Qantara Qantara

The Textile Arts

In Islam

Muslims depended on the textile arts for everything from everyday clothing and furniture to the satisfaction of their refined taste in luxury and splendour. Better than any other artistic domain, the textile arts expressed the Muslims’ art de vivre and sense of beauty; furthermore, it was an art based on the marvellous and the sacred.

In line with Semitic custom and the example given by the Prophet, Muslims are expected to wear long and flowing garments. Robes, cloaks, turbans and shawls confer them with majesty and a supplement to the soul, raising them above the other beings of Creation. On this point, as on many others, Muslims, Jews and Eastern Christians have much in common. This simple and dignified dress was also a means for expressing power. A whole hierarchy grew out of the quality and finery of a garment, even if its components were fixed. During the caliphate period, an institution inspired by Byzantine and Sassanid models established a close link between textiles and power, giving rise to the term tirâz: a workshop that manufactures vestments for a sovereign, a true monopoly of the State, comparable to currency or paper. The word tirâz, connected to the idea of embroidery, is of Persian origin and applies primarily to the epigraphic border inscribed with the name of the ruling caliph, his titles and praises. By extension, it designates the cloth that carries these bands, and finally the royal manufacture of its production. The dâr al-tirâz could be private (khâssa), set up within the complex of the palace, or public (‘âmma). In the latter case, the proceeds from its production went to the Treasury and represented a significant source of revenue. The tirâz workshops turned out the “khila”, the robe of honour distributed to the caliph’s subjects two times a year (the sole personal possession a Muslim could carry to his grave). Its other productions—sumptuous vestments and fabrics—satisfied a politics based on prestige and gifts.  

During the Middle Ages, furniture was essentially composed of textiles: covers, cushions, carpets, wall hangings and draperies, all part of life in the desert and the luxury of Byzantine and Sassanid monarchs.  The Arabs liked this ambivalence between a sedentary and nomadic lifestyle, a lifestyle that called for light materials. This is evident in the accessories of the life of the court. If the curtain that hid the caliph from his servants had an echo of life in the Sassanid palaces, the carpet that configured the area reserved for power, the draperies forming the inside rooms of large halls and the cushions for reclining on all recalled the tents of the patriarchs. Many chroniclers make reference to the cloth temples surrounded by a wall of linen, true cities of woven cloth, where Abbasids and Fatimids, alike, sought pleasure and rest. These rich cloth pavilions decorated with figurative motifs filled the boutiques of the palace. In Cairo, during the sacking of 1067, the dwelling of ’al-Mustansir turned up a staggering number of such pavilions. Sumptuous textile furnishings together with precious garments fabricated in the tirâz formed a significant build up of capital and were held in a sort of metallic cubicle, the “khizana”, an Arabic word that designates both a wardrobe and the Treasury, a reminder that salaries and remunerations often translated into fabric. We find a trace of this in the structure of large cities where the textile markets are never far from the banks. This luxury in textiles would reach a climax during festivities, such as those in Cairo celebrating the opening of the canal—an occasion for the prodigious display of carpets, parasols, banners of all kinds, horses’ trappings and livery.

This splendour was not without its religious connotations. Take the prayer rug, for instance, which is full of promise, displaying as it does a small mihrab or a mosque. Its symbolism consists in that prodigious territory it designates for devotion. Very different is the kiswa—a garment embroidered with pious phrases used for the Ka’ba, a robe of honour cut from some 700 m2 of precious cloth, turned out by the caliphal workshops and delivered to the sanctuary of Mecca. Here we enter into the mystical dimension of fabrics, for this cloth as well as shrouds and delicate funeral drapes with their fabulous figurations were capable of forming a sort of subtle body. The interlacing of the warp and weft has an immaterial aspect to it and hence it brings us one step “closer” to the Creator— different, in any case, from the immediate elements. It is in this sense that Islamic art, in particular architectural decoration, shares many traits with the aesthetic of textiles—the same two-dimensional stylised motifs, infinitely repeated. Hanging a veil over a supporting structure evokes an unstable and fragile world beyond the real, halfway between tangible form and the abstract number.

Faced with a technically weakened West after the Barbarian invasions and the protectionist silk trade of Byzantium, Muslim lands developed their own textile art and to a very high degree that matched their vibrant interest for the art. The circumstances were ripe: The conquests of the first centuries had joined in one block Spain, the Maghreb, the Byzantium Near East and the Sassanid Empire. A vigorous manufacturing activity thus fell into the hands of the Arabs—in Alexandria, Tyre and Antioch with their trade in twill—and that of the Fayums who specialised in linen cloth used as a ground weave in tapestries. This area of the trade thus opened up; natural resources circulated freely and a flourishing exchange of repertories and procedures ensued, along with the cultivation of textile fibres and plants used in dyeing.  Egypt and North Africa developed a culture of indigo and Spain saffron. Traditional textiles such as wool and linen began to evolve as new textiles entered into the picture such as cotton and silk, which propagated from East to West. Silkworm breeding in Byzantine Syria, launched by Justinian (6th c.), was acclimatised in the Spanish Levant and in the North of Sicily. In Andalusia it gave birth to an industry of luxury goods based in Almeria. The weaving of lampas, which appeared in Baghdad in the eleventh century, slowly entered the textile trade in Syria, Egypt and Spain and replaced that of the Samit. The Latin West followed suit. With the vibrant growth of cities following the Muslim expansion, the luxury of the courts and the needs of the army and the navy, textile production expanded rapidly. The new capitals of Fustat, Kairouan, Raqqada, Sabra Mansuriyya, Mahdia, Fez, Madinat al-Zahra, Cairo—and much later Marrakech—were among the centres that consumed and created textiles, having also the highest concentration of specialised labour.  In the markets, the muhtasib (the controller), his manual always handy, would keep a close watch on the quality of the textile goods in an effort to stabilise prices. His large lexicon of fabrics covered information from procedures, the places of fabrication and sales to details about decorative motifs. And while these terms are not exhaustive when it comes to identifying all of the techniques employed, they do reveal the impact and importance of this art in Muslim culture, a civilisation that is sometimes referred to as the civilisation of textiles.



In Islam

Maurice Lombard, Les textiles dans le monde musulman, VIIIe-XIIe

siècle, Paris 1978

Maurice Lombard, Espaces et réseaux du Haut Moyen Age, Paris 1972

Maurice Lombard, l’Islam dans sa première grandeur, VIIIe-XIe siècle, Paris, 1971

Nâsir-î- Khusraw, Safar Nameh, éd. et trad. Ch. Schefer, Paris 1881 (Amsterdam 1967)

D. Sourdel et J. Sourdel, La civilisation de l’islam classique, Paris 1968

R. Serjeant. Islamic Textiles, Material for a  History up to the Mongol Conquest, Beyrouth 1972,

Tabarî, La Chronique, Histoire des prophètes et des rois (Volume 2) Paris 1983, p. 200

Gaston Wiet, “Le Monde musulman, VIIe-XIIIe siècle” in Histoire générale des techniques publ. under the editorial direction of M. Daumas, I: Les origines de la civilisation technique, Paris, 1962.