In the history of Islamic art, the Abbasids play an important role in the standardization of many Islamic artistic media. It is claimed that “it is not until the Abbasid period that a distinct type and style of ceramic ware emerged that can be distinguished technically as ‘Islamic.’” To some extent, this claim is true. During the Abbasid reign, which lasted about five centuries and peaked early on, agricultural innovations led to a decline of predominantly agrarian society and the emergence of an economy based on trade. The Abbasids, as a result, were able to expand their territory and create trade routes that connected their civilization with others across the East, including China and Sub-Saharan Africa. This development meant that artisans, crafters, and merchants were able to emerge and establish themselves. Ultimately, all of this culminated in a much more standardized practice of creating ceramics. As the practicing of ceramic art increased over the period and influences from China led to a fascination in and larger market for porcelain-like pieces, it was now common for many motifs and ceramic techniques to be repeated by artisans, making them more distinctive and replicable. For example, a 10th century AD cup depicting a rubab player, a type of two-stringed spiked fiddle used throughout the region, was a common image found on many Islamic ceramic pieces at the time as it symbolized a celebration of life and sovereignty. Another example of this is a Syrian ceramic bowl from the 9th century AD. The bowl itself is meant to imitate the whiteness and stylistic form of Chinese pottery; an alkaline glaze developed by the Abbasids covers the entire bowl. The bowl also contains kufic script, an obvious reference to Islamic culture and practice. Ultimately, these pieces show the standardized ceramic practices of the period, which led to the semi-establishment of an “Islamic” pottery as a result of the replicable nature of and large market for these works.
At the same time, however, it is important to recognize two things. First, Abbasid ceramics are derived from practices established centuries earlier by the Umayyad dynasty. A ceramic jar from the 8th century, for instance, was preserved by the Abbasids yet was likely made by the Umayyads. The piece employs a different set of pottery techniques, yet it contains many similar motifs to those found in Abbasid ceramics (take, for example, the use of kufic script at the bottom of the neck of the jar). This is an early work that can still be identified as distinctively Islamic even though it comes from a century before Abbasid rule; this means that the establishment of Islamic ceramic ware did not necessarily happen solely under the Abbasids and, rather, developed over time and built off past techniques and imagery in order to standardize and expand the production of Islamic ceramics. Second, it should also be noted that many influences within the pottery itself seem to be derived from foreign practices. The very jar discussed above displays designs reminiscent of moulded Roman or Parthian pottery. The shallow ceramic bowl shows an explicit attempt to mimic and employ Chinese ceramic techniques and styles. The cup depicting the rubab player shows the musician to be wearing a Turco-Mongolian garment and is stylistically similar to Nishapur ceramics from the same period. All of these works display a variety of different foreign ceramic practices and images, meaning that the works are not necessarily “Islamic” in the sense that they are solely the result of the work of Islam-practicing areas. Ultimately, it can be argued that, while not necessarily creating and deriving a distinctively “Islamic” ceramic ware, the Abbasids more or less led to the standardization of motifs and techniques that led to a much more repeated and well defined ceramic style that came to be known as “Islamic.”