The early history of Islamic pottery remains somewhat obscure and speculative as little evidence has survived. Apart from tiles which escaped destruction due to their use in architectural decoration of buildings and mosques, much early medieval pottery vanished.
Arthur Lane produced two books which made substantial contribution to understanding the history and merit of Muslim ceramics. The first book was dedicated to the study of early ceramics from the Abbasid period till the Seljuk times, sketching the various events which played a significant role in the rise and fall of particular styles. In his second work, Lane used the same rhetorical style adopted in the first book, this time devoting his attention to later periods from the Mongols to nineteenth century Iznik and Persian pottery.
Following Lane's works, numerous studies appeared. The most comprehensive works adopting a general view are those by R.L. Hobson, Ernst J. Grube, Richard Ettinghausen, and more recently Alan Caiger-Smith and Gesa Febervari. Additional contributions were made by those specializing in particular temporal or regional history of Muslim pottery such as Georges Marcais in his work on North Africa, Oliver Watson on Persia and J.R. Hallett on Abbasid Pottery. It seems clear that Muslims inherited the pottery craft from Mesopotamia, Persia, Egypt and other cultural regions. For example, the origin of glazed pottery has been traced to Egypt where it was first introduced during the fourth millennium BCE. From there it reached most parts of the near east, including Iran and Mesopotamia, in the form of alkaline glazed pottery.
Ceramics from the Islamic era are often divided into three sections:
During the Abbasid dynasty pottery production gained momentum, largely using tin glazes mostly in the form of opaque white glaze. Some historians, such as Lane, attribute the rise of such industry to Chinese influence. Evidence from Muslim manuscripts, such as Akhbar al-Sin wa al-Hind (circa 851) and Ibn Kurdadhbih’s Book of Roads and Provinces (846-885), suggest that trade with China was firmly established. Lane also referred to the passage in a work written by Muhammad ibn al-Husayn al-Baihaki, (circa 1059) where he stated that the governor of Khurasan, ‘Ali ibn ‘Isa, sent as a present to the Caliph Harun al-Rashid (786-809), “twenty pieces of Chinese Imperial porcelain (Chini faghfuri), the like of which had never been seen at a Caliph’s court before, in addition to 2,000 other pieces of porcelain”.
According to Lane, the influence of Chinese pottery progressed in three main phases. The first contact with China took place in 751 when the Arabs defeated the Chinese at the Battle of Talas. It has been argued that imprisoned Chinese potters and paper makers could have taught the Muslims the art of pottery and paper-making. In 800’s Chinese stoneware and porcelain reached the Abbasids.
The second phase took place in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, a period noted for the decline of pottery industry following the fall of the Seljuk dynasty. This period also saw the invasion of the Mongols who brought Chinese pottery traditions.
The third phase was in the fifteenth century, when much of this influence came through imports made from Tang, Song and Ming dynasties at the hand of Zheng He. The influence of ceramics from the Tang dynasty can be seen on lustrewares, produced by Mesopotamian potters, and on some early white wares excavated at Samarra (in modern-day Iraq). Ceramics from this period were excavated at Nishapur (in modern-day Iran) and Samarkand (in modern-day Uzbekistan).
The Hispano-Moresque style emerged in Andalusia in the 8th century, under the Fatimids. This was a style of Islamic pottery created in Islamic Spain, after the Moors had introduced two ceramic techniques to Europe: glazing with an opaque white tin-glaze, and painting in metallic lusters. Hispano-Moresque ware was distinguished from the pottery of Christendom by the Islamic character of it decoration.
From the eighth to eighteenth centuries, the use of glazed ceramics was prevalent in Islamic art, usually assuming the form of elaborate pottery. Tin-opacified glazing, for the production of tin-glazed pottery, was one of the earliest new technologies developed by the Islamic potters. The first Islamic opaque glazes can be found as blue-painted ware in Basra, dating to around the 8th century. Another significant contribution was the development of stonepaste ceramics, originating from 9th century Iraq. It was a vitreous or semivitreous ceramic ware of fine texture, made primarily from non-refactory fire clay.
The first industrial factory complex for glass and pottery production was built in Ar-Raqqah, Syria, in the 8th century. Extensive experimentation was carried out at the complex, which was two kilometres in length, and a variety of innovative high-purity glass were developed there. Two other similar complexes have also been discovered, and nearly three hundred new chemical recipes for glass are known to have been produced at all three sites. Other centers for innovative ceramic pottery in the Islamic world included Fustat (from 975 to 1075), Damascus (from 1100 to around 1600) and Tabriz (from 1470 to 1550).
Lustreware was invented in Iraq by the Arabian chemist Jabir ibn Hayyan (Geber), who applied it to ceramic glazes in the 8th century during the Abbasid caliphate. The technique soon became popular in Persia from the 9th century, and lusterware was later produced in Egypt during the Fatimid caliphate in the 10th-12th centuries. While the production of lusterware continued in the Middle East, it spread to Europe—first to Al-Andalus, notably at Malaga, and then to Italy, where it was used to enhance maiolica.
Another innovation was the albarello, a type of maiolica earthenware jar originally designed to hold apothecaries' ointments and dry drugs. The development of this type of pharmacy jar had its roots in the Islamic Middle East. Brought to Italy by Hispano-Moresque traders, the earliest Italian examples were produced in Florence in the 15th century.
Beginning in the early ninth century, Muslim ceramic production gradually developed. This led to the establishment of a reputable industry in the East (Iraq) which later spread to the rest of the Muslim world. In the account of Ibn Naji (circa 1016) the Caliph sent, in addition to tiles, “a man from Baghdad” to Qairawan to produce lustre tiles for the mihrab of the Great Mosque (still well preserved). Georges Marcais suggested that Iraqi potters indeed came to Quairawan. The arrival of this Baghdadi potter must have led to the establishment of a satellite centre for the production of ceramics in Quairawan, but no information has yet been developed to confirm or deny this suggestion.
In the East, evidence shows that a production centre was set up in Samarkand under the Samanid dynasty who ruled this region and parts of Persia between 874 and 999 C.E. The most highly regarded technique of this centre is the use of calligraphy in the decoration of vessels.
The events leading to the collapse of the Fatimid reign in 1171 caused ceramic production to move out to new centres, via processes similar to those described above with respect to Iraq. As a result, Persia became a centre of revival under the Seljuk rule (1038-1327). This is not coincidental as the Seljuks expanded their rule over Persia, Iraq, Syria, and Palestine, as well as Anatolia and Muslim Asia Minor. All of these had been, for some considerable time, centres of old pottery.
The Seljuks brought new and fresh inspiration to the Muslim world, attracting artists, craftsmen and potters from all regions including Egypt. In addition to continuing the production of similar (although more refined) tin and lustre glaze ceramics, the Seljuks (in Persia) were credited for the introduction of a new type sometimes known as "Faience". This is made from a hard white frit paste coated with transparent alkaline glaze.
In a rare manuscript from Kashan compiled by Abulqassim in 1301, there is a complete description of how faience production was carried out. Frit was made of ten parts of powdered quartz, one part of clay and one part of glaze mixture. The glaze itself is “formed of a roughly equal mixture of ground quartz and the ashes of desert plants which contain a very high proportion of alkaline salts. These act as a flux and cause the quartz to vitrify at a manageable temperature. The two alone will produce a transparent glaze”. Lane compared this material with the French pâte tender, which was used by potters as recently as the eighteenth century. This body material and the new glaze offered the potter a greater handling and manipulation ability. This allows the potter to improve the quality and appearance of the vessel, including more refined decorative designs and patterns. The result was a substantial variety of products such as bowls of different size and shapes, jugs, incense burners, lamps, candlesticks, trays, tiles and so on. These advantages also allowed greater control of carved decoration, the use of which the Seljuks refined and extended during the twelfth century.
Carved decoration in ceramics is an old tradition used in ninth century Muslim pottery known as Sgraffiato, which is an engraving technique based on incising the design with a sharp tool through a white slip to reveal the red earthenware body. The vessel is then coated with glaze.
The Seljuks also developed the so-called Silhouette wares which are distinguished by their black background. These are produced by a technique which consists of coating the white fritware body with a thick black slip, out of which the decoration is then carved. Later, a coat of colourless or coloured, usually blue or green, transparent glaze is applied. According to Lane, this technique was used, in a simpler form, in Samarkand between the ninth and tenth centuries. The method then consisted of mixing the colours with a thick opaque clay slip instead.
The influence of Blue and white porcelain of the Yuan and Ming dynasties is evident in many ceramics made by Muslim potters. Wares made in the town of Iznik in Anatolia, are particularly notable and had major influence on European decorative arts, for example on Italian Maiolica.