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Islamic culture

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Islamic culture

World Muslim population by percentage (Pew Research Center, 2014).

Islamic culture is a term primarily used in secular academia to describe the cultural practices common to historically Islamic people. The early forms of Muslim culture were predominantly Arab. With the rapid expansion of the Islamic empires, Muslim culture has influenced and assimilated much from the Persian, Caucasian, Bangladeshi, Turkic, Mongol, Chinese, Indian, Malay, Somali, Berber, Egyptian, Indonesian, Filipino, Greco-Roman Byzantine, Spanish, Sicilian, Balkanic and Western cultures. For the last ummah or the children of Muhammad, the culture of a practicing Muslim, are following the teachings of Muhammad.


  • Terminological use 1
  • Religious practices and beliefs in Islam 2
  • Language and literature 3
    • Arabic 3.1
    • Persian 3.2
    • Turkish 3.3
    • Indo-Islamic 3.4
    • Modern 3.5
    • Theatre 3.6
  • Festivals 4
  • Marriage 5
  • Family Values 6
  • Art 7
    • Calligraphy 7.1
  • Martial arts in Muslim Countries/Cultures 8
  • Architecture 9
    • Elements of Islamic style 9.1
    • Interpretation 9.2
  • Music 10
  • Notes and references 11
  • Further reading 12

Terminological use

Islamic culture is itself a contentious term. Muslims live in many different countries and communities, and it can be difficult to isolate points of cultural unity among Muslims, besides their adherence to the religion of Islam. Anthropologists and historians nevertheless study Islam as an aspect of, and influence on, culture in the regions where the religion is predominant.

The noted historian of Islam, Marshall Hodgson, noted the above difficulty of religious versus secular academic usage of the words "Islamic" and "Muslim" in his three-volume work, The Venture Of Islam. He proposed to resolve it by only using these terms for purely religious phenomena, and invented the term "Islamicate" to denote all cultural aspects of historically Muslim people. However, his distinction has not been widely adopted, and confusion remains in common usage of these article.

Religious practices and beliefs in Islam

Islamic culture generally includes all the practices which have developed around the religion of Islam, including Qur'anic ones such as prayer (salat) and non-Qur'anic such as divisions of the world in Islam. It includes as the Baul tradition of Bengal, and facilitated the peaceful conversion of most of Bengal. There are variations in the application of Islamic beliefs in culture.[1]

Language and literature


Early Muslim literature is in Arabic, as that was the language of Muhammad's communities in Mecca and Medina. As the early history of the Muslim community was focused on establishing the religion of Islam, its literary output was religious in character. See the articles on Qur'an, Hadith, and Sirah, which formed the earliest literature of the Muslim community.

With the establishment of the Umayyad empire. secular Muslim literature developed. See The Book of One Thousand and One Nights. While having no religious content, this secular literature was spread by the Arabs all over their empires, and so became part of a widespread culture.


By the time of the Abbasid empire, Persian had become the second language of Muslim World. Much of the most famous Muslim literature was written in Persian, from Rumi in Anatolia, to Nizami in the Caucasus, to Jami in Samarkand and Amir Khusrow in Delhi.

Tabatabaee-ha House, Kashan Iran


From the 11th century, there was a growing body of Islamic literature in the Turkic languages. However, for centuries to come the official language in Turkish-speaking area's would remain Persian. In Anatolia, with the advent of the Seljuks, the practise and usage of Persian in the region would be strongly revived. A branch of the Seljuks, the Sultanate of Rum, took Persian language, art and letters to Anatolia.[2] They adopted Persian language as the official language of the empire.[3] The Ottomans, which can "roughly" be seen as their eventual successors, took this tradition over. Persian was the official court language of the empire, and for some time, the official language of the empire,[4] though the lingua franca amongst common people from the 15th/16th century would become Turkish as well as having laid an active "foundation" for the Turkic language as early as the 11th century (see Turkification). After a period of several centuries, Ottoman Turkish (which was highly Arabo-Persianised itself) had developed towards a fully accepted language of literature, which was even able to satisfy the demands of a scientific presentation.[5] However, the number of Persian and Arabic loanwords contained in those works increased at times up to 88%.[5] However, Turkish was proclaimed the official language of the Karamanids in the 13th century, though it didn't manage to become the official language in a wider area or larger empire until the advent of the Ottomans. With the establishment of the Ottoman Empire, Ottoman Turkish (a highly Arabo-Persianised version of Oghuz Turkic) grew in importance in both poetry and prose becoming, by the beginning of the 18th century, the official language of the Empire. Unlike India, where Persian remained the official and principal literary language of both Muslim and Hindu states until the 19th century.


The Badshahi Mosque in Lahore, Pakistan is one of the few classical examples of Mughal design and architecture in South Asia.

For a thousand years, India was a centre for Persian-Arabic Islamic literature. More Persian literature was produced in India than in the Iranian world. As late as the 20th century, Allama Iqbal chose Persian for some of his major poetic works.

In Bengal, the Baul tradition of mystic music and poetry merged Sufism with many local images. The most prominent poets were Hason Raja and Lalon Shah.

During the early 20th century, the liberal poet Kazi Nazrul Islam espoused intense spiritual rebellion against oppression, fascism and religious fundamentalism; and also wrote a highly acclaimed collection of Bengali ghazals. Sultana's Dream by Begum Rokeya, an Islamic feminist, is one earliest works of feminist science fiction.


In modern times, classification of writers by language is increasingly irrelevant. The Egyptian Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz has been translated into English and read across the world. Other writers, such as Orhan Pamuk, write directly in English for a wider international audience.


The Royal Opera House in Muscat, Oman. It is considered to be the first opera house linking Islamic culture with classical music.

The Indonesian puppet of Amir Hamzah, in Wayang theatre.

In the performing arts, the most popular skittle of theatre in the medieval Islamic world were puppet theatre (which included hand puppets, shadow plays and marionette productions) and live passion plays known as ta'ziya, where actors re-enact episodes from Muslim history. In particular, Shia Islamic plays revolved around the shaheed (martyrdom) of Ali's sons Hasan ibn Ali and Husayn ibn Ali. Live secular plays were known as akhraja, recorded in medieval adab literature, though they were less common than puppetry and ta'zieh theatre.[6]

One of the oldest, and most enduring, forms of puppet theatre is the Wayang of Indonesia. Although it narrates primarily pre-Islamic legends, it is also an important stage for Islamic epics such as the adventures of Amir Hamzah (pictured). Islamic Wayang is known as Wayang Sadat or Wayang Menak.

Karagoz, the Turkish Shadow Theatre has influenced puppetry widely in the region. It is thought to have passed from China by way of India. Later it was taken by the Mongols from the Chinese and transmitted to the Turkish peoples of Central Asia. Thus the art of Shadow Theater was brought to Anatolia by the Turkish people emigrating from Central Asia. Other scholars claim that shadow theater came to Anatolia in the 16th century from Egypt. The advocates of this view claim that when Yavuz Sultan Selim conquered Egypt in 1517, he saw shadow theatre performed during an extacy party put on in his honour. Yavuz Sultan Selim was so impressed with it that he took the puppeteer back to his palace in Istanbul. There his 21-year-old son, later Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent, developed an interest in the plays and watched them a great deal. Thus shadow theatre found its way into the Ottoman palaces.[7]

In other areas the style of shadow puppetry known as khayal al-zill – an intentionally metaphorical term whose meaning is best translated as ‘shadows of the imagination’ or ‘shadow of fancy' survives. This is a shadow play with live music ..”the accompaniment of drums, tambourines and flutes...also...“special effects” – smoke, fire, thunder, rattles, squeaks, thumps, and whatever else might elicit a laugh or a shudder from his audience”[8]

In Iran puppets are known to have existed much earlier than 1000, but initially only glove and string puppets were popular in Iran.[9] Other genres of puppetry emerged during the Qajar era (18th-19th century) as influences from Turkey spread to the region. Kheimeh Shab-Bazi is a Persian traditional puppet show which is performed in a small chamber by a musical performer and a storyteller called a morshed or naghal. These shows often take place alongside storytelling in traditional tea and coffee-houses (Ghahve-Khave). The dialogue takes place between the morshed and the puppets.[10] Puppetry remains very popular in Iran, the touring opera Rostam and Sohrab puppet opera being a recent example.[11]


See articles on Eid ul-Fitr, Eid ul-Adha, Ashurah (see also Hosay and Tabuik), Mawlid, Lailat al Miraj and Shab-e-baraat.


Marriage in Islam is considered to be of the utmost importance. Muhammad stated that "marriage is half of religion"; there are numerous hadiths lauding the importance of marriage and family.

In Islam, marriage is a legal bond and social contract between a man and a woman as prompted by the Shari'a.

Family Values

In Islam, the role of the family is very important. The Qu'ran places great importance on respecting elders, and offtentimes, grandparents will live in the same household with their children and grandchildren. Treating grandparents with kindness and respect comes before all else, except for the practice of tawhid, which is the worship of God.[12] There is also the belief that a lot can be learned from having three generations living under the same roof. By having household members treat and assist grandparents will strengthen the bond within the family, and within oneself. Extended family also plays a crucial role. In historic times in Islamic culture, families often lived near one another. This is not necessarily true in our society today, as families may live farther away from each other due to demands in jobs and other commitments. However, the idea of a close family bond is still present in Islamic culture even with these modern changes, and family is ultimately seen as a great source of help during times of conflict within an immediate family. For example, during times of dispute between a husband and wife, immediate family members, one from each side, are called in to serve as moderators. [12]


"Wayang Kulit", the Indonesian art of shadow puppetry, reflects a melding of indigenous and Islamic sensibilities.
"Advice of the Ascetic", a 16th-century Persian miniature housed in Tehran's Golestan Palace.

Islamic art, a part of the Islamic studies, has throughout history been mainly abstract and decorative, portraying geometric, floral, Arabesque, and calligraphic designs. Unlike the strong tradition of portraying the human figure in Christian art, Islamic art often does not include depictions of living things, including human beings.

Islamic art is centered usually around Allah, and since Allah cannot be represented by imagery ["All you believe him to be, he is not"], geometric patterns are used. The patterns are similar to the Arabesque style, which also involves repeating geometric designs, but is not necessarily used to express ideals of order and nature.


Forbidden to paint living things and taught to revere the Qur'an, Islamic artists developed Arabic calligraphy into an art form. Calligraphers have long drawn from the Qur'an or proverbs as art, using the flowing Arabic language to express the beauty they perceive in the verses of Qur'an.

Martial arts in Muslim Countries/Cultures


The Great Mosque of Kairouan also called the Mosque of Uqba is at the same time the oldest mosque in North Africa (founded in 670 and still used as a place of worship) and one of the most important monuments of Islamic civilization,[13][14] situated in Kairouan, Tunisia.
The fortress-palace of Alhambra, built in the 11th century, is a large monument and a popular tourist attraction
Northeast entrance to Dehli's Jama Masjid.
Istanbul's Sultan Ahmed Mosque was completed in 1616.

Elements of Islamic style

Islamic architecture may be identified with the following design elements, which were inherited from the first mosque built by Muhammad in Medina, as well as from other pre-Islamic features adapted from churches and synagogues.

  • Large courtyards often merged with a central prayer hall (originally a feature of the Masjid al-Nabawi).
  • Minarets or towers (which were originally used as torch-lit watchtowers for example in the Great Mosque of Damascus; hence the derivation of the word from the Arabic nur, meaning "light"). The oldest standing minaret in the world is the minaret of the Great Mosque of Kairouan (in Tunisia);[15][16] erected between the 8th and the 9th century, it is a majestic square tower consisting of three superimposed tiers of gradual size and decor.
  • A mihrab or niche on an inside wall indicating the direction to Mecca. This may have been derived from previous uses of niches for the setting of the torah scrolls in Jewish synagogues or Mehrab (Persian: مِهراب) of Persian Mitraism culture or the haikal of Coptic churches.
  • Domes (the earliest Islamic use of which was in the 8th-century mosque of Medina).
  • Use of iwans to intermediate between different sections.
  • Use of geometric shapes and repetitive art (arabesque).
  • Use of decorative Arabic calligraphy.
  • Use of symmetry.
  • Ablution fountains.
  • Use of bright color.
  • Focus on the interior space of a building rather than the exterior.


Common interpretations of Islamic architecture include the following:

  • The concept of Allah's infinite power is evoked by designs with repeating themes which suggest infinity.
  • Human and animal forms are rarely depicted in decorative art as Allah's work is matchless. Foliage is a frequent motif but typically stylized or simplified for the same reason.
  • Calligraphy is used to enhance the interior of a building by providing quotations from the Qur'an.
  • Islamic architecture has been called the "architecture of the veil" because the beauty lies in the inner spaces (courtyards and rooms) which are not visible from the outside (street view).
  • Use of impressive forms such as large domes, towering minarets, and large courtyards are intended to convey power.


Many Muslims are very familiar to listening to music. The classic heartland of Islam is Arabia as well as other parts of the Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia. Because Islam is a multicultural religion, the musical expression of its adherents is diverse.

The Seljuk Turks, a nomadic tribe that converted to Islam, conquered Anatolia (now Turkey), and held the Caliphate as the Ottoman Empire, also had a strong influence on Islamic music. See:

Sub-Saharan Africa, India, and the Malay Archipelago also have large Muslim populations, but these areas have had less influence than the heartland on the various traditions of Islamic music.

South India: Mappila Songs, Duff Muttu

All these regions were connected by trade long before the Islamic conquests of the 7th century and later, and it is likely that musical styles traveled the same routes as trade goods. However, lacking recordings, we can only speculate as to the pre-Islamic music of these areas. Islam must have had a great influence on music, as it united vast areas under the first caliphs, and facilitated trade between distant lands. Certainly the Sufis, brotherhoods of Muslim mystics, spread their music far and wide.

Notes and references

  1. ^ Minds unmade; A new survey of global Muslim opinion. Don’t expect consistency May, 2013 The Economist
  2. ^ Sigfried J. de Laet. History of Humanity: From the seventh to the sixteenth century UNESCO, 1994. ISBN 9231028138 p 734
  3. ^ Ga ́bor A ́goston,Bruce Alan Masters. Encyclopedia of the Ottoman Empire Infobase Publishing, 1 jan. 2009 ISBN 1438110251 p 322
  4. ^ Doris Wastl-Walter. The Ashgate Research Companion to Border Studies Ashgate Publishing, Ltd., 2011 ISBN 0754674061 p 409
  5. ^ a b Bertold Spuler. Persian Historiography & Geography Pustaka Nasional Pte Ltd ISBN 9971774887 p 69
  6. ^ Moreh, Shmuel (1986), "Live Theatre in Medieval Islam", in David Ayalon, Moshe Sharon, Studies in Islamic History and Civilization,  
  7. ^ Tradition Folk The Site by Hayali Mustafa Mutlu
  8. ^ Article Saudi Aramco World 1999/John Feeney
  9. ^ The History of Theatre in Iran: Willem Floor:ISBN 0-934211-29-9: Mage 2005
  10. ^ Mehr News Agency 7.7.07 http://www.mehrnews
  11. ^ Iran Daily 1.3.06
  12. ^ a b Bakar, O. (2011). FAMILY VALUES, THE FAMILY INSTITUTION, AND THE CHALLENGES OF THE TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY: AN ISLAMIC PERSPECTIVE1. Islam and Civilisational Renewal, 3(1), 12-36,242-243. Retrieved from
  13. ^ Hans Kung, ''Tracing the Way : Spiritual Dimensions of the World Religions'', Continuum International Publishing Group, 2006, page 248. Retrieved 2014-03-16. 
  14. ^ "Kairouan Capital of Political Power and Learning in the Ifriqiya". Muslim Heritage. Retrieved 2014-03-16. 
  15. ^ Titus Burckhardt, ''Art of Islam, Language and Meaning : Commemorative Edition''. World Wisdom. 2009. p. 128. Retrieved 2014-03-16. 
  16. ^ Linda Kay Davidson and David Martin Gitlitz, ''Pilgrimage: from the Ganges to Graceland : an encyclopedia'', Volume 1. ABC-CLIO. 2002. p. 302. Retrieved 2014-03-16. 

Further reading

  • Rosenthal, Franz (1975). The Classical Heritage in Islam, in series, Arabic Thought and Culture. Trans. from the German by Emilie and Jenny Marmorstein. [Pbk. ed.]. London: Routledge, 1992. xx, 298 p., sparsely ill. N.B.: "First published in English in 1975 by Routledge & Kegan, Paul" in the hardcover ed. ISBN 0-415-07693-5
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