Islamic Studies Arab Painting
Tanja Tolar, Anna Contadini
  • LAST REVIEWED: 21 February 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 21 February 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195390155-0289


Discussion of terminology, on what we mean by “Arab art/painting” has been ongoing for several decades now, calling into question the appropriateness of a vocabulary that has its origins in 19th-century European writings. Oleg Grabar has long advocated a change of terminology to replace a Western taxonomy based upon racial or national criteria, and his writings have provoked a lively debate and a string of literature on the subject. But “Arab painting,” referring mainly to the language of the texts where the paintings are found, is still widely used, alongside the equally questionable “Islamic art,” as an easy and perhaps lazy umbrella term. The paintings in question are predominantly manuscript illustrations, but it would be an oversimplification to equate Arab painting with paintings in Arabic manuscripts. Some were copied and painted in non-Arab lands, typically the Persianate world. The author may not have considered himself an Arab and neither may have the painter: before the modern period paintings were usually by anonymous artists of unknown origin. There is also at least one major Persian manuscript in which the paintings exhibit stylistic features found in Arabic manuscripts of the same period (the Kitāb Manāfi‘ al-Ḥayawān, dated to 69*/129* (between 1295 and 1299), made in Maragha. Pierpont Morgan Library, MS. 500). So, however we term it, there will be something awkward about this label. Nevertheless, a bibliography on Arab painting, including scholarship on some of the most significant artistic productions of the Islamic world, at least has the merit of restoring them to their rightful place alongside the much better known and studied traditions of Persian, Mughal, and Ottoman painting. In addition to paintings in manuscripts, the works cited in this article take into consideration paintings in media other than paper (wall paintings, wood, ceramics, glass) from the 8th century to the Ottoman conquests of the Arab lands in the early 16th century.

General Overviews

Like the study of Islamic art in general in the Western world, the study of Arab painting is relatively recent. Initially the concern of collectors (and dealers) who discovered the wonders of illustrated manuscripts from the Middle East, especially Persian ones, resulted in surveys on manuscript illustrations aimed at the general public. Scholars focused predominantly on general overviews, such as Arnold 1965) (originally published in 1928). Arnold and Grohmann 1929) presents a more focused discussion on book production, from illustrations to bindings. Islamic production is often contextualized by comparing it with Byzantine and western European practices. Arab painting, as in Martin 1912, is included as a precursor of what was (and at times still is) perceived to be the more accomplished, beautiful, and interesting development of Persian painting, and, as such, it is excluded from the title: The Miniature Painting and Painters of Persia, India and Turkey from the 8th to the 18th Century. Long dominant, this evolutionary approach is still apparent in a seminal book, Ettinghausen 1962, proceeding from “Early Phases of the Pictorial Arts” to “The Flowering of the Art of the Book” to “The Beginning of the End.” Providing a useful survey (still a necessary reference) in chronological order, it has been partly superseded, however, by new approaches, attributions, and the unearthing of further material. Often unfamiliar with the relevant languages, earlier scholars tended to consider the images as separate from the text. More recently, as exemplified in Contadini 2010, a more focused and nuanced approach has stressed the need to consider the manuscript as a whole and to free it from traditional European art-historical approaches.

  • Arnold, Thomas W. Painting in Islam: A Study of the Place of Pictorial Art in Muslim Culture. New York: Dover, 1965.

    Originally published in 1928. Written nearly a century ago, this is the first work in English to deal with the pictorial tradition in Islamic art. It places painting as a genre within the broader field of Islamic art and also discusses the prohibition of images. For decades, this was the main source on the subject of Arab painting.

  • Arnold, Thomas W., and A. Grohmann. The Islamic Book: A Contribution to Its Art and History from the VII–XVIII Century. Paris: Pegasus, 1929.

    Intended as a collectable item, this lavishly illustrated book includes several literary and scientific manuscripts and discusses book production in the Middle East, including book-binding practices. It is the first proper evaluation of the important contribution of Islamic book production to the transmission of knowledge beyond the geographical borders of the Islamic world.

  • Bloom, Jonathan. Paper before Print: The History and Impact of Paper in the Islamic World. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2001.

    Insightful and detailed, this book discusses the importance of the invention of paper for book production and the dissemination of knowledge in the Islamic world. Written in an approachable style, it can be enjoyed by both scholars and the general public.

  • Contadini, Anna, ed. Arab Painting: Text and Image in Illustrated Arabic Manuscripts. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2010.

    Introducing the approach of the integrated study of the manuscript as a whole, this important collection of articles focuses on and explores the dynamics of the relationship between the illustrations and the texts.

  • Ettinghausen, Richard. Arab Painting. Geneva, Switzerland: Skira, 1962.

    One of the earliest surveys on Arab painting, this book still remains an essential point of reference with excellent images of several important manuscripts.

  • Grabar, Oleg. The Formation of Islamic Art. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1987.

    Radical at its time of publication, this book is still a basic text for any student of Islamic art. It focuses thematically on the early periods of Islamic art, on late antique traditions and their effect on the formation of Islamic visual culture.

  • Grabar, Oleg. “What Does ‘Arab Painting’ Mean?” In Arab Painting: Text and Image in Illustrated Arabic Manuscripts. Edited by Anna Contadini, 17–22. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2010.

    DOI: 10.1163/ej.9789004186309.i-272.8

    A stimulating article on the meaning and historiography of “Arab painting.”

  • Guesdon, Marie-Geneviève, and Annie Vernay-Nouri, eds. L’art du livre arabe: Du manuscrit au livre d’artiste. Paris: Bibliothèque Nationale de France, 2001.

    This is a useful catalogue published on the occasion of the exhibition of the same name which took place in Paris from 9 October 2001 to 13 January 2002. It includes 150 manuscripts, mainly from the Bibliothèque nationale.

  • Hirschler, Konrad. The Written Word in the Medieval Arabic Lands: A Social and Cultural History of Reading Practices. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2012.

    An important contribution on the subject of reading practices in the medieval Arab world. By considering libraries and their readers, it contextualizes the use of manuscripts (including illustrated ones) and learning habits in the medieval world.

  • Hoffman, Eva R. “The Beginnings of the Illustrated Arabic Book: An Intersection between Art and Scholarship.” Muqarnas 17 (2000): 37–52.

    DOI: 10.1163/22118993-90000005

    This insightful article scrutinizes the beginnings of illustrations in Islamic texts and their intersection with Late Antique iconography, especially in scientific manuscripts.

  • Martin, F. R. The Miniature Painting and Painters of Persia, India and Turkey from the 8th to the 18th Century. 2 vols. London: B. R. Publishing, 1912.

    Lavishly illustrated, this book discusses paintings and painterly techniques over a thousand-year time span. It exemplifies the approach of early collectors of Islamic art in considering the paintings in isolation and includes Arab painting only as a precursor to Persian painting.

  • Roxburgh, David J. “The Study of Painting and the Arts of the Book.” Muqarnas 17 (2000): 1–16.

    DOI: 10.2307/1523286

    This is an introductory essay to a special issue on the arts of the book. It provides a synthesis of the various contributions, ponders the problems raised by some of the selected manuscripts, and reflects on the current state of the scholarship on the arts of the book.

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