What is Islamic Illumination?

What is Islamic Illumination?

This morning, I received an email asking me about Islamic illumination and what it is. I realised that I don't have a post explaining it, so I decided to write one to share my What I know on the subject.


Illuminate means adding light, shine or shimmer.


Illumination is the art of applying gold or adding light. The term “illumination” is also present in the Arabic, Turkish and Persian languages, but the word in all of those three languages is Tezhip/Tathhib/ تذهيب.

Illuminati (?)

lol had to add that in there. Sorry to disappoint you, but the illumintis and their thing are not related to this. This post is about a traditional art that was used in the Islamic World.

Quran from Afghanistan, Herat. Timurid Period. 1434. Found in the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Art

Quran from Afghanistan, Herat. Timurid Period. 1434. Found in the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Art

What is Islamic Illumination?

Islamic illumination is the use of gold to paint geometric and/or biomorphic patterns (organic and floral forms and motifs) to decorate the pages of Quran and books of poetry. Biomorphic patterns have a geometric grid that is usually hidden with the painting and illuminating.

Illuminating the Quran

The Quran is the main source of Islam. It was recorded using Arabic calligraphy. The first calligrapher is the prophet's cousin and son-in-law Imam Ali Ibn Talib (Nasr, 1987). The writing of the Quran was regarded highly since it was the visual representation of the word of God. From that point, the writing and the presentation of the book became an art.

As art developed in the Muslim world, calligraphy was not enough, so artists started adding a little gold to decorate the Quran to physically represent the enlightenment that comes from the word of God.  

Usually, the cover and the frontal pieces are very elaborate, but the rest of the pages are decorated less. 

Later on, "Art of the book" extended to other books such as poetry and story books. Collecting and gifting highly adorned book of that nature became a symbol of status.

"The Art of the Book" contains FOUR areas:

  • Calligraphy

  • Illumination

  • Illustrations (miniature)

  • Binding and other technicality related to book making.

All four became dedicated disciplines of Islamic Art (Gruber, 2010). In this post, I am only sharing the meaning of Illumination. 

The 'Khamsah' of Niẓāmī 1539-1543 Source

The art of illumination is not only limited to the Muslim world, previous religious texts like the Torah and the Bible were also illuminated/gilded with real gold. The styles of each religion, each geographical region and each time period are slightly different.

Islamic Illumination Teachers in London:


  • Nasr, S. (1987). Islamic art and spirituality. 1st ed. Albany: State University of New York Press.

  • Gruber, C. (2010). The Islamic manuscript tradition. 1st ed. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Islamic Illumination Resources: 

Relevant Posts: