To Ibn Zubayr [the leader of a caliphate based in Mecca from 683 to 691] were carried the mosaics from Sanaa which [King] Abraha had put in his church there . . . and with them three columns of marble, on which engraved ornaments had been [painted] to resemble gold . . . So Ibn Zubayr rebuilt [the Kaaba] . . . and put the mosaics and the columns in it.Description by the 10th-century historian Al-Mas’udi, in his book Muruj al-dhahab (Meadows of Gold) 
The mosaic referred to in this passage, laid in 684, was the first recorded in an Islamic building—and in the holiest of all Islamic buildings, the Kaaba. Most of Ibn Zubayr’s additions to the shrine were removed in 692, so the mosaic may not have lasted long. But the 10th-century account of it quoted above highlights three points that help us understand how mosaics were used in the early Islamic period.
Firstly, it shows how valuable they were; the tesserae were treasures, equal to the gilded marble columns mentioned alongside them. Mosaic continued to be highly valued throughout the first few centuries of Islam, and beyond, and was used alongside other precious materials as one element of elite architectural display.
Secondly, the mosaics came from a church, which Ibn Zubayr was able to loot due to the Islamic conquest of the Arabian Peninsula earlier in the 7th century. Mosaics were common in the Christian Byzantine Empire (and in the territories of its allies like Abraha), and in the Roman Empire before that—but it wasn’t one of the established arts of Arabia, where Islam began. After the Islamic conquest of southern and eastern Byzantium, Jerusalem and Damascus became the central cities of the caliphate; mosaicists working in this region for Muslim patrons maintained some aspects of the Byzantine style, and adapted or abandoned others.
And thirdly, while mosaics could cover huge structures, the individual tesserae were very small, and therefore easily portable and reusable; in Ibn Zubayr’s case, the materials were carried about 700 miles from Sanaa (today, in Yemen) to Mecca. One recurring question about early Islamic mosaics is where the artisans came from; in some cases they may have travelled long distances to carry out their commissions.
Mosaic was used to decorate some of the most prestigious buildings in the Umayyad caliphate. The Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem was built in the 690s. Its upper walls and dome are covered with glass tesserae, and the lower walls are paneled with marble. The mosaics show a rich mixture of trees, plant-scrolls, and jeweled crown-like designs on a gold background.
The Great Mosque of Damascus, built in 705–15, also combines marble panels below with glass tesserae above. The best-preserved section shows a landscape with elaborate buildings and tall trees along a river bank, again on a gilded background. The amount of material and labor that went into these mosaics is stunning; to make the gilded tesserae for Damascus would have taken roughly 200 tons of glass, plus the gold from over 2000 coins, beaten into foil.
Similar schemes of mosaic were commissioned for the contemporary mosques at Mecca, Medina, and Aleppo, although these haven’t survived. Other Islamic sites where glass tesserae have been found include Qusayr ʿAmra, Qastal, and Mshatta in Jordan.
Floor mosaics used more durable stone instead of glass. The one below is from the hall of the bathhouse attached to the palace of Khirbat al-Mafjar, near Jericho in Palestine, and even in this more limited palette of colors the mosaicists produced impressive results. Some of the designs with interlinked loops look a bit like textiles—carpets—while others (not shown here) imitated the zig-zag patterns found on marble.
While mosaic was a high-status medium in itself, and was regularly combined with others, it could also be used to imitate them. It was part of the toolkit of early Islamic architectural splendor.
Christian and Islamic, secular and religious?
In Byzantine churches, mosaics usually depicted people, such as we see in a panel from the floor of east church at Qasr al-Lebia in Libya. Figural images (of animals or people) were not appropriate in mosques, due to prohibitions in the Qur’an against worshipping idols and statements made by the Prophet Muhammad warning against representing living beings, and so architectural and plant-based designs often took their place. For example, trees appear above the columns of the arcade in Damascus, where a church might have displayed standing saints.
In secular Islamic buildings, figural imagery was no problem, probably because idol-worship was not seen as a risk outside of religious settings. Below is floor mosaic from Khirbat al-Mafjar. Scenes of animal combat were common in Byzantine floors in the region, so this would have been a familiar commission for the artists—but it may have been given a new meaning here; the lion probably stands for the caliph and patron of the building, since lions were symbols of power, and the room was used by the patron to receive guests.
There are no known mosaics from Islamic palaces which show humans. This is surprising, because in the same buildings people were often represented in paint and stucco. Perhaps there was a change in perception about the suitability of walking over images of people? This question is remains unanswered!
A few mosaics included explicit Islamic iconography. A house floor in Ramla in Israel was decorated with an image of a mihrab and a quote from the Qur’an. The majority of early Islamic mosaics, however, do not have devotional subject matter.
The medium of mosaic was not exclusively Christian or Islamic, but could be adjusted to each context. There were also Jewish mosaics in the eastern Mediterranean; many synagogues with mosaic floors have been found, mostly dating to the 5th and 6th centuries, before the Muslim conquest. Mosaic had been part of the artistic culture of the Roman Empire, and the mosaics of the 8th-century mosques and palaces may have been intended partly to present the caliphate as successor of that empire. Alongside any specific meanings of the compositions, they carried associations of sophistication and power from their classical heritage.
Logistics and continuity
In the mid-700s, over a century after the Islamic conquest, the congregation of St. Stephen’s church at Umm al-Rasas in Jordan commissioned a new floor for their sanctuary. If you compare this to the picture from the hall at Khirbat al-Mafjar, you can see similar patterns. Both could also be compared to earlier Byzantine floors in the same area.
The similarities show that there was enough demand for mosaics for craft knowledge to be passed on locally—apprentices continued to be trained in the designs familiar to the generation before. Medieval authors claimed that the mosaics in the big mosques were made by artisans sent by the Byzantine emperor in Constantinople. But it is more likely that most (if not all) of them came from closer to home, from the Levant.
However, mosaicists in the early Islamic period did increasingly have to travel long distances. We know from inscriptions that some of those who worked on the mosques in Mecca and Medina came from Syria, Palestine, and Egypt—up to a thousand miles away. Tax records from the small town of Aphrodito in Egypt shows that workers and materials were brought from all over the caliphate for large building projects.
Mosaics were commissioned for palaces and mosques during the first part of the Abbasid caliphate, although almost none of these survive. During the 9th century mosaics were overtaken in popularity by new forms of wall and floor covering, such as glass tiles, as the technologies to make them were developed. After this, existing mosaics were often repaired, but new ones were rarely commissioned until a revival during the Mamluk period.
Notes: Al-Masudi, Murūj al-dhahab wa-maʿādin al-jawhar, chapter 93; trans. Charles Barbier de Meynard and ed. Charles Pellat, Les prairies d’or, 5 vols (Paris: Société asiatique, 1962-97 [first published 1861-77]), vol. 5, pp. 192–93.
Liz James, Mosaics in the Mediterranean World: From Late Antiquity to the Fifteenth Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017) (see chapter 8 for early Islamic mosaics).
Rina Talgam, Mosaics of Faith: Floors of Pagans, Jews, Samaritans, Christians, and Muslims in the Holy Land (University Park, PA.: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2014).