Art of the Islamic Worlds

The works of art in this exhibition were acquired through the biennial galas that support the Art of the Islamic Worlds department at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. To celebrate the department’s 10th anniversary in 2017, the MFAH highlights the spectacular acquisitions made possible through the support of generous patrons.  

Bowl: "A Galleon at Sea" (first half of 17th century) by TurkishThe Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

A Global Culture

Islam is the religion revealed to the prophet Muhammad in the 7th century. Beginning in the heart of the Arabian Peninsula, Islam expanded across a vast territory from Spain and Morocco in the West, to Central Asia and India in the East, at different points in time.

"So once more providing myself with the rarest and choicest merchandise of Bagdad, I conveyed it to Balsora, and set sail with other merchants of my acquaintance for distant lands. We had touched at many ports and made much profit, when one day upon the open sea we were caught by a terrible wind which blew us completely out of our reckoning, and lasting for several days finally drove us into harbour on a strange island." —The Seven Voyages of Sinbad

Just as in the above passage, this dish features a large, three-masted galleon that sails across windy seas for trade in distant ports. The dish also draws important global connections between the East and the West. It was made in Iznik, the celebrated center of Ottoman Turkish ceramic production. The scrolling wave pattern on the rim is inspired by Chinese Ming porcelain, and the ship is a composite of Ottoman and European vessels that plied the waters of the Ottoman Empire.

Tondino (First half of 16th century) by TurkishThe Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

The distinctive blue spiral scroll pattern of flowers and stems in this plate is characteristic of the earliest stonepaste ceramics produced in the famous Ottoman workshops of Istanbul and Iznik, Turkey. The “tondino” (an Italian plate form characterized by a wide rim and semicircular cavetto, or concave molding) reflects the robust trade of artists and objects between Italy and Turkey.

Geometric forms, like the spirals seen here, were never “invented” by Islamic artists; instead, they were derived from research and investigations into proportions, compatibility of forms, and their development and adaptation into patterns.

Some scholars argue that the delicate spirals and leaves on many pieces of Iznik pottery in this style are inspired by the imperial signature, or “tughra,” of Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent (ruled 1520–66). The tughra included wide looping and repeating vertical lines.

Lobed Bottle with Figure and Flowers (mid 17th century) by SafavidThe Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

Blue-and-white ware was a successful, enduring tradition throughout the Islamic world. The uneven surface of this bottle is unusual: It is created by molded relief technique, and it accentuates the decoration.

During the Safavid dynasty, renewed patronage of Persian artisans by Shah Abbas I (ruled 1587–1629) resulted in new production techniques and sparked an interest in popular subjects, such as romance and hunting.

Lobed Bottle with Figures and FlowersThe Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

In his book “Voyages du chevalier Chardin en Perse,” wealthy French nobleman Jean-Baptiste Chardin describes his experiences of 17th-century Persian culture. He writes that Persians loved hunting.

Chardin claims that the King of Persia had some 1,000 hunting officers, and that when going on a hunt, the king took along more than 100 officers to hunt lions, panthers, and “beasts of the wood,” like the exotic birds depicted here.

Bowl with Seated Figure (Early 13th century) by PersianThe Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

Listen to Aimée Froom, curator of art of the Islamic worlds, discuss the decorative elements on this ceramic bowl.

The shiny, metallic effect of lusterware ceramic decoration is created by applying metallic oxides to a previously glazed-and-fired object, which is subsequently fired in oxygen-reduced kilns. The lack of oxygen produces a chemical reaction that fixes a thin metallic film on the object’s surface.

Bowl with Riders (Late 12th century) by PersianThe Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

Luster ceramics are among the most exquisite and costly-to-produce ceramics in the Islamic worlds. The city of Kashan, in Iran, became a prominent center of luster-ceramic production in the 12th century and remained so after the Mongol invasions of the mid-13th century.

The six riders depicted here reflect the importance of horses across Islamic lands through sport, hunting, and military campaigns.

Bowl with RidersThe Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

Listen to Ingrid Seyb, associate conservator of objects and sculpture, discuss how artists create lusterware.

Tile with Shahada (16th century) by DamascusThe Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

Protectors of the Faith

Religious architecture, and the production of Qur'ans, were primary areas of focus for artistic patronage. So were associated traditions of ceramics, glass, ivories, metalwork, textiles, and illustrated manuscripts, which account for the majority of art produced in the Islamic worlds. 

This circular Ottoman tile bearing a calligraphic inscription highlights the continuation of the Mamluk ceramic tradition after the region fell to Ottoman rule in the early 16th century. Tiles were often used to commemorate the construction of buildings and city landmarks.

The inscription is the “shahada,” which states: “There is no god but God, and Muhammad is the messenger of God.” This affirmation of faith declares belief in the oneness of God and acceptance of Muhammad as His prophet.

Tiles like this one would have been included as architectural elements in the walls of mosques, as seen in the next image.

The Sokollu Mehmet Pasha Mosque in present-day Istanbul, Turkey, was completed about 1571. This interior view shows the work of skilled artisans in glass, stone, and architecture, as well as in ceramic tiles like the one in the previous image.

Some of these tiles bear the “shahada,” which states: “There is no god but God, and Muhammad is the messenger of God.”

Scribe's Box (late 15th century) by SpanishThe Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

Across the Islamic worlds, calligraphers enjoyed the highest status among all artists. This ranking is reflected in the careful creation and decoration of their tools, from pens and inkwells to storage boxes and book bindings. Elaborately decorated and inscribed with blessings for the owner, these objects are treasured art creations in their own right.

This calligrapher’s storage box is an extraordinary example of luxury woodwork production in Spain under the Nasrid dynasty (1232–1492). The same tradition of wood inlay can be seen on a variety of objects, including chests to house Qur’an manuscripts, “minbar” (mosque pulpits), and doors.

Qur'an Manuscript in Maghribi script (End of Rabi' al-Awwal, 718 AH (1318 AD)) by MoroccanThe Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

Listen to Aimée Froom, curator of art of the Islamic worlds, discuss “the art of the word” in Islamic culture.

This magnificent copy of the Qur’an from Morocco is a rare example with a colophon (inscription) identifying the patron and date of production. Many Qur'ans from North Africa and Spain are copied in the distinctive Maghrebi script, named after the region of western Islamic lands known as the Maghreb.

Penned on parchment—a favored medium for Qur’anic manuscripts made in the area—this work displays an elaborate program of illumination used to highlight the internal divisions of the text.

Scene of Feasting from Sultan Murad III's "Siyer-I Nebi" or "Life of the Prophet" (c. 1594) by Lütfi AbdullahThe Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

Kingly Ideals

Muslim rulers were great patrons of art and architecture. Mosques, hospitals, and hospices built and supported by these rulers affirmed religious devotion and a sense of civic responsibility. The cities, palaces, gardens, and centers of learning—along with the sumptuous objects and decorations made for these spaces—expressed the rulers’ secular interests.

In this scene of feasting, two noblemen receive gold trays of food from attendants. The page is from the dispersed copy of the "Siyer-i Nebi," or "Life of the Prophet," commissioned by the Ottoman Sultan Murad III about 1594. The manuscript was a vast undertaking, comprising several volumes and hundreds of miniature paintings.

Poppies and Parakeets Panel (late 17th - early 18th century) by IndianThe Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

“The buds and blooms, dew sprinkled,
all are in the know
Leaves and plants bear witness,
so the trees that bow.
This is my repeated prayer
every morn and eve,
You have showered flowers on others,
even fruits, I see,
O, squanderer of the garden wealth,
spare something for me.”
—Bahadur Shah Zafar

Bahadur Shah Zafar (1775–1862) was the last Mughal king and among the most famous poets in Mughal India writing “ghazals” (poetry couplets) on love and longing. Much Mughal poetry also mentions lush gardens filled with fragrant blooms, serving as metaphors for a desired beloved.

The large poppies in this carved sandstone panel are probably one of the flamboyant “papaver orientalis” species likely well known to Mughal poets. The motif of a flower set against a plain background is quintessentially Mughal and is found in many media, including paintings, album borders, textiles, carpets, and stone.

Jali (1605 - 1627) by IndianThe Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

“Jalis” are used in Indian architecture as windows, room dividers, and railings around thrones, platforms, terraces, and balconies. The pierced openings—references to sacred geometry—allow light and air to enter the room while providing privacy and shade from the sun. The jali shown here is carved on both sides. One side has an inscription—“Allah”—in “naskh” script, and the other has a floral roundel.

This jali would have been part of a larger structure. The next image includes an interactive view of the Mughal Imperial Complex at Fatehpur Sikri in India. Can you find the jalis within its structures?

The white marble structure pictured here is the Tomb of Sheikh Salim Chishti within the larger Mughal imperial complex at Fatehpur Sikri in northern India.

Constructed from 1580 to 1581, the tomb is a mausoleum built to enshrine the Sufi saint Salim Chisti (1478–1572). The tomb’s “jalis” allow light and air to flow through as pilgrims and visitors visit the mausoleum to pay homage.

Gem-Set Bottle (mid-17th century) by IndianThe Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

This miniature bottle is a rare surviving example of the exquisitely worked jeweled objects so loved by Mughal Indian emperors and their courtiers. The bottle is fitted with a diamond-encrusted stopper that has a gold applicator attached, for applying scent or the eye cosmetic known as kohl. Sumptuous objects like this gem-set bottle came in highly individualized shapes, so that few were alike.

Incense Burner (12th century) by PersianThe Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

The stylized feline incense burner shown here is designed so that fragrant smoke can pass through the pierce-work decoration. The head is hinged, allowing for easy replenishment of incense and coal inside the body. The sculptural quality of this incense burner reflects the Islamic world’s appreciation of figurative motifs, which were inventively used in the secular sphere.

Dancing Girl (1192 AH/1778 AD) by Muhammad BaqirThe Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

Listen to Melissa Gardner, associate conservator of paintings, discuss the conservation process for this painting.

Persian artist Muhammad Baqir (active c. 1750–70) is known as one of the most skilled artists of his time. Extraordinarily versatile, Muhammad Baqir worked in oil, watercolor, lacquer, enamel, and on murals, and he influenced future generations of Persian artists during the Qajar period (1785–1925).

The large size of this painting (about 6 feet high), and the recession seen in the background, show the influences of European art. The rosebud lips, sleepy eyes, and long, dark tresses epitomize the Persian ideal of beauty within the artist’s culture.

Listen to Melissa Gardner, associate conservator of paintings, discuss what the conservation process has revealed about this painting.

Palmettes in Ogival Lattice (late 16th century) by Greek (Epirot)The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

By the late 16th century, the Ottomans had conquered much of the eastern and southern Mediterranean, as well as Eastern Europe. Although local artisans maintained their traditional arts, the Ottoman style increasingly influenced the patterns they produced, as seen in this embroidered panel from northern Greece. Other foreign traditions became known through trade between regions of the Empire and their neighbors farther away.

Velvet Panel (late 16th–early 17th century) by TurkishThe Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

Listen to Aimée Froom, curator of art of the Islamic worlds, discuss 16th-century court artist Kara Memi and the international reach of Ottoman artistic style.

This opulent silk velvet panel glitters from the brilliance of its metal-wrapped threads against a dark crimson ground. Such silk velvet wall hangings and upholstery fabrics decorated the Ottoman sultan’s palace and the wealthiest households of the 16th and 17th centuries. The ogival lattice design was a favorite choice for velvets produced at Bursa, the center of the important Ottoman textile industry.

Ottoman sultans loved gardens. The tulips, carnations, and hyacinths in this velvet panel are part of the enduring floral style developed by court artist Kara Memi and seen in myriad artistic media. This example is particularly spectacular, as it includes two full loom widths instead of one.

Credits: Story

This Google Arts & Culture exhibition was coordinated by Rebecka Black, learning and interpretation graduate fellow at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. The installation of “Art of the Islamic Worlds” at the MFAH has been generously underwritten by Aramco Services Company in recognition of the Museum’s commitment to the art of the Islamic worlds.


Chardin, Jean Baptiste. (1811) Voyages du chevalier Chardin en Perse, Volume 5, Paris, France, 366-367.

Clarence-Smith, W. G. (2004) Elephants, horses, and the coming of Islam to northern Sumatra. Indonesia and the Malay World, 32(93), 271–284.

Elgood, C. (2010) A Medical History of Persia and the Eastern Caliphate: From the Earliest Times Until the Year A.D. 1932. Cambridge Library Collection: History of Medicine. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, U.K., 34.

Kanda, K. C. (2007) Bahadur Shah Zafar and His Contemporaries: Zauq, Ghalib, Momin, Shefta. Selected poetry: text, translation, and transliteration, New Delhi, India, 63.

Lang, A. (Ed.) (1898) The Arabian nights’ entertainments, New York, NY. Longmans, Green and Co., 141.

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