Nuances of Islamic Style: Mughal Art and Architecture in the Islamic World
The Islamic conquest, which spans the world from Europe to Southeast Asia, left an indelible mark in the culture of the regions which Islam infiltrated. Its influence as seen in the material culture reflects not only Islamic philosophy, myth, and belief system, but also historical events which resulted in the differentiation of Islam in various regions of the Islamic world.
Understanding art and architecture as part of the material culture reveals nuances in the Islamic world. These aspects of society demonstrate the construction of identity of the self and the society itself, being concrete representations of social relationships. In this paper, the author will demonstrate how geographical, historical, and cultural factors create the nuances that make up the whole complexity of the Islamic world. This will be facilitated through a discussion of the art and architecture focusing on the differences between Mughal art which flourished in Northern India and other Islamic regions.
Islamic civilization in general is perceived to be complex, inaccessible, and “enigmatic” (Los Angeles Community Museum of Art [LACMA]). During the initial contact with the Eastern world, European scholars dubbed the incomprehensible art, such as those they encountered in Moslem India, to be “barbarous,” “ugly,” and grotesque (“A Tribute to Hinduism” 9). This generalization stems from the fact that Western scholars and critics did not have a full grasp of the Eastern worldview reflected in the visual representations they hastily labeled as inferior.
The extent and history of civilization in the Indian subcontinent dating thousands of years back belie the assumptions made on its art and architecture. Since the emergence of the Indian valley culture, specifically the Sindhu-Sarawasti culture between 3300 and 1700 BCE, artifacts including metal works, stone etchings, and ceramic reveal sophisticated craftsmanship (“A Tribute to Hinduism” 13).
As civilization grew and territories shifted along with the expansion of empires, this craftsmanship evolved to be an accretion of variegated influences from neighboring regions as well as the ruling class. The Mughal Dynasty, considered the Golden Age of Northern India, illustrates the mixture of influences which defined its art and architecture. The Mughul Dynasty is a part of a powerful Islamic triumvirate which dominated the Southern regions of the world (“The Islamic World to 1600”).
The Moghul Empire, which occupies Northern India, flourished between 1526 and 1858. It was established by a Timurid-Persian prince named Babur who conquered the Southern region of Kabul, now Afghanistan, after he failed to regain control of Samarakand, which is presently Uzbekistan (“The Islamic World to 1600”). He expressed the strength of his dynasty by creating the most obvious symbol of power, the mosque. In his rule, three known mosques were built and their architecture showed influences of Timurid style characterized by “arch-netted plaster relief” attached to the transition zones of the domes (Murali).
The remains of the architecture commissioned by Babur reveals that he based his design not in Sultanate style but in the Persian Timurid style. During the succeeding rule of Humayun Dynasty, mixed features in the architecture were evident in the structures erected (Murali). Although the Timurid style was still incorporated in the design, ancient methods of building such as stone facing and aesthetic renditions such as the addition of decorative elements in the façade were revived and applied in Humayun architecture (Murali). An example of this is the incorporation of traditional Indian beam and pillar structures in the Mughal palace.
It was during Akbar’s reign that Mughal architecture developed a distinct imperial characteristic. His liberal attitude paved way for various influences to blend in the established architectural style of the dynasty (Murali). He employed Persian artists in constructing mosque and palaces, and their individual artistic styles inevitably showed in the work. Koch describes Akbar’s style to be a “supra-regional synthesis” of influences “extensively borrowed from Timurid, Persian, Indian, and Transoxanian” (region in Central Asia) (qtd. in Murali). Moreover, this violent fusion is tempered by Akbar’s use of red stone which is a famous building material in that region.
The structures erected in Akbar’s time exhibit key features of Mughal architecture. These include an intricate ground plan, central octagonal chambers, intricate façade, cupolas, kiosks, and pinnacles (“Mughal Architecture”). Islamic structures from other parts of the world display the same quality of spaciousness, massiveness, and grandeur which are not present in Hindu architecture (Mughal Architecture). The city of Fatephur sikri is said to define Akbar’s style.
Aside from architecture, the visual arts also took Akbar’s interest. He commissioned Persian painters to create ornate manuscripts which also reflected Indian tastes for bright colors and detailed landscape. Akbar’s successor, Jahangir, showed as much enthusiasm for the visual arts during his reign. Jahangir had strong artistic sense and he encouraged the creation of works of art which mostly depicted the flora and fauna of his kingdom (Sardar).
According to Kumar (2000), Jahangir was a naturalist which explains his preference for realistic rendition of nature. The works produced during his reign are representative of the non-spiritual and non-symbolic features of Mughal art (Kumar). Most of the paintings mounted on palaces, including those which were produced during the reign of succeeding emperors, featured court scenes, literary episodes, and the nature. Objectivity is a key characteristic of Mughal art. Mughal painters used colors not as embellishments as in the creation of Persian tapestry or mosaics, but as a natural part of the subject they are painting (Kumar). Jahangir also cultivated calligraphy considered to be primarily an Islamic art. Calligraphy is manifested in their elaborate manuscripts and also in the inscriptions found on the gateways of mosque. Some notable Western influences can be seen from the works commissioned by Jahangir. The presence of Jesuit missionaries in Mughal courts hastened the convergence of diverse cultures as Mughal artists became interested in Christian painting brought by these missionaries (“Mughal School of Painting”)
Shah Jahan, who succeeded Jahangir, contributed the most iconic legacy of Mughal architecture, the Taj Mahal. He perfected the styles and techniques developed during the earlier reign of monarchs (Murali). Taj Mahal embodies the quintessential Mughal style with its radial and bilateral symmetry, geometric patterns, pointed domes, marble walls with gold inlays, and ornate gardens. Its influence can be traced from Turkish and Persian styles, but it also exhibits Bengali building style, specifically the construction of pavilion (Murali). Unfortunately, Shah Jahan’s successor, Aurangzeb, held orthodox beliefs and did not encourage art. There was a noticeable decline in artistic and architectural production during his time (Sadar).
Nonetheless, extant structures and artworks produced in the Mughal Dynasty reveal some of its key styles. The foremost feature is the blending of styles from nearby regions of Persia, Timur and other regions in the North. Hindu influence, on the other hand, remains strong and visible, such as the use of ornamented piers and columns. In visual art, the realism and naturalist techniques employed in the rendition of nature deviate from earlier Hindu art which is symbolic and religious in nature (Kumar)
Geographical and historical factors also shaped the art and architecture of Seljuk and Ottoman Islam, two prominent empires in the Islamic world. The Seljuk dynasty spanned the areas in Central Asia, including present day Azerbaijan, Turkey and Turkmenistan; on the other hand, Ottoman dynasty, at the height of its power, occupied three continents: Southeastern Europe, Middle East, and North Africa (“The Islamic World to 1600”).
Ottoman architecture draws influence from two sources: the complex and unique architectural developments in Anatolia, which Ottomans occupied in the 15th century, and Christian Byzantine art (“Ottoman Art and Culture”). The use of stone and brick combination and ornamental domes are clearly drawn from Byzantine style. Ottoman architecture is also influenced by the initial contact of Ottomans with Italy (Ottoman Art and Culture). Aside from mosque, Ottomans also constructed secular structures such as madrasah, caravansaries, and palace complex. These structures are characterized by simplicity and unity of design, which means that each aspect of the building is considered in relation to the whole (“Ottoman Art and Culture”).
Surmounting domes encapsulating the entire structure is another common feature of Ottoman architecture. Domes are also a distinctive feature of Seljuk structures, as seen in the regions they occupied in Anatolia (Branning). Unlike Ottoman builders, the Seljuks incorporated styles from Persian, Greek, Armenian, Byzantine and Roman style. Despite the fusion, Seljuk architecture embodies a unique identity (Branning). For instance, the use of open-ended vaulted chambers called iwans exists only in Seljuk courtyards as a venue for accommodating outsiders (Branning). Materials used in construction distinguish their style from Ottoman and Mughal styles. Builders used rough stones imposed with furnished ones in contrast to bricks used by Ottomans. Monumental and intricately decorated portals which frame the entrance of buildings are another unique element of Seljuk style (Branning).
However, both Ottoman and Seljuk architecture are related because of Islam which informs every aspect of their society including art and architecture. Akgul (2005) asserts that architecture conforms to the functions, injunctions, meaning and ritual dictated by a religious creed. This assertion applies also to Islamic visual art. Unlike Mughal art which sticks to verisimilitude almost good enough to be a “police dossier”, Islamic art tends to be symbolic. Four elements are characteristic of Islamic art: calligraphy, vegetative motifs, geometric patterns, and figural representations (“Nature of Islamic Art”). It is common to see all-over surface adornment on walls, floors, and carpets, and it is characterized by patterns that seem to last infinitely.
This is reflective of Islamic teaching which prohibits its followers to copy God and his creation (“Nature of Islamic Art”). As such, artists refrain from realistic renditions of nature. Instead, they resort to figure representations as exemplified by the use of repetitive geometric patterns which, according to scholars, induces the meditation on God’s infinity (“Islamic Art at the Los Angeles Community Museum of Art”).
Islam as a way of life naturally becomes integrated in art and architecture. When viewed from a larger perspective, Mughal style does not deviate too sharply from other Islamic style developed in other regions. Geography is one of the determining factors in shaping the styles of a particular Islamic style. In the case of the Mughals, its proximity to Central Asia proved consequential to style fusion which resulted from successive colonization and transactions. The Hindu tradition which dominated the pre-Islamic India also figured in Mughal art and architecture. On the other hand, the regions occupied by Ottoman Moslems exposed them to European aesthetics (Ottoman Art and Culture).
The overlapping of influences makes it impossible to have a clear-cut differentiation of Islamic arts. However, the nuances present in each region conquered by Islam create a rich tapestry which contributes to the complexity of the whole Islamic world.
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