By: Sr. Kanwal Malik Saba

“Your work has an arabesque quality to it,” my teacher from the gifted Performing Arts High School Program, commented.

“It’s because I’m a Muslim, from Pakistan,” I explained. Call it second nature for most of us, but even as a teenager, I was always keen on highlighting my Muslim heritage.

This was a typical conversation that I had with almost all of my art teachers. They usually commented on the linear quality of my work due to its distinct style. This style was essential to my work because I had always been fascinated by Islamic art.

Consequently, the unique world of Islamic art can perhaps find its origins in the Abbasid Caliphate (750-1258). The Abbasid era led Muslims into a golden age where art and architecture flourished. Baghdad and Samarra (city north of Baghdad) brought forth new art techniques that gave Muslims a new identity in the world of creativity. From Samarra, a geometric abstract pattern technique emerged, which was later coined by the West as “arabesque”. This unique technique, that is ornamental and flowing, evolved into design work later used in metal, wood and pottery (Yalman, 2001).

Samarra also gave the Muslim world the magnificent technique of “luster painting,” which resembled a glittering effect quite like metal. This technique later spread to Egypt, Syria and Iran. Moreover, luster painting paved the path for ceramic décor in the western culture (Yalman, 2001).

My other major influence came from the art of the Mughal Dynasty from the Indian subcontinent. Akbar, who reigned from 1556-1605, was the first real patron of the arts during the Mughal era. He established the production of manuscripts that portrayed elements of Muslim, Persian and even some European styles. After Akbar’s death, his son Jahangir (r. 1605-27), took particular interest in developing the arts through animal and plant studies. Jahangir was also an avid promoter of calligraphy and portraiture (Metropolitan Museum Website, 2014).

Although my busy life has postponed the time to draw, my modern day influence is probably Chughtai, a famous artist from Pakistan. He is a favorite because his art is resonant with Islamic and Mughal influence. His work included water colors, etchings and prints as well.

Islamic art has deep roots in the Arab and Southeast Asian worlds. Art emerging from the Islamic background is a monumental facet of our history. It is a conspicuous part of our story that needs to be regaled to the coming generations through our patronage.

In other words, it is important we cultivate art and design in our Muslim youth. Instead of walking around with an iPad or an iPod, or ignoring the arts, our children need to be exploring their creative sides through drawing and painting.

So the next time, your child wants to be an artist…smile…because it’s a royal thing!!


The Metropolitan Museum of Art Website. (2014).

Retrieved from:

Yalman, Suzan. Based on original work by Linda Komaroff. "The Art of the Abbasid Period (750–1258)". In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. (October 2001).

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