Islamic and Friendship Studies at Oberlin College

Clio Schwartz: Islamic Art and the Qur’an

Clio Schwartz

Introduction to the Qur’an

Professor M. Jafar Mahallati


Islamic Art and the Qur’an

The Qur’an is known to be the word of God in the Islamic world, and all that exists has been spoken by God. Art that is created in tribute to God is thus exalted. The verses of the Qur’an are extraordinarily beautiful;  it is believed that no human could create a work as exquisite. These lyrical verses have inspired many a work of art, as well as the architecture of entire buildings. Throughout the Islamic world, calligraphic images of select verses from the Qur’an can be found in most homes, office buildings, and, of course, mosques. Muslims might even wear a verse from the Qur’an inscribed on a ring. Calligraphy has become integral to the Islamic art world not only as a result of religious disapproval of portraying the Prophet, but also because of the centrality of writing and the word to Islam. The Prophet Muhammad is thought to have said, “The first thing God created was the pen.”

Sura 96 reads, “Read! Your Lord is the Most Bounteous, Who has taught the use of the pen, taught man what he did not know.”1 Rather than depict scenes from the Qur’an, artists will often focus on the words themselves. The art of calligraphy has developed over time in conjunction with the development of the modern Arabic alphabet and script. When calligraphy was first practiced, the Kufic script was used. This script developed at the end of the 7th century. Kufic script was easy to inscribe in stone because of the geometric shapes. However, Kufic script was also somewhat indecipherable in contrast to the Naskh form developed in the 10th century. Naskh became the basis for modern Arabic print. Thuluth script is a variant of Naskh very popular among calligraphers over the centuries.2 One can find this style of calligraphy on many mosques and important buildings – one of which being none other than the Taj Mahal, in Agra, India. The calligraphy, almost illegible, was done by a Persian calligrapher named Amanat Khan.3 Thuluth is also visible in the Blue Mosque, located in Istanbul, Turkey. The calligraphy is adorned with gold and spans the large dome of the mosque.4

Many mosques will also be decorated with the traditional arabesque pattern, which depicts a flowering plant with no beginning or end, symbolizing the never-ending bounty that God provides.5 The color blue is commonly used as a symbol for the power of God throughout the entire cosmos.6 The arabesque pattern is symbolic in several ways. The smooth, gentle curve of the plant can represent the gentle movement of nature and its fount, the Creator. That it is unbroken calls to mind the way God’s power is infinite and never-ending. The arabesque is also symmetrical, evoking harmony and the desire for unity with the spiritual world. The even texture of the design represents the rhythm and balance of the universe as created by God.7 One can also interpret the arabesque to represent paradise. The arabesque is widely applicable in Islamic art and can be found everywhere, from the borders of Qur’ans to the outside of mosques. Its versatility allows for adaptation throughout the entire Islamic world. Despite being composed of flowing, curved lines, the arabesque can also be considered a geometric pattern. It is divisible into at least one of nine polygonal elements. There is evidence that the arabesque was being used as early as the 10th century, if not before then.8 The arabesque’s long-lasting popularity in Islamic art can partially be attributed to the moratorium against portraying humans and animals, as to do so would be to imitate God’s creations.9

The books of Hadith state that Prophet Muhammad once advised that “God is beautiful and he loves beauty.” This inspires calligraphers to make their iterations of Qur’anic verse as visually appealing as possible. Calligraphy does not only take the traditional form of sentences. A popular artistic interpretation of calligraphy takes the shape of the calligram. These shapes often refer to the subject of the word or sentence spelled out in the calligraphed letters. Frequently, the phrase “Bismillah ir-rahman ir-rahim” (In the name of God, the compassionate, the merciful) is arranged in the shape of a bird.  These calligrams are popular wall hangings in many homes. Calligraphy can also be found on dishes, precious boxes, and other household items.10

In addition to calligraphy being displayed on objects in the home, some Muslims will also wear verses of the Qur’an inscribed calligraphically on jewelry. These inscriptions can be small enough to fit on a single ring, legible only under a microscope.11 Nonetheless, the point of wearing the verses is less to read them, as it is likely that the verses have been memorized previously. Rather, it is a gesture meant to convey good luck and protection upon the wearer of the jewelry. Adorning oneself with the Qur’an is distinct from adornment for the sake of adornment as it is a symbol of devotion to God. The Qur’an’s significance inspires believers to create such intricate works of art and to carry verses with them through the mundanity, challenges, and successes of the everyday in a literal sense.

Islamic art is extremely varied, as it spans at least half a world and many centuries. To define it as one category is almost impossible, to characterize it as one movement a futile task. Despite the vastness of Islamic art, there is one element that ties the immensity together: the Qur’an. The word of God has had a deep influence on practically every piece of art to come out of Islamic society.  It is possible to point to any element of Islamic art and tie it to a verse in the Qur’an. Sura 26 refers to the omnipresence of God, and thus his word, in the lives of Muslims by saying, “those who believe, do good work, and engage much in the remembrance of Allah.”12 As the Qur’an is ever-present in Muslim life, it is present in every Islamic work of art.



  1. Qur’an96 : 3-5.
  2. Jazayeri, S.M.V. Mousavi, et al. “A Handbook of Early Arabic Kufic Script: Reading, Writing, Calligraphy, Typography, Monograms.” New York: Blautopf Publishing. 2017.
  3. Mahmood, Shaukat. “Calligraphy and Islamic Architecture.”
  4. “Sultan Ahmet Cami Mosque (Blue Mosque) « Islamic Arts and Architecture.” Islamic Arts and Architecture. Accessed March 02, 2018.
  5. “Art of Islamic Pattern.” Introduction to Arabesque | Art of Islamic Pattern. Accessed March 02, 2018.
  6. Mahallati. “Qur’an as Object.” March 01, 2018.
  7. “Art of Islamic Pattern.” Introduction to Arabesque | Art of Islamic Pattern. Accessed March 02, 2018.
  8. “Introduction to Islamic Art.” Introduction to Islamic Art | Muslim Heritage. Accessed March 02, 2018.
  9. Canby, Sheila R. Islamic art in detail. Harvard University Press.
  10. Islamic art display, Oberlin College Religion Department.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Qur’an, Sura 26.

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