses on the more protean transcultural exchange of ideas expressed by Western Orientalist painters, designers and musicians, many of whom were sincere in their search for new and hybrid forms from Islam that reinvigorated European art.

Kieron Devlin

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social sciences >> Overview:  Islam

Despite religious prohibitions against same-sex sexual relationships, Islamic societies generally extend tolerance through a pattern of collective denial.

literature >> Overview:  Middle Eastern Literature: Arabic

The expression of male homoerotic sentiment is one of the dominant themes in classical Arabic literature from the ninth century to the nineteenth.

literature >> Overview:  Middle Eastern Literature: Persian

Over a period of two millennia, sodomy has been by turns condemned and celebrated in Persian literature.

arts >> Pasolini, Pier Paolo

One of the most important cultural figures to emerge from post-World War II Italy, Pier Paolo Pasolini was a versatile man-of-letters, but he was foremost a filmmaker.

literature >> Rumi

The Persian poet Rumi, who originated the "whirling dervish" order of Sufis, developed passionate relationships with other men and mixed spirituality with eroticism in his love poetry.

literature >> Sa'di

The thirteenth-century Persian known as Sa'di wrote prose and poetry that included passages on the passionate love between men and boys.


Blair, Sheila S., and Jonathan M. Bloom. The Art and Architecture of Islam, 1200-1800. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1994.

Blair, Sheila S. and Jonathan M. Bloom. Islamic Arts. London: Phaidon, 1997.

Daniel, Marc. "Arab Civilization and Male Love." Gay Roots: 20 Years of Gay Sunshine: An Anthology of Gay History, Politics, Sex and Culture. Winston Leyland, ed. San Francisco: Gay Sunshine Press, 1991. 33-75.

El -Said, Issam. Geometric Concepts in Islamic Art. London: World of Islam Festival Publication, 1976.

Irwin, Robert. Islamic Art in Context: Art, Architecture and the Literary World. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1997.

MacKenzie, John M. Orientalism: History, Theory, and the Arts. Manchester, England: Manchester University Press, 1995.

Murray, Stephen, with Will Roscoe. Islamic Homosexualities: Culture, History and Literature. New York: New York University Press, 1997.

Rice, David Talbot. Islamic Art. London: Thames and Hudson, 1975.

Saslow, James M. Pictures and Passions: A History of Homosexuality in the Visual Arts. New York: Viking, 1999.

Simpson, Marianna Shreve. Sultan Ibrahim Miraza's Haft Awrang. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1997.

Savory, Roger. Iran under the Safavids, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980.

Welch, Anthony. Shah Abbas and the Arts of Isfahan. New York: The Asia Society, 1973.


    Citation Information
    Author: Devlin, Kieron  
    Entry Title: Islamic Art  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
    Publication Date: 2002  
    Date Last Updated September 24, 2006  
    Web Address  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 2002, glbtq, Inc.  


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