Posted by R. John Howe on 09-07-2003 10:44 PM:

Baker on The Islamic Context of Moroccan Weaving

Dear folks –

I have looked a bit today into Patricia Baker’s book on “Islamic Textiles.” Baker is clearly a westerner and it may be that like a patient in a Freudian therapy session will unavoidably get it wrong, perhaps only providing additional instances of the original complaint of western misunderstanding. But in some circles, her work is admired.

Since our task here is to better understand how Moroccan Muslims might have undertaken their weavings in part as an expression of their religious beliefs, it seemed to me that it might be useful to know (since there are many faces of Islam) what specific species of it likely provided/provides such context. And if we could detect some of the applicable rules, that would be even better.

Here are a few quotes from Baker’s text:

“For guidance a Muslim will turn to the Quran and then to the collection of the Prophet’s pronouncements (“hadith,” generally translated as “Traditions). The “hadith” was gathered and verified during the ninth century, and it is a responsibility of the “ulama” (Muslim theologians, jurists and teachers) to advise and adjudicate on the sometimes seemingly conflicting sayings. In the Sunni community there are four schools of legal interpretation: the Hanbali (prevalent in Saudi Arabia), the Maliki (Africa and South-East Asia), the Shafii (Eygpt and Syria) and Hanafi (Turkey and Central Asia).”

This would seem to suggest that in a discussion of Moroccan textiles, it is the Maliki school of Islamic legal interpretation that is most relevant.

Next, Baker on some general Islamic history:

“On the Prophet’s sudden death in AD 632, one of his close companions was elected by the elders to act as caliph (khalifa: deputy) to lead the community, and this procedure was followed thre more times…The selection of “Ali” the cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet, as the fourth caliph in AD 656, was disputed by the governor of Syria, Muawiya of the Umayyad family. On Ali’s assassination in 661 he assumed the caliph…These events marked a break in the Muslim community, with the supporters of Ali (shiat Ali: the party of Ali) on one side and those who accepted Muawiya as caliph on the other…Those Muslims who accepted Umayyad rule maintained that the prophetic succession ended with Mohammed…Under the Umayyads (661-750) these boundaries (ed. Syria, Eygpt, Iran and Iraq were already Muslim beforehand) were pushed forward along the North African coastline and deep into the Iberian peninsula.”

So the Moroccans are Sunni Muslims of the Maliki school of interpretation.

Baker on seeming implications for Muslims that might bear on weaving:

“Every aspect of a Muslim’s life is theoretically governed or guided by divine law, the “Sharia,” and thus there is advice relating to dress, fabric and colour as well as guidelines on the issue of figural representation…Sunnit hadith generally holds that all figural representations, human and animal are proscribed…Whether woven textiles are included in the proscription has been debated by the ulama through the centuries…”

Here is Baker on some Sunni rules concerning fabrics:

Silk: “…theologians preferred to wear other fabrics. Silk may be employed for men’s wear, but the amount and positioning depend on the school of law concerned…All four schools agree that silk mixtures (that is, silk warp and another yarn as weft) may be worn in battle, and indeed Maliki scholars allow such fabrics at all times. Three rulings advise against sitting or leaning on silk covers, but…Hanafi interpretations permit the practice.”

Baker on Sunni rules concerning color:

“…White is considered in Islamic law as most fitting for Mulim men…, it is the color for the Hajj and Muslim burial attire, except for those killed in battle who may be buried as they fell…”

Green is the colour “associated with angels and gardens of Paradise…with the descendants of the Prophet…” and “as the colour of Islam.”

“Attitudes could and did change over time. In his youth the Prophet Mohammed has liked red but later he denounced it as Satan’s colour, although his wife Aisha continued to wear it. In the later medieval Islamic world red was linked with Mars, the planet of war, blood, passion and love and in both Seljuk and Ottoman convention it was the bridal colour, however in Mamluk Eygpt it was required dress for prostitutes.”

“According to Sunni hadith yellow was worn by non-Muslims in the Phophet’s lifetime, and so along with blue, red and black it was occasionally stipulated for outdoor dress for non-Muslims (dhimmis). In eighth century Islamic society yellow signified a hedonistic lifestyle, but 700 years later the wearing of yellow shoes was a privilege bestowed on certain Ottoman court officials.”

“The idea of conducting official business and receiving guests in curtained and draped surroundings quickly percolated through Islamic society…North African sillks were also popular.”

Apparent Islamic influence on motifs in fabrics:

“An eleventh century silk made into a chasuble for the Quintanaortuna church, near Burgos in Spain, develops the theme of connecting roundels containing heraldic quadrupeds. Its inscription probably refers to “Ali, the Almoravid ruler of North Africa and Iberia from 1106 to 1142.”

That’s what Baker’s book seems to have that bears potentially on this salon.

Does it add anything or add up to anything? Well, we at least know the specific school of Islamic interpretation among the Sunnis that seems most relevant to Moroccan weaving, but beyond that, I don’t know.


R. John Howe

Posted by R. John Howe on 09-07-2003 11:28 PM:

Dear folks -

Here is one additional snippet from Patricia Baker's book "Islamic Textiles." This one make no claim to apply specifically to Moroccan textiles.

"Under Islamic law spinners and weavers were classed alongside money-changers, tanners (and thus presumably some dyers), gold and silversmiths, singers and dancers: that is, their trade placed them in some ethical dilemma, say, exposure to ritually polluting stuffs [for example, the use of urine in tanning and the preparation of "asb" (ikat) fabrics.] Conversely, the occupations of bleaching, tailoring and dealing in linen stuffs were highly commended by medieval Islamic philosophers. It is said that Khadija, the first wife of the Prophet, was a linen merchant.

It was understood that certain crafts required a greater level of skill than others. A block-printer was apprenticed for four years whereas a medieval trainee weaver was bound for four months."

I am not sure what to conclude from this but it appears that weaving, in this comparison, was a less valued occupation in the Islamic ranking of commendable and less commendable jobs.


R. John Howe

Posted by Filiberto Boncompagni on 09-08-2003 03:46 AM:

Thank you John for this contribution.

I have an article, "Textiles and Colours in Islamic World" by Mandana Barkeshli, curator of textiles at "The Islamic Art Museum Malaysia" in Kuala Lumpur.

The passage on colors is very similar to Baker’s words - I guess one quoted the other.
Here’s some more:

"Black became the identifying colour of the Abbasid dynasty, with the Abbasids known in Byzantium and China as "black-robed ones". Sunni theologians continue to wear black on formal occasions, while in the Shi'i Islamic world, black, the colour of mourning and retribution, is also considered powerful protection against the evil eye. This is a shared trait with turquoise blue, which since the 14th century, has been a mourning colour in Central Asia."

The following is also of interest, not for the understanding of Moroccan textiles but for general knowledge:

"Besides considerations of utility and availability of raw materials, people also derived regional or national identity from their most characteristic textiles. Different regions were known for their particular textile contributions. In Egypt, during the Fatimid rule, silk tapestry bands with gold thread were introduced to the weave of their already renowned linens. The finest silks of the Islamic world were produced during the 9th-10th century in the Bukhara region of Uzbekistan, with the production of the Zandanachi cloth, which originated from the village of Zandana, and was developed for European export.
From the 10th to the 11th century, the most significant centres of silk production was Iran, with silk also produced in Baghdad, Egypt and Muslim Spain.
Despite Byzantine shipping blockades, the silks quickly spread to Europe and eventually had a profound influence on Byzantine, Sicilian and Italian weavers and embroideries".

More on cross-cultural influences:

"The most significant influences of Western textiles and dress in the Islamic world occurred during the Ottoman reign (14th-18th century). Contemporary Italian patterned fabrics were immensely popular, with thousands of ducats spent on purchasing luxury fabrics from the Italian states, from as early as the reign of Mehmed II (1451-81 AD). Imperial robes were tailored from 16th century Italian velvets and silks, while others employed Italian-style motifs and patterns. Reciprocally, Ottoman textiles had an influence on the design of various Italian textiles. The ogee lattice and meandering stem motifs, as well as certain floral motifs, such as the carnation, pomegranate and tulip, were incorporated into designs of textiles from Lucca and Florence, the great centers of silk production in Italy."



Posted by Muhammad Thompson on 09-08-2003 06:39 PM:

Thanks John, we have not come across Baker's text and will try and read it.

There are some very useful sections of the hadith for those interested in Islamic textiles and muslim tastes and mores - but perhaps we should say a little about what the hadith are, or at least suggest people read about the hadith and Islamic scholarship before diving into the texts themselves, (The Broken Chain by A A Malik, 2001 might be of interest).

The traditions of The Prophet Muhammad, the hadith, are collections of the things said and done by the Prophet as these have been related by his contemporaries and passed down from one scholar to the next. They are very important Islamic texts and allow muslims to follow The Prophet's example in all, important respects. Knowledge of and application of these precedents - which can have a legal status in Islam - is the work of scholars; we are not scholars.

The hadith are now published in four main collections. Imam Al-Bukhari's collection includes the Book of Dress (volume 7, chapter 72) which includes many of the events in the Prophet's life which resulted in the colour preferences and attitudes towards pattern and picture which your extracts from Baker refer to.

Within this chapter you will also find the incidents which provide the foundation for the prohibition of pictures. The makers of pictures will receive the severest punishment on the Day of Judgement. The Prophet refused to enter houses or use garments or furnishings which were decorated by images of creatures. When The Prophet prayed he disliked patterned clothes and materials to be in view since they were a distraction.

TurkoTek contributore will notice straight away that muslims have often not, in their architecture and arts generally, always followed this lead and the use of pictures or statues of animals is quite common. But our interest here is more confined to the arts of the Moroccan muslims, and even more particularly to the Berbers or Amazigh tribes which have produced kilims throughout north Africa.

I think there are many different kinds of muslim in Morocco - there is the distinction drawn between Moroccan Arabs and Berbers which has had a huge social and historical impact; the majority are probably sunni muslim in outlook; the sufi saints and the Berber muslim leaders have played important historical roles. We have suggested elsewhere that Martin Ling's book on the Algerian Sufi (sufism = Islamic mysticism) Shaykh Al Alawi is an interesting view into the religious lives of muslim men in north Africa.

The history of the Berbers written by Michael Brett and Elizabeth Fentress, (The Berbers, (Blackwell, 1997) is also an interesting guide to this people united by a common language, which spans north Africa and the Sahara. (So, "Moroccan carpets" is another label of convenience since the Berbers who are responsible for most of their production, are spread thoughout the Maghreb.)

Posted by R. John Howe on 09-08-2003 07:09 PM:

Mr. Thompson -

Patricia Baker's book is likely out of print but easy to obtain on sources like the Advanced Book Exchange.

Here is link to a specific copy in the U.S. (I don't know where you are.)


R. John Howe

Posted by Filiberto Boncompagni on 09-09-2003 05:24 AM:


Dear All,

This morning I casually discovered this website:

Interesting if you look for resources on Islamic Art but you are not willing to buy a book.

Of particular interest are the link to Islamic Architecture (that takes you to some decorative arts too):

and the one on Arabic Calligraphy:

The site contains also general and historical information on Islam.

I was really surprised by the examples of "Kufi" calligraphy in this page:

They look so much like decorations that I would have never suspected they are actually words. One never stops learning…



Posted by Steve Price on 09-16-2003 01:19 PM:

Hi People

Muhammad and I have had some fairly pointed exchanges by e-mail in the past few days, and he has objected to my saying that he asserted that Islam includes "a strict prohibition on the depiction of the human". He used this as an example of how his statements have been distorted by me and others.

Here is an extract from Muhammad's earlier post in this thread:
The traditions of The Prophet Muhammad, the hadith, are collections of the things said and done by the Prophet ... passed down from one scholar to the next. They are very important Islamic texts and allow muslims to follow The Prophet's example in all, important respects. ... Imam Al-Bukhari's collection includes ... the incidents which provide the foundation for the prohibition of pictures. The makers of pictures will receive the severest punishment on the Day of Judgement.

Muhammad is correct, this doesn't say that depicting humans is "strictly prohibited." It only says that it is prohibited and that those who violate the prohibition will receive the severest punishment on the Day of Judgment. I stand corrected and hope that this clears up any misunderstanding that I caused.


Steve Price

Posted by Muhammad Thompson on 09-21-2003 01:06 AM:

correcting the correction

........ the substitution of "human" for "picture" is the non-trivial distortion which I am sure Steve intended to bring to readers' attention in this last post.

Posted by Stephen Louw on 09-21-2003 04:26 AM:

There is a useful article on Tasweer in Hali 116 (2001) by Richard Freeland. Interestingly, Freeland points to the "aversion to images" in other religions and their art forms, including early Buddist art, Christianity (especially the iconoclasm movement of the 8th and 9th centuries) and Judaism (from which concerns with pictorial representation stemmed originally).

Of interest to our concerns, Freeland points out that "there is a noticeable distinction between art in a religious setting and art in a secular or social environment. Some hadiths [sayings of the Prophet] allow for the secular use of images, for example the report that Mohammed objected to curtains decorated with living things in the house but was satisfied when the curtains were cut up for cushion covers. They were acceptable because of their different orientation as cushions made them unlikely objects of prayer" (p.184).

Note, this does not imply a strict distinction between secular and religious art – which is impossible – but, rather, a comment on the usages to which beautifully decorated things and art is put. It is only in extreme doctrinaire cases, which are the exception rather than the rule, that all pictorial images are treated as idolatrous.

Stephen Louw

Posted by Steve Price on 09-21-2003 08:00 AM:

Hi Muhammad

You are right. You never said depicting images of humans is forbidden. You said making pictures are forbidden. It didn't say "strictly forbidden", it said forbidden upon pain of the most severe punishment on the Day of Judgment. I take this as meaning that it's forbidden to the maximal extent that forbidding anything is possible. If "strictly forbidden" has to be stronger than that, I can scarcely imagine what it might be.

I don't mean to be picking nits, but I don't see anything in your text ( the one from which I extracted a part to quote) that says it's OK to make pictures of humans. It's customary (and logically impeccable) to extract specifics from general rules and laws. That's the only practical way to have rules and laws. So if making pictures is forbidden, making pictures of humans is forbidden. It seems to me that to ignore this is a non-trivial distortion of what you said.


Steve Price

Posted by R. John Howe on 09-23-2003 01:38 PM:

Dear folks -

Stephen Louw has suggested above that it might be the "orientation" of a work of art with an image that made it acceptable or unacceptable to some Muslim authorities.

The English student of such things, whom I paraphrased in another thread, but whose book (which is here in my apartment) I cannot find at the moment, suggested that it was also the "use" to which the object so decorated was put. Again the chief concern seems to have been to avoid infringing on God's creative function and idolatry. "Use" might provide a clearer rule than would "orientation." (Stephen also used "use" in his post but seemed to shift to "orientation" at its end.)

To take the pillows example. It would be the fact that one would sit on them that would suggest clearly that they were not intended as an item of devotion. Similarly, this same authority argued that rugs with images hung on the walls was forbidden but the same such rug might be permitted on the floor where it would be walked on. Walking on things seems often in Islamic societies to entail denigration of them. Note that some Iraqis displayed their disrespect, even possibly their hatred of Sadam Hussein by striking his fallen statue with their shoes.

I think it likely that Stephen is right about "orientation" but "use" seems even clearer to me. Perhaps he agrees and there is no distinction intended in his seeming distinction.


R. John Howe

Posted by Steve Price on 09-23-2003 02:45 PM:

Hi John

The common conception among us westerners is that the Islamic ban on images (albeit, not always followed) had to do with avoiding idolatry, particularly if the images were of humans.

The passage Muhammad presented above, part of which I quoted and which I think clearly includes prohibition of images of humans, emphasizes a different reason - images are distractions. Here's the relevant section from his post, which cites an authoritative source:
The makers of pictures will receive the severest punishment on the Day of Judgement. The Prophet refused to enter houses or use garments or furnishings which were decorated by images of creatures. When The Prophet prayed he disliked patterned clothes and materials to be in view since they were a distraction.

My interpretation of this (correct? incorrect?) is that images of creatures (humans and other members of the animal kingdom) were prohibited. Patterns, on the other hand (and I presume that things like stylized plants and vines are in this category), were permitted, although the Prophet Mohammed disliked having them in view when he prayed because they were a distraction.

My understanding of the basis for concealing women behind their clothing and separating them from men in the mosques is that it is also to minimize distractions. Women and men are separated in orthodox Jewish synagogues, probably for the same reason (historically speaking).


Steve Price

Posted by Stephen Louw on 09-23-2003 05:46 PM:

Hi John and Steve,

Just to clarify, the term "orientation" is Freeland's, not mine. Like John I prefer the term "use", although I don’t think its that critical.

On Tasweer generally, I don’t know enough about Islam to have a strong opinion about what it implies or prohibits. Certainly, the hadiths are not clear or consistent, and, in any case, I am not sure how much weight to attribute to these sayings as components of the Islamic faith.

Some art that was clearly patronised by great Muslim leaders like Akbar deliberately used human images: indeed, in one well-known carpet in the LA County museum, this included an image of a courtier holding a wine glass (c.f. Hali Annual 1994, p.78).

This latter practice (drinking wine) is clearly prohibited in Islam, and drinking is not the subject of debate amongst Islamic scholars. Yet Akbar chose to present this (or, at least, allowed his state-artists to do so) as an image reflective of his court and its ethos. Indeed, he took wives from other faiths to make a similar point about tolerance and religious pluralism.

So I would caution about reading too much into the hadiths about pictorial images cited by Muhammad. I don't think the issue of pictorial representation is that clear at all and, as a political scientist, not a scholar of religion, my suspicion is that the concern with pictorial representation is an essentially modern concern, one strand among many within the pluralist traditions of Islam that have been seized upon by anti-modernist Muslims, as opposed to a clear and uncontroversial core doctrine. Much as wearing the veil is an essentially modern response to the problems of the al jahili society [the modern world that has lost its way], an attempt to re-affirm ones identity with the (imaginary) world of the caliphate of old, where religious and social life were (supposedly) integrated.