Biblical narratives in Islamic visual art reflect the vibrant intertextuality of Islamic sources, especially the Qur’an. Islamic sacred texts, poems, and histories appropriated and modified biblical and extrabiblical material to situate Islam in the religious traditions of Christianity and Judaism, as well as to assert the superiority of the faith. The Qur’an incorporated key biblical narratives, motifs, and figures, including Adam, Abraham (Ibrahim), Ishmael, Noah (Nuh), Joseph (Yusuf), Jesus (Isa), and Mary (Maryam). Unlike the Bible, however, the lives of these exemplary figures were not presented in a linear narrative (with the exception of Joseph, whose life is the subject of Sura 12). Rather, their stories appear throughout the text, intertwined with verses concerning the Day of Judgment, legal material, and the natural world. In the Qur’an, biblical prophets play a central role in delineating Muhammad’s status as the seal of the prophets (khatm al-anbiya), who confirmed, corrected, and completed earlier prophecies. The Qur’an asserts that biblical prophets revealed their own scriptures (kitab; kutub) to their respective peoples. For this reason, the Qur’an refers to Jews and Christians as the “People of the Book” (ahl-al-Kitab). This category established the special status afforded to Jews and Christians as Islamic empires spread from the Arabian Peninsula, stretching to Spain by the eighth century. The Qur’an names 25 prophets (rasul; rasa’il), the vast majority of whom are found in the Hebrew Bible and the Gospels. According to Muslim tradition, however, Allah sent 124,000 prophets total to humanity, culminating in the final prophecy of the Prophet Muhammad ibn abd-Allah in Mecca.

Theoretical Considerations.

The relationship of the Qur’an to the Bible remains a matter of scholarly contention, and informs approaches to the Bible in Islamic art. Ninteteenth- and earlier twentieth-century scholarship, conducted in the orientalist vein, contested the Muslim account of Quranic origins. This early scholarship stressed the biblical origins of the Qur’an, and the ongoing influence of Christian and Jewish narratives on the formation of the Qur’an in the several centuries after the death of the Prophet Muhammad. By contrast, other Quranic scholars argue that biblical figures and narratives that appear in the Qur’an should be viewed as Islamic productions rather than derivative of Christian or Jewish representations. In the majority of cases, when Muslim artists depicted biblical events, they did so (and continue to do so) in their Quranic context. However, Muslim artists also depicted biblical versions of prophetic stories. This representational variety resulted from the many sources besides the Qur’an and the Bible that artists drew upon in their work, including the Qisas al-Anbiya (Stories of the Prophets), the rich tradition of Islamic poetry, and oral narratives that circulated in the Near East during the early and medieval periods of Islam. The Bible was thus a part of a broad discursive set of sacred narratives that informed a range of visual practices in Islamic contexts.

What is Islamic art?

The question of what constitutes “Islamic Art” has occupied the attention of art historians in particular, because of the diverse geographical, religious, and cultural contexts in which various Islamic empires flourished. This historical fact made it difficult for art historians to determine a set of core characteristics that comprise “Islamic art.” This line of inquiry also resulted from the implicit hierarchical comparison between Islamic and Christian art, in which Islamic art was understood to lack a robust theorization of aesthetics and representation. Moreover, the study of Islamic art emerged, like the study of Islam, in the context of imperial conquest of Muslim-majority regions. As such, “Islam” was delineated as a distinct and unified object, separate from the “West.” The art historians Sheila Bloom and Jonathan Blair (2003) have noted various alternatives for overcoming this false binary, including differentiation by medium, geographic location, dynastic eras, and/or particular artists. Each of these alternatives, Blair and Bloom note, have their theoretical shortcomings and inevitably exclude works of central importance. Among art historians, the general consensus is that “Islamic art” encompasses a broad and necessarily diverse visual culture that followed the religious identity of its rulers. For the most part, academic works have focused on what have traditionally been considered the “core” lands of Islam, namely the Arabian Peninsula, North Africa, and the Middle East, with far less attention devoted to the majority of Muslims who are non-Arab and reside outside of Arab regions. As a result, the vast visual productions of important Muslim societies and historical periods, such as Southeast Asia and contemporary Muslim diasporic contexts, remain woefully understudied.

From the perspective of religious studies, what makes Islamic art “Islamic” are the ways that Muslims connect objects and spaces to religious practices. Because of the vast reach of Muslim empires, Islamic art was intrinsically connected to pluralistic religious practices. The role of material culture and artistic production in Muslim daily life remains understudied, and is a burgeoning subfield among contemporary scholars of Islam.

The term “art” also poses theoretical issues because much of Islamic art fits uneasily in normative categories established by Euro-American scholars of Christian art. The so-called decorative or portable arts received far less attention in European contexts. By contrast, ceramics, metalwork, and glass are vital to the field of Islamic art, while sculpture is virtually nonexistent. As a religious practice of writing the word of God, calligraphy remains the most highly celebrated of the Islamic arts.

Issues of representation in Islamic art.

One of the common misunderstandings about Islamic art is that Muslim sacred texts prohibit figural representations. This presupposition has only been amplified in the contemporary political climate, where the presumed Islamic prohibition on images has become imbricated in political disputes about the role of Islam and religious practice more generally in liberal democracies. Moreover, modern Islamic movements, such as those associated with Wahhabism, a Sunni puritanical movement founded in the eighteenth century and now the state religion of Saudi Arabia, deem figural representations to be bid’a (harmful innovation). Images of the destruction of the towering Buddhas in Afghanistan at the hands of the Taliban have perpetuated the image of Muslims as violent iconoclasts. However, they do not adequately encompass the multiplicity of visual practices in the history of Islamic societies.

To be sure, Muslim renderings of the human form are relatively rare and absent entirely from religious buildings. However, depictions of prophets and other religious figures have a long, if somewhat exceptional, history within the Islamic artistic tradition. Instead of large-scale illustrations and paintings for public display, Muslim artists depicted biblical and Quranic narratives through the rich tradition of illuminated manuscripts and metalwork. To be sure, these works continue to produce debates among Muslim scholars regarding the permissibility and power of images. But their very existence speaks to the diversity of Muslim thought and practice across Islam’s global communities.

The practices and theories of Islamic art reflect the range of sacred texts that artists brought to their work. The Qur’an does not directly address the permissibility of images, but several key Quranic concepts form the basis for majority Islamic views on visual representation. Tawhid (absolute oneness of Allah), and its opposite, shirk (associating partners with God) established a robust monotheism within Islam and corresponding aversion to the deification of other beings, including the Prophet Muhammad. The doctrine of tawhid, as elaborated later in Islamic theology, helped to differentiate the early Islamic community from polytheistic Arab communities as well as to establish Islam in the tradition of Abrahamic monotheism. At the same time, tawhid as elaborated upon by Muslim scholars, also helped to differentiate Islam from Christian doctrines such as the Trinity, which historically evolved contemporaneously with the founding of Islam.

Hadith, or the reports concerning the sayings and practices of the Prophet Muhammad, provided much of the foundation for Islamic theories of visual art, but no clear doctrine that emerged from these narratives. Alongside the Qur’an, the hadith, which encompasses the Prophet Muhammad’s Sunna, or exemplary mode of action, is one of the authoritative sources of Islamic law. The most commonly cited hadith with regard to art describes a marital dispute between the Prophet and his favored wife, Aisha. Aisha hung a tapestry with images on the wall of their house in Medina. The Prophet instructed her to remove the tapestry. In response, Aisha struck a compromise, cutting the material to make cushions. This report suggests that the Prophet took issue with the context in which the image was displayed, rather than its very existence. In another famous report, the Muslim community destroyed the idols and statues housed in the Kaaba, the future pilgrimage site for the hajj. Amid the destruction, Muhammad salvaged an icon bearing the images of Mary and Jesus. These conflicting accounts show how Islamic understandings of visual art are both context-specific and practice-dependent. That is, the changing interpretations of these narratives necessarily influence the kinds of visual art produced in a given historical period.

Some art historians have argued that early Islamic iconoclasm emerged in relationship to Byzantine Christianity, which during the seventh century underwent considerable machinations over the proper use of icons in worship and artistic expression. Other authors stress that Muslim reticence toward images is less the product of contact with Byzantium and more a response to the polytheistic Arabian context, in which images and material representations were accorded significant spiritual power.

Architecture: The Dome of the Rock.

As mentioned above, the form of the human body is virtually absent from mosques and other religious buildings. Instead Muslim artists used calligraphy to take up biblical themes and narratives. The Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem is the most important and explicit example of the way that Muslim artists and their patrons marshaled the Qur’an, with reference to the Bible, through monumental calligraphy. The shrine offers a window into the ways that Muslims conceived of religious difference during the first decades of Islam and its expansion from the Hijaz to the area commonly referred to as the Middle East. The nascent Muslim polity assumed control over Jerusalem in 638 C.E. under the caliph Umar and remained in power until the Crusades of 1099 C.E. Before the direction of prayer was changed to Mecca, early converts to Islam prayed toward Jerusalem. According to some accounts, during his Night Journey, the Prophet Muhammad rode to the area of the Solomonic Temple atop the mythical creature Buraq. He prayed there before ascending through the levels of heaven, where he met the biblical prophets and came closer to God than any human being (17). Muslims later designated the area as the Haram al-Sharif (Noble Sanctuary), which had fallen into disrepair. The caliph Araf began repairing and renovating during his reign (661–680 C.E.). Completed under the Umayyad caliph Abd al-Malik, the Dome of the Rock was constructed around 691–692 C.E. The Rock itself plays a significant role in Jewish myths surrounding the tomb of Adam as well as the sacrifice of Isaac. It is not entirely clear whether Muslims initially associated Abraham with the Rock or with Jerusalem, though the features of the Dome itself mark a space of commemoration, much like Christian reliquaries and other sacred spaces. In this way, it may have been originally intended to serve as a pilgrimage site. In either case, the Dome of the Rock has always, and continues to be, located in a polyvalent religious environment. Its features demonstrate the complex visual practices that its architect and artists employed as they navigated a complicated web of theological and scriptural meanings held by their multiple audiences.

The Dome of the Rock highlights the importance of writing and the early use of calligraphy on mosques and monumental buildings in the growing Islamic empire. The elevation of writing as a spiritual practice originates with Sura 96, the first chapter revealed to the Prophet Muhammad in 610 C.E. The sura instructs humans to recite the word of God, which is “taught by the pen.” As the immutable, inimitable word of God expressed in Arabic, Quranic calligraphy is the art form that is universally accepted in religious settings, and thus plays a central role as both an aesthetic and religious act. In the absence of pictorial representations alongside the Qur’an, calligraphy was the primary artistic medium through which Muslims encountered their sacred text, in addition to the foundational discipline and Islamic science of oral recitation. Writing also has an explicit eschatological dimension in the Qur’an. One verse describes two angels perched atop a human’s shoulders, detailing his every deed, noting both good and bad actions that will be accounted for on the Day of Judgment (5:17–18). Calligraphic inscriptions on a monumental scale were often intended not to be “read” in the conventional modern sense, but rather to be a display of God’s power and transcendence. Because of the overarching emphasis on the divine nature of the Arabic text, the identities of calligraphers remain obscure, though in the case of the Dome of the Rock, Sheila Blair (2006, pp. 92–94) has speculated that the artist who created the inscriptions was likely a calligrapher (as opposed to a copyist or the mosaicist who crafted the Byzantine mosaics) who had been trained in the Medinan mushaf, an authoritative Quranic manuscript, and part of a group of artists who worked to standardize the rapidly spreading Arabic script.

The interior of the Dome of the Rock contains a rich series of calligraphic panels that are divided into six parts and contain passages from the Qur’an. The Quranic inscriptions reference the ahl-al-Kitab (People of the Book), and the narratives surrounding Jesus and Mary. The content of these verses differs from inscriptions commonly found on mosques, shrines, and other monumental structures. At the Dome of the Rock, one finds statements affirming the validity of the Prophet Muhammad’s revelations, statements about the oneness of God, and, most importantly, a variety of verses pertaining to Jesus and Mary. The longest inscription (4:171–173), instructs the People of the Book to “avoid excess in your religion” and to remember that Jesus is the son of Mary and only a messenger. Explicitly refuting the Trinity, the Sura rejects anthropomorphic representations of God, insisting that he is above having a son. Like many verses pertaining to the People of the Book, the inscription both confirms the authenticity of Judaism and Christianity and seeks to establish Islam as the definitive affirmation of God’s path for humanity. The above verse refers to Jesus as a rasīl, the same category of prophecy assigned to Muhammad, as a prophet entrusted with God’s revelation. Just as Muhammad revealed the Qur’an, Muslims attest to the Gospels as Jesus’s message, and the Torah as Moses’s message. The Qur’an celebrates this shared prophetic heritage, while delineating Islam as a religion (din) that is distinct from the other Abrahamic faiths. According to Muslim understanding of the circumstances of revelation (asbab al-nuzul), the verses that appear on the Dome of the Rock inscriptions were revealed in light of Prophet Muhammad’s negative encounters with the various tribes and groups of Medina, most of whom rejected the message of the Qur’an as the final and complete revelation.

In the context of the pluralistic and sometimes contentious religious environment of Jerusalem, these Quranic inscriptions responded directly to seventh-century Christian understandings of Jesus, Mary, and God. Although numerous verses addressed Jews and the Children of Israel, the Dome of the Rock exclusively focused on Christian theologies, serving as a corrective and as a potential frame for proselytizing others to the faith. At the same time, these inscriptions would have addressed their Muslim audience, providing reassurance of the veracity of the Quranic meanings assigned to Jesus and Mary, over and against those propagated by Christian communities.

Metalwork and Pottery.

Metal and ceramic objects are among the most important works of Islamic art, ranging from large-scale vases and jars to miniature boxes and bowls. Many of these objects were created for everyday, household purposes, while others decorated and served royal functions. Where Muslims, Christians, and Jews lived in close together many objects depicted biblical narratives. Outside of these areas of contact, such depictions were much more disperse and rare. Under the Fatimid caliphate (909–1171 C.E.), for example, its Ismaili rulers, who belonged to a major branch of Shiism, enabled their minority religious populations, largely Coptic Christian and Jewish communities, to maintain their religious practices even though their religious activities were restricted in some areas. Several examples of Fatimid pottery from the eleventh and twelfth centuries depict Christian iconography, including a head and bust of Christ, whose hand is raised in blessing. Other examples can be found from Sicily and Armenia, which combine Muslim and Christian motifs and artistic conventions.

Ayyubid brasses.

By the thirteenth century, biblical images and themes became increasingly prevalent in the “decorative arts” and became integral to the wider production of metalwork and pottery under the Ayyubid Empire, which stretched through Syria and Egypt, and through parts of Upper Mesopotamia and Yemen. As in most of Islamic art, the names and religious identities of the artists remain obscure. Following the death of Salah al-Din (1193 C.E.) contestations over succession led to a series of internal power struggles and upheavals, which were only exacerbated by ongoing conflicts with Christian invaders arriving under various Crusader campaigns. Despite the political turmoil, the arts flourished in the Ayyubid period, and produced key pieces that feature explicitly biblical scenes, including the Ayyubid brasses, a collection of various objects, including vases, incense burners, bottles, and bowls.

The “Freer Canteen,” a brass bottle dated to the second or third decade of the thirteenth century, is considered the crown jewel of the Ayyubid objects. The panels of this pilgrim bottle display three biblical scenes: the Nativity, the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple, and his arrival in Jerusalem. In turn, each panel contains various images associated with these events, including the Annunciation, the Adoration, the Shepherds, and Joseph and the Angels. The presence of Joseph indicates that the artist intended to represent the biblical version of Jesus’s life. The Joseph of the Gospels plays no role in the Qur’an. Instead, the Qur’an designates Jesus as the “son of Mary” and traces his lineage through her lineage, the house of Aaron. In this canteen, Joseph figures prominently in multiple panels. Eva Baer (1997, p. 41) has argued that these scenes have few precedents in Islamic iconography, indicating that they derived from Byzantine sources as well as from the apocryphal Gospel of James. At the same time, prominent Islamic decorative elements, including scrolls and animals, as well as Kufic inscriptions were characteristic of Syrian and Mesopotamian artists of this period.

Islamic Visual Art

The Freer Canteen, mid-thirteenth century. The panels of this brass bottle depict three biblical scenes: the Nativity, the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple, and his arrival in Jerusalem.

Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institution, U.S.A. / Bridgeman Images

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The Christian and Muslim characteristics of the brasses have posed analytical challenges, mostly early scholarship assumed a bifurcation between “Christian” and “Islamic” elements. Eva Hoffman (2004, pp. 131–132) has argued that “Ayyubid metalwork with Christian themes provides a neutral territory where Christian and non-Christian users alike could partake of a fluid and interchangeable vocabulary.” Indeed, the term “Christian” denotes several identities in this local culture, in which indigenous groups included Armenians, Copts, Abyssinian Christians, and various branches of Orthodox Christianity. Christians lived alongside a small Jewish minority. In the context of this pluralistic religious milieu, its members shared an integrated visual culture that both augmented and mitigated religious difference. Objects therefore fulfilled a variety of functions and meanings, depending on their circulation and patronage.

Indeed, the Ayyubid brasses may have been owned by a range of patrons: indigenous Christians, European knights, and Muslim elites. Their inscriptions reflect contemporary notions of regal power common on panegyrics and similar brasses that lack any specific religious content. Moreover, they may have been sold to Crusaders who desired exotic objects to add to their collections. The religious significance of these objects, however, is a matter of some debate. Eva Baer (1997, p. 48) downplays their importance as objects of veneration. For Crusaders, she argued, canteens and other brass objects collected in the Holy Land were valued souvenirs. But this view assumes a static understanding of religious meanings, in which “Islamic” and “Christian” are mutually exclusive. Nowhere does Baer mention the Quranic context in which these images might have been understood. Robert Hillenbrand (1999, pp. 136–137) points out that the brasses omit Gospel accounts of the Crucifixion and the Resurrection, two narratives that the Qur’an explicitly contests. He suggests that the brasses may have instead appealed largely to Muslim patrons who were increasingly accustomed to a pluralistic religious atmosphere. Indeed, these objects display a rich and complicated iconography that combines Islamic and Christian images in ways that defy classification into discrete aesthetic and religious categories, and suggests the possibility of their appeal across religious identities. Hoffman (2004, pp. 133–139) advances an alternative theory, arguing that the brasses enabled Crusader knights to continue their mission after Muslims reclaimed the holy sites of the Dome of the Rock and the Masjid al-Aqsa in 1187, with only brief Christian restorations from 1229–1239 and 1243. In any case, the representation of biblical/Quranic figures, alongside displays of Ayyubid dynastic power, made the objects potentially attractive to a wide range of groups in the medieval Mediterranean world.

Painting and Illuminated Manuscripts.

Most Islamic paintings depicting biblical narratives are found in illuminated manuscripts. In contrast to the vast tradition of biblical illuminated manuscripts, the Qur’an was never illustrated. But this prohibition did not inhibit the depiction of biblical figures in certain contexts. Instead of the Qur’an, these richly illustrated books drew upon Quranic and biblical narratives, as well as extrabiblical and extra-Quranic works, especially poetry. Moreover, illuminated manuscripts thrived in artistic contexts in which figural painting thrived using a variety of materials and media, including watercolors, lacquer, enamels, and wash drawings. In this way, the manuscripts were part of a complex literary and visual culture that circulated among elite and therefore limited audiences. Some scholars have argued that because these manuscripts illustrate poetry, rather than the Qur’an, then they must be understood as “secular” and reserved for entertainment purposes only among the royal class. Although depictions of Muhammad and other prophets were exceedingly rare in public religious settings, it does not necessarily follow that these representations had no religious function or meaning for their courtly audience. Perhaps they did not fulfill primarily a devotional purpose, but surely images of Prophetic figures fulfilled some kind of ethical and hagiographical function for their viewers. Moreover, in the case of the Persian miniature paintings, Prophetic narratives, especially the story of Yusuf, served as the basis for Sufi poetic and artistic works centered on key themes of love and yearning for union with God.

Royal patronage and artistic context.

These expensive and highly prized possessions were usually commissioned by wealthy, religiously devout, royal patrons who possessed the resources to employ well-regarded artists and to secure the necessary and costly supplies to produce these texts. Illuminated manuscripts thrived from the thirteenth through the sixteenth centuries, primarily in Persia under various dynasties and in the Ottoman Empire. The visual cultures of each geographical context resulted from extensive contact and cross-fertilization with non-Islamic cultures. In the case of the Ottoman Empire, its proximity to Europe fostered numerous influences regarding figural representation, while in Persia illuminated manuscripts displayed the ongoing influence of Mongol and Chinese arts. These artistic and royal networks also extended to the Mughal Empire (1526–1857). The empire’s shahs, of Turkic-Mongol heritage, facilitated the arts and were avid collectors of illuminated manuscripts from abroad.

Persia and Central Asia.

The Mongol Ikhanate ruled Persia and Central Asia following the invasions of Genghis Khan, from 1258–1336 C.E. Illustrated manuscripts became a flourishing artistic medium in Baghdad and throughout Mesopotamia in the twelfth century, a tradition that continued under Mongolian influence. The Mongolian khans sponsored multiple artistic forms, ushering in a period of artistic exchange between Persian, Chinese, Mongolian, and Arab artists. The sultanate’s religious tolerance facilitated the production of figurative images, including those depicting Muhammad, Jesus, and other biblical and Quranic figures that are nearly absent in contemporary Islamic empires during this period. The polyvalent religious and cultural context of the Ilkhanate dynasties helped to revive Abu Rayhan al-Biruni’s al-Athar al-Baqiya (The Chronology of Ancient Nations), written around 1000 C.E. An illustrated Chronology from the fourteenth century features several paintings from the life of the Prophet Muhammad, which overshadow the scientific and astronomical themes that dominated al-Biruni’s original work. Instead, the paintings that accompanied the text reflect the religious concerns of the Ilkhanid sultanate in the fourteenth century, which combined ecumenical orientation with an emphasis on the superiority of the Prophet Muhammad and Islam. One such example is “Isaiah’s Prophecy about Muhammad,” which shows Jesus and Muhammad riding together, each man turbaned and haloed, with Jesus on a donkey and Muhammad on a camel. The artist placed Muhammad in front of Jesus, with a larger halo and clad in green, the color of holiness in Islam. A watchman observes the holy figures, wearing the robes of a Christian monk. Isaiah is an important figure in Muslim exegesis and understandings of prophecy, though he is not explicitly mentioned in the Qur’an. Instead, Muslim exegetes affirm that Isaiah’s prophecies predicted the coming of Jesus, followed by the Prophet Muhammad, as the final two prophets.

Islamic Visual Art

“Isaiah’s Prophecy about Muhammad” from Abu Rayhan al-Biruni’s al-Athar al-Baqiya (The Chronology of Ancient Nations), 1307. In this painting Jesus and Muhammad ride together, each turbaned and haloed, with Jesus on a donkey and Muhammad on a camel (cf. Isa 21:9).

Edinburgh University Library, Scotland / Bridgeman Images

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Another key historical work associated with the broader Persian world was Rashid al-Din’s Jamı al-Tawārıkh (Compendium of Chronicles) The Jamı aimed to document the history of the entire world. While it primarily chronicled the lives of kings, like al-Biruni’s work, it notably featured several narratives of the lives of the prophets. The extant illustrated copy of this important work, now housed in the Edinburgh University library, contains miniatures of many biblical and Quranic scenes, including of Moses and Aaron, Samson destroying the temple of the Philistines, Abraham and Isaac, and the Annunciation. All of these stories save the depiction of the Prophet’s birth have strong Quranic precedents or had been expanded upon by the major Persian poets and in Qisas al-anbiyā (Stories of the Prophets), a group of narratives authored by various Muslim scholars from the formation of Islam through the medieval period. One notable exception was the depiction of the birth of the Prophet Muhammad, an event that is not part of the Qur’an. The painting strikingly draws upon Christian images of the nativity, featuring Abd al-Muttallib, the grandfather of the Prophet, in the place of Joseph, and three women who took the place of the Magi. By contrast, the Annunciation follows the Quranic account closely, with the angel appearing as a man without wings (19:17). Mary holds a jug, an element consistent with Byzantine iconography. Similar to the Ayyubid brasses, these miniatures suggest the braided confluence of “Islamic” and “Christian” texts and images, rather than their bifurcation. Similarly, many Armenian depictions of Gospel scenes demonstrate the ongoing contact between the Mongol dynasties and Eastern Christianity, in which the features of Armenian manuscript painting demonstrate shared characteristics with Mongolian depictions of the same themes.

The transition from the Ilkhanate to the Timurid period did not hinder this highly productive artistic milieu. The Timurids, who identified as Sunni, ruled present-day Iran and parts of Central Asia from 1370 to 1507 C.E. Timurid sultans served as important patrons of literature, poetry, and the arts, which facilitated the work of famous poets and chroniclers. A crucial literary work from this period serving as the basis for illuminated manuscripts was the Haft Awrang, composed by Nur al-Dın Abd al-Rahmān Jāmı. Sultan Ibrahim Mirza commissioned what is now the most well-known illustrated copy of the text in 1556. A Sufi trained in the metaphysics of the renowned Ibn Arabi, Jami wrote a text that combines poetic and pedagogical genres based in Sufi philosophy, ethics, and mystical practices. His poem, Yusuf and Zulaykha, elaborates on the Quranic story of Joseph and the wife of Potiphar, whom the Qur’an names as Zulaykha. The romantic love between Yusuf and Zulaykha functions as an allegory for the soul’s love and yearning for God, and scenes from the poetic versions are common in Persian illuminated manuscript painting.

In this history of Persian painting, no figure looms as large as Kamal al-din al-Bihzad, one of the few painters to sign his work. Bihzad born around 1460 C.E., rose to prominence in the cultural center of Herat, and was later appointed by Shah Isma’il as the head of all artists in Iran. One of Bihzad’s most celebrated works was his rendering of the Bustan, a thirteenth-century work of poetry composed by Sa’di Shirazi. Like the work of Jami, Sa’di’s imagery infuses the story of Joseph with mystical themes. Sa’di’s work is also based on Rabbinic narratives known as the israliyyat (Jewish stories) popular among early Muslims. In “The Seduction of Yusuf by Zulaykha,” Bihzad shows Yusuf fleeing from Zulaykha’s charms by running through seven chambers of her palace, as she pulls at his clothes. Yusuf is depicted with a flaming halo, designating his prophetic status. He eschews the idol that Zulaykha attempts to keep hidden from him, thus inserting the painting into the broader Islamic debates about the images, objects, and worship. As Michael Barry has argued (2004, p. 215) the story of Yusuf and Zulakha in Bihzad’s rendering illustrates both Muslim philosophical and Sufi considerations of the metaphysical order, in which a romance forms the allegorical landscape to explore the many dimensions of the human soul.

Islamic Visual Art

“The Seduction of Yusuf by Zulaykha” by Kamal al-din al-Bihzad, ca. fifteenth century.

Erich Lessing / Art Resource, N.Y.

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The sacrifice of Abraham also served as an important subject in Islamic art of Persia during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. The Qur’an narrates its own version of the event, but does not name the son that was sacrificed, leaving open the possibility of either Ishmael or Isaac as the potential victim. By the tenth century, most Muslim scholars concurred that Ishmael was the chosen son. Although rare before the fifteenth century, the story of Abraham’s sacrifice became popular in the sixteenth century. Key depictions of Abraham are found in the Anthology of the Iskandar Sultan (1410–1411), which was produced in Shiraz, Iran, and commissioned by Iskandar, a nephew of the Shah Rukh, and the Kulliyāt al-Tarikh (Historical Anthology), written by Hafizi Abru, a prominent historian of the Persian court, and illustrated around 1415. Pir Ahmad Baghshimali, an important artist of the sultan’s court may have illustrated both miniature drawings because they resemble each other closely. In both, Abraham, wearing a turban, puts a knife to Ishmael’s throat, while holding his son’s hair. These miniatures appear to have set an iconographical precedent for future paintings of the subject, but though scholars have been unable to trace earlier depictions with similar compositional patterns. The Kulliyāt contains other images that suggest the overlap of Jewish, Christian, and Islamic narratives. The manuscript contains a depiction of the angels prostrating before Adam, with Iblis (Satan) standing to the side, refusing to join the angels in their submission to humanity. In the Qur’an, Satan is a jinn, a supernatural being made of fire, and granted free will by God, unlike the angels whom God created to submit. While this depiction accompanies a non-Quranic text, it nevertheless closely resembles the Quranic narrative (2:32) of this foundation narrative of Islamic theodicy.

During this period, Persian paintings of biblical figures also reflect the influence of western European drawings. Robert Skelton notes close resemblance between The Annunciation of the Virgin, ca. 1580–1585, signed by Sadiqi b. Yazid, and an engraving from the Netherlands completed by the “Master of the Banderoles,” who was active in the Low Countries from 1470 to 1475. Skelton speculates that Sadiqi may not have known the identities of the female figures, but was copying major works from the collection of the renowned artist Ghiyath al-Din Ali Naqshband, with whom he worked and drew inspiration.

By the eighteenth century, the capital of Iran shifted to Shiraz, under the reign of Ismail III, whose authority was deferred to his regent, Karim Khan Zand. During this period of renewed stability, figure painting based on poetic and intimate returned with renewed vigor, with Persian features and decorative patterns replacing earlier European-based styles. In the mid-eighteenth century, a cycle of eight oil paintings depicted scenes from Jami and Nizami’s famous works of poetry. These small paintings were designed to fit into wall niches for a reception hall or pavilion of a wealthy city-dweller. One painting, The King Appointing Joseph as Manager of the Granaries of the Realm shows a less common scene taken from the Yusuf story in the Sufi poetic tradition, but one that resonates with both biblical and Quranic accounts of the narrative.

Ottoman Empire.

Contemporary to the Persian context, the Ottoman Empire was another center of Islamic miniature painting. Like Persian manuscripts, Turkish examples also demonstrate the influence of mysticism, and demonstrate the rare, but nevertheless existent tradition of representing the human form of the Prophet Muhammad and Quranic/biblical prophets. One key text was the Shiite martyrology Hadıqāt al-Suada (Garden of the Blessed), written by Muhammad b. Sulayman, known by his nom de plume, Fuzuli (ca. 1483–1556). The Ottoman sultan Mehmet III commissioned an illustrated copy in 1602–1603 C.E., which features portraits of the Prophet Muhammad, Ali, and the martyrs Hassan and Husayn. The work also features a number of biblical scenes in the figurative style characteristic of artists centered in Baghdad, then under Ottoman rule. Another Hadıqāt al-Suada, produced in Baghdad in 1610 shows Adam and Eve banished from the garden, half-naked, with their heads emblazoned with the characteristic haloes. In the Qur’an, Eve is not mentioned by name, but is rather referred to only as Adam’s wife. A snake appears in the near background, with a peacock looking on, a reference to the Quranic narrative of the garden, in which Iblis initially asks the bird to disguise him to facilitate his temptations (2:33, 7:18). Additionally, the Ottomans produced numerous manuscripts detailing the Qisas al-Anbiya, depicting the lives of the prophets as elaborated upon in these popular legends.

Contemporary Directions.

Islamic visual representations of the Bible most frequently occur in plural religious environments, in which Muslims, Christians, Jews, and other faiths interact in a range of contexts, along a spectrum of ecumenism to opposition. In the twenty-first century, growing numbers of Christian converts to Islam bring a robust understanding of Christian theology to their practice of Islam. For example, African American convert artists underscore the Quranic portrayal of Jesus as a prophet, while also using figural representations to challenge contemporary claims that artistic and musical expressions are bid’a. In the U.S. context, Muslim artists use these paintings to assert the cultural heritage of black Muslims as an indigenous expression of American Islam.

Contemporary art thus provides an important new mode of inquiry in the study of Islamic visual practice and the Bible, in which Muslims participated in a substantive, continuous tradition of depicting prophets and sacred personages in various historical contexts. These depictions reflect an ongoing conversation about the functions and veneration of prophets between Christians, Jews, and Muslims, in which the sacred narratives of the Bible and the Qur’an produce rich and often unexpected artistic results.


  • Abdel Haleem, M. A. S., trans. The Qur’an. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008. Unless otherwise indicated, all translations of The Qur’an are taken from this text.
  • Arnold, Thomas. Painting in Islam: A Study of the Place of Pictorial Art in Muslim Culture. Oxford: Clarendon, 1928. This foundational study focuses extensively on biblical figures in Islamic art.
  • Avner, Riva. “The Dome of the Rock in Light of the Development of Concentric Martyria in Jerusalem: Architecture and Architectural Iconography.” Muqarnas 27 (2010): 31–50. This article provides insights into the Dome of the Rock in the religious milieu of Jerusalem.
  • Baer, Eva. Ayyubid Metalwork with Christian Images. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 1997. A comprehensive introduction to the Ayyubid brasses and their historical context.
  • Bahari, Ebadollah. Bihzad: Master of Persian Painting. London: I. B. Tauris, 1996. An important guide to the work of Bihzad.
  • Barry, Michael. Figurative Art in Medieval Islam and the Riddle of Bihzad of Herat (1465–1535). Paris: Flammarion, 2004. Focuses on the widespread influence of Bihzad.
  • Blair, Sheila. Islamic Calligraphy. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2006. A seminal work on the religious and artistic functions of calligraphy, writing, and the development of the Arabic language.
  • Blair, Sheila, and Jonathan Bloom. “The Mirage of Islamic Art: Reflections on the Study of an Unwieldy Field.” Art Bulletin 85, no. 1 (2003): 152–184. An invaluable historiographical essay and bibliography on the state of the field of Islamic art.
  • Bloom, Jonathan. Paper Before Print: The History and Impact of Paper in the Islamic World. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2001. An essential work on the development of Islamic manuscripts.
  • Bloom, Jonathan, ed. Early Islamic Art and Architecture. Aldershot, U.K.: Ashgate, 2002.
  • Diba, Layla, ed. Royal Persian Paintings: The Qajar Epoch, 1785–1925. London: I. B. Tauris, 1998.
  • Elias, Jamal. Aisha’s Cushion: Religious Art, Perception, and Practice in Islam. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2012. Elias challenges latent assumptions regarding Islamic visual culture and offers an incisive study of material culture in Islam from a religious studies perspective.
  • Ernst, Carl. How to Read the Qur’an: A New Guide, with Select Translations. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011. An important study of intertextuality and narrative in the Qur’an.
  • Gonzalez, Valerie. Beauty and Islam: Aesthetics in Islamic Art and Architecture. London: I. B. Tauris, 2001. An important contribution to the field of Islamic aesthetics, and the role of Solomon in Islamic visual art.
  • Grabar, Oleg. The Dome of the Rock. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap, 2006.
  • Grabar, Oleg. Early Islamic Art, 650–1100: Constructing the Study of Islamic Art, Volume I. Aldershot, U.K.: Ashgate, 2006. One of Grabar’s seminal contributions to the study of Islamic art.
  • Gutmann, Joseph. “On Biblical Legends in Medieval Art.” Artibus et Historiae 19, no. 38 (1998): 137–142.
  • Gutmann, Joseph. “The Sacrifice of Abraham in Timurid Art.” Journal of the Walters Art Museum 59 (2001): 131–135.
  • Hillenbrand, Robert, ed. Islamic Art and Architecture. London: Thames and Hudson, 1999. Hillenbrand provides a reassessment of several important works.
  • Hillenbrand, Robert, ed. Persian Painting from the Mongols to the Qajars: Essays in Honor of Basil W. Robinson. London: I. B. Tauris, 2000.
  • Hoffman, Eva R. “Christian-Islamic Encounters on Thirteenth-Century Metalwork: Local Culture, Authenticity, and Memory.” Gesta 43, no. 2 (2004): 129–142. An important intervention on the role of collective memory in the Ayyubid brasses.
  • Milstein, Rachel, Karin Ruhrdanz, and Barbara Schmitz. Stories of the Prophets: Illustrated Manuscripts of Qisas Al-Anbiya. Costa Mesa, Calif.: Mazda, 2009. A compilation of Ottoman and Persian images depicting the stories of the Prophets.
  • Seyller, John. “The Inspection and Valuation of Manuscripts in the Imperial Mughal Library.” Artibus Asiae 57, no. 3–4 (1997): 243–349. A detailed article of the inventory of Mughal libraries and the role of collecting in this royal milieu.
  • Soucek, Priscilla. “Armenian and Islamic Manuscript Painting: A Visual Dialogue.” In Treasures in Heaven: Armenian Art, Religion, and Society, edited by Thomas F. Mathews and Roger Wieck, pp. 115–132. New York: Pierpont Morgan Library, 1998.

Justine Howe