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Responses to Islamic Art

Astrolabe and Zoomorphic Horse

(Manaza) The two objects I chose for the timeline:


  • Date: 1667- the earliest known example of the astrolabe is dated AD 927/8
  • Height, including suspension ring: 18.6cm

The Astrolabe is one of the earliest, and at the same time, one of the most sophisticated of all ancient scientific instruments. This particular one was made in Isfahan in Iran. The image of the astrolabe shown was made by Muhammad Khalil Isfahani and engraved by Muhammad Mahdi Yazdi.

Mathematical and scientific brilliance

The astrolabe, what can I say...genius...pure genius. Astrolabes have many functions, but all of them use the relationship between time and the movement of stars, as seen from particular latitude on Earth. All astrolabes were used as an observational instrument and as an aid to mathematical calculation. Apart from serving technical purposes astrolabes were often engraved with ornate patterns making them not only an instrument of mathematical brilliance but also a work of art. In the image of the astrolabe shown, the positions of the stars are shown by pointers, in the form of decorative leaves. There were many functions of the astrolabe such as determining the position of the earth, time and day and working out heights of inaccessible objects. This is all done by the use of tables and figures that are imprinted on both sides of it.

Transfer of knowledge

A great transfer of knowledge and learning took place between Europe and the Islamic world. Astronomy was one of the subjects being a part of the transferring process.

One of the important locations where knowledge was learnt was from Muslim Spain or Al-Andalusia. The scientific revival in Europe began around the twelfth century when many scholars from Europe travelled to Al-Andalusia to translate Islamic scientific works to take back with them.

Al-Sufi, a well known astronomer in the 10th Century had outlined in his writing up to a thousand uses of an astrolabe signifying the importance and the technicality of the instrument.

Additional uses of an astrolabe were to calculate the five daily prayers. The direction of the Qibla, could be found using the instrument. Also common to almost all astrolabes is a feature for calculating the height of buildings using basic trigonometry.

Zoomorphic horse:

  • Made in Iran, late 18th or early 19th Century
  • Ink, paint and gold leaf on paper 17 x 22.8cms
  • Artist: Unknown

A truly exquisite piece, I really wish there was more details available on the artist in question. This piece reminds me of the vast canvasses by Ahmed Moustafa that were on exhibition at Cartwright a while ago. The concept in his artwork of the zoomorphic horses incorporating the Arabic calligraphy is very similar.

The central motif in this image translates into Saif I Ali Al Zulfiqar.

The use of calligraphy to form figurative shapes is particularly strong among the Shia sects of Iran, Turkey and the Indian sub-continent.

Part of the Iranian tradition was of the formation of zoomorphic animals using calligraphy. The calligraphy on the borders of this piece is written in Farsi, embodies both sacred and secular texts.

Arabic The language of paradise

The concept of Islamic art is extensive and a lot of it was inspired by religious beliefs, a clear indication of the creativity of Islam as both an ideology and religion. One of the major art forms amongst all Muslim cultures is calligraphy. Architecture, stone, metalware and textiles were embellished with this art form. It was also often combined with geometrical and natural forms. 

There are a number of factors concerning the development of calligraphy as a decorative art form. One of these factors being the importance of Arabic in the Quran. Arabic is the language of the Quran, the language of the Paradise and is compulsory in the five daily prayers performed by all Muslims. This being reflected in the use of its verses in and outside of mosques. Its purpose extended the use of decoration but as a reminder for the believers.

Click here to locate Isfahan in Iran.»

Document icon Learning article provided by: Cartwright Hall Art Gallery | 

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