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Islamic Art  
 
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The term "Islamic Art" is an all-embracing concept somewhat inadequate to describe the range and diversity of work produced across countries as different as Morocco, Turkey, and India. It includes art produced by Muslim peoples, beginning with, but not limited to, the nomadic Arabs who promulgated the religion of Islam, which in Arabic means "submission" (to the will of God).

With the migration of Mohammed to Medina in 622 C. E., Islam spread across Mesopotamia, Persia, and North Africa, reaching as far as Spain. Embodying primarily a male ethic, Islam reacted strongly against the proliferation of matriarchal cults and traditions and managed to unify a variety of peoples.

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Art under Islam

The apparent invisibility of homosexuality in the visual arts of Islam is no indication of its absence in the culture. Indeed, quite the opposite is true. Homosexuality was common in many areas under Islamic domination, more visible in some societies than in others. It is a major theme in early Arabic poetry, which may explain the highly respected position of calligraphy in Arabic art.

Muslims, however, posited the significance of art in ways distinct from that of Europeans. For early Muslims, the difference between public and private space was so sharply delineated that it allowed many works to go unnoticed and unrecorded. Public decorum was paramount, and many images, including ones, may have been destroyed.

Another factor that makes accurate assessment of Islamic art difficult is that there was never a serious attempt among Muslim scholars to define or codify a distinct Islamic aesthetic. Even the great historian and sociologist Ibn Khaldoun (1332-1406) makes only cursory reference to art.

Islamic Architecture

In art, Islam emphasizes the primacy of architecture, especially the dome and the free standing minaret. Key to Islamic architecture is an appreciation of the poised classic lines of repeated arches that come to a halt in the pishtaq (Persian for a high arch framed in a rectangular portal), and interiors of stucco or carved wood in intricate geometric patterns. Early Mesopotamian architects achieved the pointed arch at least three centuries before it reached Europe.

Islam's fullest artistic achievement is its mosque architecture, perhaps rivaled only by its miniature painting. Despite the apparent imposed uniformity, mosques vary greatly in style over different eras, from the impressive blue-tiled Shah mosque (1611-1666) of Isfahan with its faience (glazed ceramic) mosaics to the splendor of the mosque of Sultan Suleyman (1550-1557) in Istanbul designed by Sinan, who died a year after it was completed.

Calligraphy and the fine art of the illustrated book are also highly prized, along with textiles and ceramics, which achieved consummate finesse in the Islamic world.

Homosexuality and Islam

At various times in its history, Muslim culture has been known not only for the flourishing of art, but also for tolerance of homosexual relationships. This is true particularly of such reigns as the Abbasids of Baghdad (750-1258), the Umayyads of Cordoba (756-1031), the Seljuks of Persia (1037-1194), the Mamluks of Egypt (1252-1517), and the Ottomans of Turkey (1300-1924).

The tolerance of homosexuality in these epochs is in stark contrast to the more prudish and prohibitive Judeo-Christian ethic that dominated Europe. (The trend in fundamentalist Islamic regimes is recent and does not recognize homosexuality as an identity, but associates it with prostitution, transvestism, and "subversive" foreign influence.)

Many European visitors to Constantinople and North Africa during the Renaissance, for example, were often outraged by what they perceived as openly condoned relationships in the courts of these Islamic societies, and less obvious ones in the harems. However, the homoerotic feeling that flourished in Islam rarely found expression in nudes or portraits as in Hellenistic or later European art.

Islamic attitudes toward sex are complex. Although homosexuality is prohibited (and sometimes severely punished) by Islamic society in general, it is nevertheless widely practiced. Moreover, same-sex intimacy is encouraged, especially in those societies where the segregation of men and women is most strictly enforced.

Some medieval Arab books of counsel advised young men to take boys as lovers during the summer and women in the winter. Homosexuality is called a "great transgression" in the Qur'an, but beautiful youths of both sexes are offered among the rewards of paradise.

The conflicts within Islam regarding homosexuality are highlighted by the fact that Abu Bakr, the first Caliph (successor) after Mohammed's death, advocated that homosexuals should be buried under a wall, while philosopher Ibn Sina (Avicenna, 981-1037), on the other hand, said that kissing boys was permissible, provided it did not lead to immorality.

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A miniature illustration depicting a youth (right) with two male suitors (ca 1560).
  
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