Abstract art uses a visual vocabulary comprised of form, color and line to create a composition which may exist with a degree of independence from worldly visual references. The early centuries of the Islamic era saw the initial adoption of semi-naturalistic motifs and patterns derived from pre-Islamic cultures, followed by widespread and highly diverse experimentation adapting these forms to suit the aesthetic interests and tastes of the new Muslim patrons. It was during the medieval period of the Islamic era (tenth–twelfth centuries) that a fully developed Islamic style of art emerged, featuring that most original and ubiquitous pattern often known as "arabesque". Islamic art was emerging as an abstract art movement, in which non-figurative subjects and works emerged, celebrating colors, lines, geometric designs and motifs, representing abstract ideas, such as concepts, beliefs and ideals.
Geometric patterns make up one of the three non-figural types of decoration found in Islamic art, which also include calligraphy and vegetal patterns. Whether isolated or used in combination with non-figural ornamentation or figural representation, geometric patterns are popularly associated with Islamic art, largely due to their aniconic quality. These abstract designs not only adorn the surfaces of monumental Islamic architecture but also function as the major decorative element on a vast array of objects of all types. While geometric ornamentation may have reached a pinnacle in the Islamic world, the sources for both the shapes and the intricate patterns already existed in late antiquity among the Greeks, Romans, and Sasanians in Iran. Islamic artists appropriated key elements from the classical tradition, then complicated and elaborated upon them in order to invent a new form of decoration that stressed the importance of unity and order. The significant intellectual contributions of Islamic mathematicians, astronomers, and scientists were essential to the creation of this unique new style.
Consisting of (or derived from) such simple forms as the circle and the square, geometric patterns were combined, duplicated, interlaced, and arranged in intricate combinations, thus becoming one of the most distinguishing features of Islamic art. However, these complex patterns seem to embody a refusal to adhere strictly to the rules of geometry. As a matter of fact, geometric ornamentation in Islamic art suggests a remarkable amount of freedom; in its repetition and complexity, it offers the possibility of infinite growth and can accommodate the incorporation of other types of ornamentation as well. In terms of their abstractness, repetitive motifs, and symmetry, geometric patterns have much in common with the so-called arabesque style seen in many vegetal designs. Calligraphic ornamentation also appears in conjunction with geometric patterns.
The four basic shapes, or “repeat units,” from which the more complicated patterns are constructed are: circles and interlaced circles; squares or four-sided polygons; the ubiquitous star pattern, ultimately derived from squares and triangles inscribed in a circle; and multisided polygons. It is clear, however, that the complex patterns found on many objects include a number of different shapes and arrangements, allowing them to fit into more than one category.
With the spread of Islam outward from the Arabian Peninsula in the seventh century, the figurative artistic traditions of the newly conquered lands profoundly influenced the development of Islamic art. Ornamentation in Islamic art came to include figural representations in its decorative vocabulary, drawn from a variety of sources. Although the often cited opposition in Islam to the depiction of human and animal forms holds true for religious art and architecture, in the secular sphere, such representations have flourished in nearly all Islamic cultures.
With the Mongol invasion of western Asia in the thirteenth century and the establishment of a Mongol court in Iran in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, numerous Chinese motifs and patterns were adopted, though sometimes in markedly revised form. This period saw many transformations in the decorative language of Islamic art that would endure for centuries. In sixteenth-century Europe, first in Italy and then in the north, Islamic-style vegetal patterns were developed. In the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century empires of the Ottomans, Safavids, and Mughals (present-day Turkey, Iran, and India), complicated versions of established patterns were utilized, sometimes incorporating a new interest in naturalistic-looking flowers or blossoms. With the exception of the garden and its usual reference to paradise, vegetal motifs and patterns in Islamic art are largely devoid of symbolic meaning.
Vegetal patterns employed alone or in combination with the other major types of ornament—calligraphy, geometric pattern, and figural representation—adorn a vast number of buildings, manuscripts, objects, and textiles, produced throughout the Islamic world. Unlike calligraphy, whose increasingly popular use as ornament in the early Islamic Arab lands represented a new development, vegetal patterns and the motifs they incorporate were drawn from existing traditions of Byzantine culture in the eastern Mediterranean and Sasanian Iran.
As with other forms of Islamic ornamentation, artists freely adapted and stylized basic human and animal forms, giving rise to a great variety of figural-based designs. Figural motifs are found on the surface decoration of objects or architecture, as part of the woven or applied patterns of textiles, and, most rarely, in sculptural form. In some cases, decorative images are closely related to the narrative painting tradition, where text illustrations provided sources for ornamental themes and motifs. As for manuscript illustration, miniature paintings were integral parts of these works of art as visual aids to the text, therefore no restrictions were imposed. A further category of fantastic figures, from which ornamental patterns were generated, also existed. Some fantastic motifs, such as harpies (female-headed birds) and griffins (winged felines), were drawn from pre-Islamic mythological sources, whereas others were created through the visual manipulation of figural forms by artists.
Islamic Art emerged as a melding of aesthetics and faith, therefore making Islamic Art predisposed towards representing the abstract world of religion, piety, enlightenment and nature. However, on another level, Islamic Art is a celebration of the Almighty, The Creator, known also as al-Musawwir, the artist.