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Culture & Arts

In any discussion of Islamic art it must always be remembered that the artistic tradition of the Muslim faith developed not only over a long period of time beginning with the Hegira in AD 622, but also over a very wide geographical area extending from Spain and Morocco to Central Asia, India and Indonesia. Indeed, the very richness and variety of Islamic art is due in part to the appearance of regional trends within the Islamic world, particularly once the Abbasid Caliphate began to weaken in the X and XI centuries, thus allowing the formation of local political powers. The ethnic diversity of the Muslim world - which includes Arabs, Iranians, Turks, Indians, Berbers and more - the variety of pre-Islamic traditions that existed in the newly-conquered territories, and the continued presence of non-Muslim communities in those areas, all contributed to the creation of an art with strongly marked regional characteristics.

And yet, despite this tendency towards specific regional characteristics, other forces were at work which tended towards the development of a universal and unified art. The main force was of course Islam itself, the basis of the whole civilization. The proper functioning of the mosque required only a few elements (mehrab, or niche in the wall facing Mecca; membar, or pulpit; prayer carpet) and none of the ritual or liturgical paraphernalia present in temples of other faiths. The major public art, calligraphy, was the natural vehicle for the divine message transmitted by the Prophet, plays an important role in mosques but also is largely used on ceramics, textiles and in handicrafts in general. The almost complete absence of sculpture, with a few rare exceptions, is another universal characteristic of Islamic art, influenced partly by the rejection in the Hadith (Traditions) of human representation. It should be noted, however, that despite this disapproval, the portraiture and images of animals in Iran is much more common than you would find in Sunni Arab countries. Book illustration, a private art, had been one of the most creative art forms in Persia, Turkey and Moghul India.

A second unifying factor in Islamic art has been the great mobility of people within the Muslim world, either as individuals or in groups. There have been numerous cases, particularly in Iran, of rulers who were foreign to the region or the country they governed. Artists, architects and poets travelled over great distances in their search for generous patrons. Other migrations were not undertaken voluntarily: large numbers of refugees and conscripts have, at various times, been compelled to start a new life in new lands. But it was particularly trade along the maritime and overland caravan routes that was behind the widest artistic exchanges. As a result, artists came into contact with new decorative motifs and new techniques which were quickly absorbed into the local artistic repertoire.

In the first years of the Islamic Revolution, most of the theatres, the Tehran Opera House, cinemas and of course discos and night-clubs were closed, as it was considered that such entertainment was morally unacceptable.