Irwin begins with Islam's inheritance from the Byzantines, the Sasanians, and pre-Islamic Arab culture; he touches on the Islamic sense of the past and aesthetic of ruins. This is followed by a rapid survey of the Islamic world and Islamic history.
Mosques are central to Islamic architecture, but have by no means been static. "Minarets may now be seen as entirely characteristic of Muslim religious architecture, but the very first mosques had none." Patronage was critical, and rulers often reworked earlier buildings, making major monuments "architectural palimpsests".
The ban on representations of humans is perhaps the best known aspect of Islamic art, but
"it is all but certain that, in the context of the seventh century, the original Koranic proscription applied only to pagan idols and not to all and any forms of figurative representation by artists".The state regulated markets and crafts, and provided patronage, which took different forms under different dynasties.
"Libraries seem to have become important centres for the sponsorship of the arts in the period after the Mongol invasions, under the Ilkhans and their successors in Iran. ... the source of inspiration for this institutional innovation may have come from the Chinese academies of history and painting"
Irwin provides a historical survey of palace architecture and court life, through successive periods.
"Many of the texts that decorate the Alhambra are placed at quite a low level. This should serve to remind us that the caliph and his courtiers customarily sat on cushions and rugs and that consequently the Alhambra's vistas are designed to be appreciated from a low point of view."
Next he turns to social world of artisans, guilds, and architects.
"It was once believed that the guild system in the Islamic world began in the ninth century. In fact, though craftsmen were often closely bound together by kinship, locality, and various forms of partnership, nothing one could call a guild as the term is understood in Western art history appears in the Middle East or North Africa until the fourteenth century at the earliest."This is followed by a survey of woodwork, metalwork, ceramics, lustreware, glass and glassmaking, crystal, jade and ivory, textiles and weaving, silk, and carpets and rugs, touching on the role of key centres such as Sultanabad and Iznik.
"The history of Muslim art is above all the history of the applied arts. Rulers and royal designers actively interested themselves in these arts. Textiles, ceramics, and metalwork were all collected and displayed for aesthetic reasons. There are no grounds for classifying these arts as 'minor' ones."
Turning to the literary side of art. Irwin describes the practice of decorating objects with words. He looks at "cup-companions", dandies, and the courtly literary aesthetic. And he traces the development of calligraphy and manuscript illumination.
The Islamic sciences of optics, perspective, colour, and geometry shed light on art; there were also connections with astronomy and astrology. And many items now classified as "art" originally served as talismans with magical properties.
Much of the population of the Islamic world was Christian, whether Orthodox, Coptic, Armenian or other, and Christian artisans and art were often seamlessly integrated into it. Externally, "Chinese art had the greatest influence of all on the Islamic world", with Muslims importing, imitating, and improving on it. And there was increasing Western influence towards the end of the period covered.
In the final chapter Irwin touches on historiographical issues, in particular the difficulty of using surviving art as evidence for history, or literature as evidence for artistic practice. He considers problems of interpretation with two examples, the Dome of the Rock and the "Demotte" Shahnama.
Almost half the space in Islamic Art is taken up by illustrations, mostly high quality colour photographs of buildings, items, and manuscripts, which provide a splendid accompaniment to the text. The result is attractive, readable, and informative. It is perhaps most notable for its success in placing art within its broader social context — something few histories of Western art and architecture do so well.