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It is often said that Islam bans images of people or animals, but this is false. The Koran itself has very little to say on the subject and the Traditions of the Prophet are open to various interpretations. As Muslims believe that God is unique and without associate, He cannot of course be represented. As He is worshipped directly without intercessors, images of saints, as in Christian or Buddhist art, have no place in Islam. As the Koran is not a narrative like the Torah or the Gospels, there is little reason for Muslims to tell religious stories through pictures.

Instead, Islamic religious art has focused on the glorification of God's word, specifically by writing it beautifully, and accompanying the Arabic script with geometric and floral designs known as arabesques, in which plants grow according to the laws of geometry rather than nature. Some people believe that these designs have deep spiritual and mystical meaning, while others believe they are simply beautiful patterns. Believers are free to see in these designs whatever they like — this sense of ambiguity is one of the hallmarks of Islamic art. Examples of religious art range from beautifully calligraphied manuscripts of the Koran to intricately carved and inlaid pulpits or minbars, from which the Friday sermon is given in the mosque.

Islamic secular art, on the other hand, might or might not have representations of living beings, depending on the local cultural traditions and the preferences of the artist and patron. For example, North Africans have generally shown little taste for images, while Iranians have always enjoyed them, sometimes even in religious settings.

Much of Islamic secular art, like religious art, is decorated only with geometric and vegetal patterns and inscriptions, but many objects, whether glazed ceramics, carved ivories, intricately woven silks, or luxurious carpets, are decorated with lively human and animal figures set individually or in scenes. Unlike much Christian art, which largely developed for the use of the Church, Islamic secular art has been characterized by the transformation of everyday objects, whether bowls for eating or carpets and cushions to sit on, into things of transcendent beauty.

Given the Islamic fascination with God's word, the art of the book has always been one of the favorite forms of Islamic art, and calligraphers in the Islamic lands have the fame accorded painters and sculptors in the West. Although transcribing the Koran and decorating the pages with beautiful designs was always revered, calligraphers and painters, particularly in Iran, India and Turkey, also prepared manuscripts of epic and lyric poetry, history and geography with beautiful calligraphy and exquisite miniatures.