Cultures & Traditions


The religion of Islam originated in the 7th century in the Arabian peninsula. Islam was founded by an historic individual, the Prophet Muhammad (c. 570-632 CE). The message of Muhammad, considered God's last prophet, centered on his belief in the one true God, Allah. Muhammad's teachings were compiled in the Quran shortly after his death. Muslims acknowledge the Jewish Torah and the Christian Gospels, but believe that Islam is the perfection of the religion that was first revealed to Abraham. The five basic principles of Islam form the core of Muhammad's teachings: declaration of faith in God, prayer, fasting, almsgiving, and pilgrimage. The new religion spread remarkably quickly from Arabia to the western end of the Mediterranean and across the Near East and Central Asia eastwards. In many places Islam replaced older traditions, such as Persian Zoroastrianism.

The arts of Islam also developed rapidly, particularly architecture and architectural embellishments. Mosques were constructed extensively, providing suitable spaces for the faithful to pray and follow Islamic religious observances, and were usually accompanied by minarets, tall towers used to call worshippers to daily prayers. Decorative arts, including tiles, ceramics, metalwork, textiles, and calligraphy, proliferated. Figural art and the representation of religious figures were taboo for many centuries, but over time various kinds of figural and narrative art did develop.

A major schism among the early followers of Islam had lasting implications, creating two major groups, the Sunnis and the Shiites, that survive to the present day. The Sunnis, whose name refers to the teachings and practices of the Prophet Muhammad, consider themselves the most orthodox adherents to Islam, and acknowledge a succession of caliphs and imams succeeding Muhammad, who were not directly related to him. The Shiites, whose name can be translated as "followers of Ali," believe that Ali, Muhammad's son-in-law, was the first legitimate imam, and favor specific texts and teachings related to this leader and his family. Today the Sunni are a majority in the Muslim world. The Shiite traditions of Persian and Central Asia, however, were most predominant in Muslim India. Also significant were the mystical beliefs and practices of Sufism, a more esoteric form of Islam that became well established in South Asia.

Excerpt from

Anne R. Bromberg, "The Arts of the Mughal Period," in The Arts of India, Southeast Asia, and the Himalayas (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013), 99.

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