Color in Islamic art and culture

February 24, 2012

Review by Sedef Piker

Islamic art and culture is often perceived as an enigmatic phenomenon to outsiders, and perennially described as a new frontier for Western intellectuals.  And Diverse are Their Hues: Color in Islamic Art and Culture was published by Yale University Press in October 2011. It is a collection of research papers focusing on the role of color in Islamic art and culture, presented by twelve distinguished scholars for the Hamad bin Khalifa Symposium, held in Cordoba (Spain) in 2009.  Drs. Sheila Blair and Jonathan Bloom, the Hamad bin Khalifa Chairs of Islamic Art in Virginia Commonwealth University are the editors and the authors of the introduction to this impressive undertaking. 

To my great delight, this volume took my existing knowledge into new realms, encompassing a wide range of fascinating subjects. From the aesthetics of color in Islamic architecture, gardens and  manuscripts, to the role of color in spiritualism and the quest for power and political legitimacy. These explorations also extended to include cross-cultural comparisons present in colonial Latin America.

The introduction by Jonathan Bloom and Sheila Blair is a wonderful overview of the role of color in Islamic art and culture covering a wide spectrum of disciplines. Early on, we are presented with a poignant fact about the development of the vernacular of Islamic art history. Before the 1960s,  those studying Islamic art and architecture in the West had to depend upon mostly black and white slides or faded photographs. According to Drs. Blair and Bloom, the convenient accessibility of black and white visual material caused scholars to concentrate and write more about form and design than color. How this has changed is revealed by exploring this book, as readers are taken on a vivid  tour spanning fourteen centuries, featuring works from Lahore in present day Pakistan, on through the Arabian desert and across to Quito, Ecuador.

The subject of color is presented as a cultural phenomenon, where different societies recognize colors according to their particular language and culture. These idiosyncrasies range from the number of colors identified in the rainbow to the modern scientific understanding of color in terms of depth, contrast, hue/saturation, and types of color mixing.

The book gets its name from references in the Koran to the existence of diverse hues which is accepted as an attribute of God's creation:

Have you not seen how God sends down water from heaven, and therewith we bring forth fruits of diverse hues? And in the mountains are streaks white and red, of diverse hues, and pitchy black; men too and beasts and cattle - diverse are their hues.

To understand how the Arabs of Muhammad's time perceived the colors of the world around them, they list the colors mentioned in the Koran - white, black, red, green and yellow - which were also the basic colors of pre-Islamic Arabic language. Along with the expansion of Islam and the Arabic culture, other elements such as local and regional traditions, and scientific knowledge gained from other civilizations were incorporated into Islamic culture, affecting the meanings associated with colors.

Bahram Gur in the Red Pavilion, from a manuscript of Nizami's Khamsa, copied by Muhammad ibn Qavam al-Shirazi, known as Hammami, dated 29 Jumada II, (September 1543); Shiraz. Russian Academy of Sciences, St. Petersburg, D-212, fol.212a

Drs. Blair and Bloom state that on the subject of color early and medieval Arab scientists, theologians and philosophers, were primarily concerned with the manipulation of theories inherited from the Greeks. In literature, the most famous metaphor of colors is Haft Paykar (Seven Portraits/Beauties) by the Persian poet Nizami Ganjavi (d. 1209) where he uses seven colors to structure his classic poem. Central theme of the book is the tale of the Sassanian prince Bahram Gur who has seven pavilions built of seven colors for his seven brides and visits them on each of the seven days of the week wearing the appropriate color. Drs. Blair and Bloom explain:

On a prosaic level, Nizami's poem is a bedazzling exploration of the pleasures of love, but it can also be interpreted metaphorically as exploring the seven stages of human life, the seven aspects of destiny, or the seven stages of the mystical path.

In Islamic mysticism the phenomenon of colors and its concurrence with the mystic interior vision is mentioned with a detailed guide to the significance of the fabric color of the Sufi robe as an outward sign of the individual's degree of spiritual advancement:

The basic Sufi robe is either black or dark blue to signify that the wearer has conquered and slain his carnal soul (nafs). By wearing black, he symbolically mourns its loss. The Sufi who has attained the stage of repentance (tawba) wears a white robe to symbolize the washing away of his worldly concerns. When he has risen above the lower world to continue his mystical journey in the supralunar realm, he dons a blue robe to symbolize the color of the sky. Finally, if he has completed all stages of the mystical path and has experienced the lights of all mystical states, he wears a multicolored or variegated robe (khirqa-yi mulamma'a)

- this is the guide provided by Najm al-Din Kubra (d. 1220) but his disciple's differing conception is also mentioned to state the conclusion that colors could mean whatever people wanted them to mean.

Album page showing a Sufi wearing a blue robe; 15th century. Topkapi Palace Library, Istanbul, H 2153, fol. 92.b

They also touch upon the European notions of color and the effect these had on the Islamic theosophist al-Kirmani (d. 1870) who took up Goethe's theory of "physiological colors." Drs. Blair and Bloom state that artists and artisans must have had an entirely different experience of color through hands-on experience, not wholly validated in the theoretical notions of contemporary writers.

From here, they explore the philosophy of color with its practical applications by artists as opposed to the theoretical approach of the philosophers, scientists, and mystics. Color in the arts of the Islamic lands is pursued further in the craft of making books involving the preparation of colored inks, dyeing leather and paper, calligraphic arts, conservators analyzing the pigments used in the multicolored manuscripts, and the trade and production of textiles and carpets.

The coloring of fabrics was a very costly and an intriguing process. According to Drs. Blair and Bloom "for Muslims, the magical transformation wrought by the dyeing process of fabrics had religious overtones: observers knew that dyes were veils or vessels (which color the water according to their own hue) and that to change color meant also to change one's character."

Illustration of the Procession at the end of Ramadan showing the Abbasids' black banners from a copy of al-Hariri's Maqamat; Baghdad, 643/1237. Bibliotheque nationale, Paris, MS arabe 5847, fol.19a

There were also certain colors that played an important role in Islam because of their association with the Prophet Muhammad, the Kaaba in Mecca or hajj (the pilgrimage). Different dynasties associated with different colors to establish their identities. One example they cite is:

The Abbasid revolt against the Umayyads began with black-clad warriors unfurling black banners, since the coming of the messiah was to be heralded by a man carrying a black banner... The first Syrian rebellion against the Abbasids featured white banners, and white became initially associated with the Sufyani opposition...

Even the color of the kiswa, cloth covering the Kaaba, changed with the caliph to bear that particular dynasty’s colors.

Blue-tiled dome of the Shah Mosque (Masjid-i Khomeini), Isfahan, Iran. 1611-30

They note that materials used in the artifacts made in Islamic lands were also prized because of their inherent color. Color played a crucial role in the surface design of metal-works, enameling on metals and glass and especially the glazes used by potters. In architecture, colorful decorations in the form of tiles, glass mosaics or painted walls and ceilings were mostly to be found inside buildings. Regional differences were also noted. In India builders and patrons had used the natural red sandstone for their buildings. In Iran where the buff-colored brick did-not afford the same kind of opportunity, they were forced to incorporate colors in other ways like the colorful tile decorations. Finally, the passion for color was extended from the buildings to the lavishly colorful gardens in Islamic lands.

The church of San Francisco, Acatepe, Mexico, 18th century

Drs. Blair and Bloom conclude by adding that the colorful influence of Islamic art and culture was transported from Spain across the ocean to the New World in the form of colored tiles, decorated wooden ceilings and the ornamentation of doorways and windows. They also state that the preconceived notions of the Castilian encounter with Islam were carried over to the Spanish conquerors' perception of the New World.

Each of the twelve papers delve into the significance of color approached from a variety of angles within the Islamic world. The relevance of the topics covered surpasses just a concentration in the Islamic world extending well into the art and culture of the West as well. The vibrant photographs included within the book complement the text beautifully; some of the photographs are especially precious since they are of places or object not frequently published . Overall this book is a valuable addition to any art or history scholar’s library.

I would like to thank Yale University Press, Inbooks Australia and 3PP for the review copy.

Related links
Yale University Press page for this book, including preview images link
The Object in Islamic Art and Culture - Website for the Hamad bin Khalifa Symposium on Islamic Art link

Sedef Piker is a graduate of F.I.T at New York State University. She has studied the complex forms of Tehzip (Ottoman Illuminated Calligraphy) at the Ministry of Culture’s Traditional Turkish Decorative Arts program in Topkapi Palace, participating in several group exhibitions including one at the National Library in Ankara and one at the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Art in Istanbul. She describes each experience in her life studying design and learning artistic technique being accompanied by a ''gnawing hunger for more knowledge'' of art and history, which she delights in exploring at Sedef's Corner and its accompanying twitter feed.


Dogan Uygur said...

A perfect review.

Unknown said...

Cheers for the comment Dogan and welcome to 3PP!

Thank you to Sedef for this fascinating review - as the subject matter is so close to my own heritage I must admit that I can take its beauty and intricacy for granted sometimes.

We can only imagine what the Islamic equivalent of painting would have looked like had it been an acceptable means communicating spiritual themes as in Christian art.

It is also interesting to note how Islamic influences fed back into Renaissance art in Italy particularly - covered in the wonderful Hans Belting volume last year and observed in motifs such as pseudo-kufic script seen adorning the robes of holy figures.

Kind regards

Vicky Alvear Shecter said...

Fascinating! The connection between color and mystical states is especially intriguing.

Clareangela said...

Wow. Thank you for this.

Andrew Zega and Bernd H. Dams said...

Fascinating indeed, and beautifully written and presented.

Out of curiosity, were the seven colors of the seven pavilions those of the Vedic chakras?

Glennis said...

The area of robe colours and symbolism is so interesting - this post compliments Dr DeStefano's Color and Meaning post very nicely. The colours of Sufi spiritual advancement - black, white, blue and multi make instant sense - and are slightly easier to remember than the colours of Catholic liturgical significance!

Sedef said...

Thank you Hasan for inviting me to share this review that is a little removed from your usual sphere, it's a privilege to find such an enlightened platform.

Andrew Zega & Bernd H. Dams - the seven colors mentioned in the Haft Paykar are supposed to represent the seven climes from the Zoroastriani-Islamic division of the Earth. The relationship is as follows:

Saturday - Indian princess-Saturn-Black pavilion
Sunday-Byzantine princess-Sun-Yellow pavilion
Monday-Tartar princess-Moon-Green pavilion
Tuesday-Slavic princess-Mars-Red pavilion
Wednesday-Maghribi princess-Mercury-Turquoise pavilion
Thursday-Chinese princess-Jupiter-Sandalwood (brown) pavilion
Friday-Persian princess-Venus-White pavilion

Also,the Islamic equivalent of painting communicating spiritual as well as secular themes can be found in the art of manuscript painting (miniatures) and illuminations. It is a visual language that is so far removed from the Eurocentric modes of representation that we tend to not classify it as such. If you are interested, my post in on Patronage and Secular Subject Matter in Islamic art covers most of these issues.

Thanks Again,


zanda said...


Unknown said...

Thanks for the clarification Sedef - I love how the days and colours also have a geographical element as well.

@Glennis - all this makes me wonder what JRR Tolkien knew of colour symbolism from the east and west - his wizardly characters wore different colours in their different stages of wisdom/ability!

@zanda - thank you for the positive comment :)


Edward Goldberg said...

Thanks, Sedef! This is all fascinating. To ask a probably simple-minded question: I always had the impression that green was "the color of Islam". When and how was that established (if it actually was)? This seems to be taken for granted in the discussions of the Spanish trade in emeralds from the New World--with most of the best ones going to Turkey and North Africa.

Sedef said...

@ Edward- Thank you for the inquiry. I will try to answer as best I can.

According to Drs. Blair and Bloom, the color green was supposed to be the mark of descent from the Prophet but the right of the sharif to wear a green turban was enunciated only in 1376 in Egypt during the reign of the Mamluks.
They also give the example of the Umayyad caliph Sulayman (r. 715-17) as being known to wear a green coat and matching turban to point out the inconsistencies of the meaning of color in the Umayyad period (white is the color associated with the Umayyads)
The exploration of the role of color in Islamic art and culture is supposed to be very rare and the purpose of the symposium held in Cordoba and the papers presented.

I want to share with you a fascinating fact mentioned in the book by Marianna Shreve Simpson in her paper titled "Why My Name is Red" -
"...In 1614 when the Spanish monarch Philip III sent a diplomatic mission to the Persian shah with his ambassador bearing several hundred gifts, valued at more than 32,000 ducats, the most expensive item in the assemblage was five barrels of cochineal, worth 4,000 ducats according to Habsburg inventories, for making the finest crimson color."

Taken in this context and with all the other information revealed in this book, I would venture to say that the geography and natural elements available probably had a lot to do with the predominant use of one color over another.

I will inquire about the preference for emeralds in Ottoman period and will let you know if I find anything that might be relevant.


Karen Barrett-Wilt said...

What a great review, Sedef! I didn't know that the color of the kiswa changed depending on the caliph -- you've definitely left me wanting to know more!

Edward Goldberg said...

Many thanks, Sedef! There are no simple or easy answers when it comes to questions of this kind and you are certainly right to emphasize the role of geography and local availability in shaping custom. I really enjoyed, "My Name is Red" but "The Black Book" remains reproachfully unread on my bedside table! Back when I was going through the Spanish-Florentine correspondence in the Medici Granducal Archive here in Florence, there was always intense interest in the late-sixteenth and early seventeenth century regarding the annual arrival of the treasure fleet in Seville - with silver but also other new world products. Especially sugar, emeralds, quinine and brazil wood (a dye fixative). There was surprisingly little discussion of cochineal, however. The quarterly Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin in the winter of 2010 was devoted to "Cochineal Red: The Art History of a Color" (by Elena Phipps). Around the same time, there was the March-June 2010 issue of Art Bulletin, with the featured article "Interventions: The Mirrors of Las Meninas: Cochineal, Silver, and Clay" by Byron Ellsworth Hamann, with many polemical responses, which was quite fascinating if you like slow-motion scholarly train wrecks (I mean, I couldn't look away!)

Sedef said...

@ Karen - thanks and I have to add there is so much more...

@ Edward - I found out there is a new book "IMPERIAL OTTOMAN JEWELLERY - READING HISTORY THROUGH JEWELLERY" that is due to come out at the end of April by Dr. Gul Irepoglu. She said that she did not come across a connection between the color green and a preference for emeralds by the Ottomans but I am sure her book will be very interesting.

Ana said...

I agree with zanda's "Прекрасно!" - this is an absolutely beautiful article on an equally beautiful blog.

Bookmarked for future reference and enjoyment :) .

Unknown said...

Hello Ana. Many thanks for the kind feedback. Welcome to 3PP :)

Kind Regards

Pandu Aditya Affandi said...

MashaAllah. This is a good review, I have a big interest to know more about that painting -maqamat al hariri. First time I saw that painting in a book titled, "Historical Atlas of The Islamic World" by Dr. David Nicolle.

by reading your articles, I just know more about why the black color is used in kiswa.

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