Culture in Medieval Islam

Alhambra
ID 183522980 © Radiokafka | Dreamstime.com

The medieval era was one of the most impressive for Islam as far as the contribution to knowledge is concerned. In any discussion of Muslim contributions in terms of knowledge during what is now referred to as the Islamic Golden Age, culture stands out as one of the most remarkable areas where Muslims left a lasting impression.

Muslim scholars are responsible for cultural transformations as they dazzled everyone with the highly-esteemed Islamic decorative arts. This niche in particular covered Islamic architecture, Islamic pottery, Islamic calligraphy, Islamic textile arts, Islamic miniature, and so on. All through the Middle Ages, works of the Muslim experts in Islamic decorative arts remained in high demand all across Europe. To show how durable these works were, many of them still survive till date. The textile and fabrics for example were either used as wears by the aristocrats or used by the clergy as shrouds or vestments for the church.

When it came to pottery, the works of Muslims were first class and known for their excellence. One interesting thing with the Muslim art experts of that period was that they adhered to some of the most fundamental principles of Islam in their works. These include tolerance, peace, and total submission to the will of Allah (SWT). Hence, they never made artworks that could be labelled as ‘haram’ while the works they also made respected the beliefs of the Christians in Europe who patronized them. Hence, much of the works they did had ornamental purposes.

Another aspect of the culture where Muslims shone brilliantly during the Middle Ages is writing. Of all the scripts used in that period, the Arabic Kufic script stood out. It was used extensively for decoration in Europe so much so that it evolved into what is known as pseudo-Kufic. It is called pseudo because it is an imitation of works of the great Muslim minds in European art. The European counterparts adopted the term for a calligraphic script that focused on angular and straight strokes as seen in decorations in Islamic architecture.

For about five centuries, Islam-inspired pseudo-Kufic script dominated works all over Europe where the grandmasters of art depended heavily on it. The use of pseudo-Kufic script was also incorporated into church frames, fabrics, and sacred halos. This design using pseudo-Kufic is still visible today in the works of artists like the Italian painter Giotto di Bondone (better known as Giotto).

The influence of Muslims in culture in the Middle Ages is also visible in the carpets, especially the world-famous Oriental carpets. The carpets emanated from Muslim communities in Egypt which was then under the Mamluks or several parts of the Ottoman Empire.

Music is another area where Muslims of the Middle Ages left a major impact. For example, the guitar that is used globally today stems from the oud which is a pear-shaped, lute-kind musical instrument with either 11 or 13 strings. The same thing applies to the violin which stems from another musical instrument called the rebec, developed by the Muslims. All these contributions to knowledge do not come as any surprise as Islam encourages seeking for knowledge as a cardinal part of faith. Almighty Allah (SWT) said in the Holy Qur’an:

“Are those who have knowledge and those who have no knowledge alike? Only the men of understanding are mindful. ” (Quran, 39:9).

May Allah (SWT) make our knowledge useful for us in this life and the Hereafter, aameen.