The greatest and most memorable contributions civilizations make arise from outpourings of creativity and intelligence, not war and politics. That observation, introduced early in "Islamic Art: Mirror of the Invisible World," sets the tone for the program, which airs at 9 p.m. Friday on WQED and is part of the PBS Arts Summer Festival.
The 90-minute show can only introduce a centuries-long history that will be exotic to most viewers, but it's a good beginning that challenges stereotypes and even finds some common ground.
Probably the program's foremost accomplishment is to correct the widespread misconception that Islamic art never includes representations of figures. Also well done are the treatment of calligraphy, including its religious and secular significance, and visits to a variety of mosques that hint at the diverse makeup of the Islamic world.
Islam began, the narrator explains, in 610 in a cave near Mecca when an angel revealed to Muhammad the words of the Koran. "More than poetry, more than a holy book, it was the word of God."
A contrast is made between Christianity, which teaches that God's gift was his son, and the Muslim understanding that God's gift was an oral revelation. "God's gift to mankind in Islam is the Koran. Writing becomes the central feature in Islamic culture."
And calligraphy becomes the most important Islamic art. Extraordinary examples, whether of ink on parchment or of precious mosaic particles in mosque courtyards, demonstrate both the skill and reverence of artisans throughout history.
Scholars commenting about the writing of sacred texts as "a meditation, a prayer," or about the importance of manuscript illumination, echo attitudes of the creators of Western illuminated sacred manuscripts. Other cultural parallels are concepts like angels, paradise or heaven.
Figurative art and sculpture are very common in many parts of the Islamic world, a scholar says, including images of Muhammad made by Muslim artists. What Muslims wish to avoid is idolatry; the images are not meant to be worshipped.
In mosques, then, the divine presence is portrayed only through nonfigural designs and the holy words of the Koran. Figural imagery is confined to the secular world. Muslim attitudes toward such representation, according to the program, have varied within different times and places over the religion's 1,400-year history.
Mosques are another fascinating subject covered, from the cavernous interior of the great mosque in Damascus, one of the oldest extant, to the mosque of Djenne, Mali, the largest adobe structure in the world, which architecturally follows traditional African rather than Muslim design.
The program also touches upon carpet weaving, gardens, court literature and secular architecture (including the renowned Taj Mahal), and shows examples of metalwork, ceramic and other functional ware, at times astoundingly patterned.
Viewers should be aware this is, by necessity, a simplified overview and not religious instruction. But filmmakers had an oversized task synthesizing history, culture, religion and art.
My only complaints are for the Lawrence of Arabia-like opening shot of robed men, galloping horses and arid landscape, and the subsequent faux historic scenes that made me feel like I had stepped into a bad diorama.
Post-Gazette art critic Mary Thomas: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1925.