Owen Jones in his classic book The Grammar of Ornament.
In his Forward to Titus Burkhardt's book Art of Islam. Language and Meaning. Sayyed Hossein Nadr, says this: 'Islamic art was at last revealed to be what it really is, namely the earthly crystallisation of the spirit of the Islamic revelation as well as a reflection on the heavenly realities of earth…….. with the help of which of the Moslem makes his journey through the terrestrial environment and beyond……………..'
It helps to understand a little about the history of the spread of Islam, which began early in the seventh century. One of the great achievements of the Prophet Mahommed, the founder of Islam, was to convert and unite diverse Arab tribes and inspire them, in their turn, to convert surrounding peoples. The early converts were essentially nomadic, desert-dwelling peoples, yet so successful were they that by 641 Egypt had been converted, after which the 'Moors' as they came to be known swept, across North Africa and Spain. The geographical limit of their conquests was Tours in France, which they reached in 732. The Moorish architecture which survives in these places, of which the Alhambra in Grenada is the outstanding example, are monuments to the great days of the mighty Islamic empire. It is very largely these buildings and the elaborate, stylised decoration seen on them, which have inspired and influenced Western artists ever since.
This sense of unity stems from the fact that very early in the history of Islamic art a distinct architectural style and a complete set of motifs became associated with the ideas and faith which generated them. By contrast, diversity rather than uniformity was characteristic of the art of Christendom, each of its various stages being distinct, so that Carolingian, Byzantine and Renaissance styles are all quite different. Islamic art on the other hand, is characterised by uniformity both in time and space. Islamic artists did not seek innovation in the way that, say, the Renaissance artists did. They remained faithful to time honoured models and conventions, exploring ways of further enriching and reinventing the art through subtle variations and adaptations.
This is not, of course, to suggest that there are no discernible variations and trends in Islamic art forms. Contact with the vast range of established cultures which were assimilated as the Islamic empire expanded had a profound effect on the buildings and artefacts created after the conquest. Nonetheless, despite the fact that the Islamic world was spread over vast geographical areas and that its converts were drawn from the great diversity of the races of man, from very early on a remarkable uniformity is evident; the differences are of nuance and emphasis rather than being fundamental; they are variations on unchanging themes.
The most compelling reason for this is that Islamic art is essentially and always, sacred art, an expression of a deeply spiritual sensibility. Indeed, it is often argued that the universal appeal of this art derives precisely from its religious roots. There are elaborate theories about the spiritual significance of just about every manifestation of Islamic art, including studies of the cosmological significance of the geometrical properties of buildings and decorative patterns. If, while marvelling both at the technical skill and the aesthetic beauty of this art, we remember this, we may perhaps come a little closer to an understanding of the phenomenon of Islamic art and its creators.
A.F.Calvert. The Alhambra. 1904