In the century after the death (A.D. 632) of the prophet Muhammad, his Arab followers spread his teachings through Egypt and N Africa, as far west as Spain, and as far east as Sassanid Persia. Because of their rapid expansion and the paucity of the earlier artistic heritage of the Arabian Peninsula, the Muslims derived their unique style from synthesizing the arts of the Byzantines, the Copts, the Romans, and the Sassanids. The great strength of Islamic art as a whole lies in its ability to synthesize native design elements with imported ones.
Abstract decoration of the surface is an important factor in every work of Islamic art and architecture, whether large or small. Curving and often interlaced lines, of which the arabesque is a typical example, and the use of brilliant colors characterize almost all of the finest productions, which are of greatly varied styles. Islamic art eschews the realistic representation of human beings and animals, and its floral designs are extremely distant from their original models. While the prohibition against depicting living forms is not contained in the Qur'an, it is widely thought that the non-representational character of Islamic ornament has its source in the traditional theological prohibition against imitating God's works.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.