Art and Literature During the Golden Age

The Islamic Golden Age may be recognized for its remarkable advancements in science and technology, but that doesn’t mean those were the only fields that prospered during this time. Literature and the arts grew to staggering heights as classic works arose and beautiful innovative designs were produced. The Golden Age began to give Islamic art a category of its own, and as the Islamic Empire continued to grow, so did its creative side. In fact, if contributions were never made in these fields, the world would truly miss something incredible.

Literature during the Golden Age was characterized by a variety of works, ranging from poetry to philosophy. The most famous piece of literature that was produced during this time was The Book of One Thousand and One Nights, a fictitious compilation of traditional folktales, as “told” by the main character of the story, Queen Scheherazade. The epic story was created around the 10th century and reached its final form by the 14th century. Ever since it was translated by Antoine Galland in the 18th century, One Thousand and One Nights has become a world-wide classic, especially in the West. Nowadays, characters like Aladdin, Sinbad the Sailor, and Ali Baba are recognized as cultural icons, and many spinoffs (such as books and TV shows) have developed as a result of their popularity. The elements of these folktales have fascinated us time and time again, and will continue to fascinate us, no matter how old the stories become.

One Thousand and One Nights isn’t the only literary fiction that arose during the Golden Age. Another well-known piece is Hakim Abu’l Qasim Ferdowsi Tusi’s Shahnameh, a heroic story about Persian history. Other mythical and heroic stories were established during this period, such as Amir Arsalan, a famous Persian legend by the storyteller Mohammad Ali Naqib al-Mamalek. This epic story was originally narrated verbally to the Persian Shah during the 19th century, but was later transcribed by the Shah’s daughter and preserved. Just like One Thousand and One NightsAmir Arsalan has influenced modern works of fantasy fiction, such as the Japanese novel adaptation, The Heroic Legend of Arsalan.

Not surprising with their incredible strives in scientific fields, science fiction works were produced during the Islamic Golden Age as well.  Theologus Autodidactus, written by Ibn al-Nafis, is one of the world’s first science fiction novels; the story deals with many supernatural elements, such as spontaneous generation, the end of the world/Doomsday, the afterlife, futurology, ressurrection, and so on. Nafis also attempted to explain these phenomena through the scientific knowledge of biology, astronomy, cosmology, and geology that had grown during his time. The main purpose that he had for his works was to explain Islamic religous teachings in terms of science and philosphy through the use of fiction.

While Theologus Autodidactus may have been the earliest example of a science fiction piece, it was also a perfect example of a philosophical novel, for it was also written as a response to Ibn Tufail’s Philosophus Autodidactus (also known as Hayy Ibn Yaqdhan), a fictional Arabic philosophical novel. Ibn Tufail’s work was in itself a response to another philosophical piece, The Incoherence of The Philosophers by Al-Ghazali. Al-Nafis and Ibn Tufail are recognized as the pioneers of the first philosophical novels, and their works have inspired the creation of famous literary works: Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, the first English novel, was inspired by a translated version of Philosophus Autodidactus; Jean-Jacques Rosusseau’s Emile or On Education was also inspired by Tufai’s work, and in some ways is similar to Mowgli’s story in Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book as well as Tarzan. It is amazing how classic English literature – the literature which we continue to study in school to this day – was inspired by these ancient works!

Like literature, the arts during the Islamic Golden Age prospered magnificently. Not only was architecture and textile a major development at the time, but many decorative and creative works were established as well. Starting from 750 C.E. and lasting until the 16th century, Islamic art consisted of a variety of forms: ceramics (a special effect of “glazing” was specifically an Islamic contribution to ceramics), glass, metalworks, illuminated manuscripts, and woodwork. Abstract art was also an essential contribution to the arts during the Golden Age: because it was frowned upon that Muslims create images of living things (which could have resembled idolatry), the abstract style of design took form in many Islamic architectural buildings, especially in mosques. Theses designs usually incorporate Islamic elements, such as verses from the Holy Qur’an or the 99 names of Allah (SWT) , while balancing them out with creative geometric shapes and curves. Today, some of the most famous mosques in the world (like Masjid Al-Aqsa and Masjid Al-Nabawi) are known for their beautiful designs and abstract art, and are admired by both Muslims and non-Muslims worldwide.

Another form of art that predominately took form during the Golden Age is calligraphy, a type of visual art that focuses on an elegant style of Arabic writing. It is a fancy manuscript writing that also is used in abstract art designs – in fact, it is still practiced today. Calligraphy is a beautiful art form that is often known as the “art of writing” and in modern times, recognized as “the art of giving form to signs in an expressive, harmonious, and skillful manner.” 1

The Islamic Golden Age truly created some of the most remarkable artistic and literary pieces of the time. Without the contributions that were made, the creative world would certainly not be what it is today.