9 December 2019
Islamic art to a modern, Western lens is an excessively broad term. Before the era of colonization and globalization and the influence of Western culture into the Islamic world, Islamic art was understood in the same way that Christian art is understood today–that is, that art is Islamic only if it directly communicates with the religion. However, the influx of Western ideals of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries created a dichotomy between the Western world and the Islamic world, and Islamic art became a banner under which fell Arabic, Persian, Ottoman, and Mughal artistic traditions, as well as others. Despite this, much of this art is, in fact, “Islamic only indirectly in the sense that they originated from societies that were made up mostly of Muslims.” However, this merging of the religious and the secular within art does reveal the saturation of Islamic faith into Islamic culture and exemplify the influence Islam has on all activities in the Islamic world.
Of all the varying cultures that make up Islamic art, Arabic must be the most readily apparent. Source of both the people of the prophet Muhammad and the sacred language of Islam, it can be impossible to separate Arabic culture from Islamic culture. The majority of Arabic art was created from 1100 to 1380 in Iraq, Syria, and Egypt. Paintings were typically found in manuscripts, often as accompanying illustrations to fables or scientific writings. However, many of these works were destroyed during the thirteenth century Mongolian invasion, and it is in part for this reason that Arabic art is the least well-known in the Western world. Nevertheless, the essence of Arabic culture has been preserved and spread with the expansion of Islam and, through the use of Arabic script in calligraphy, Arabic art has influenced all other artistic traditions in the Islamic world.
Calligraphy has been referred to as the mother and highest form of Islamic art. Islam uniquely stresses the importance of the Book, that is the Qur’an, and literacy. The opening line of the ninety-sixth sura Al-’Alaq says, “Read: In the Name of your Lord Who created.” The sura continues: “Read: And your Lord is The Most Honorable, Who taught by the pen. He taught man what he did not know.” This statement is the first one given to the prophet Muhammad, making Islam a religion whose genuine origin is one of writing and reading.
The art of calligraphy has an extensive history and tradition which modern calligraphers still follow. Reed pens, known as qalams, are still used, and calligraphers will make these and the ink themselves. There is strict training that one must undergo to be a master calligrapher, including fasting, for they believe that “‘Purity of writing is purity of soul.’” The writing of a master calligrapher is highly symbolic. Each letter is given qualities of personification, and the connecting of these letters into phrases represents the harmony of the natural order. With all this meaning, calligraphy is seen as sacred. As such, it is common to see calligraphy of Quranic verses added to daily items so as to imbue them with divine power. Clothes embroidered in writing from the Qur’an are seen as protective, as are weapons, and water drunk from vessels engraved with Quranic verses are thought to be curative. The use of calligraphy as decorative is not limited to the Qur’an, however. Verses of poetry can be found inscribed on many objects and buildings in the Islamic world. Despite coming from a human source, many of the great classical Islamic poets dealt heavily with religious themes. This, combined with the already established understanding of language as divine, means that Islamic calligraphy always recalls aspects of the faith, regardless of its contents.
Another common feature of Islamic art is the use of arabesque. Arabesque features two motifs intertwined–one geometric and the other plant-like. Each of these designs individually is often used to represent divine gifts from God. The geometric shapes represent justice whereas the natural patterns are meant to invoke the idea of bounty. However, the importance of arabesque’s symbolism arrives in the intermingling of these two styles. Like calligraphy, the union of the two represents the harmony of the natural world. Arabesque invokes the union between the mortal world and, particularly when it is used in mosques, the repetition of the patterns is meant to encourage contemplation from the viewer. Also like calligraphy, arabesque can be found in both religious and secular settings, and similarly exemplifies the merging of religious and secular Islamic culture.
A major theme of Islamic art is that it is always symbolic, and no where is this better revealed than in the architectural details of a mosque. First, the space in the interior of the mosque is often absent of furniture. Instead, those gathered for prayer will stand and sit on the floor, facing the mihrab. The act of prayer creates a sense of unity among the congregants and a sense of equality before God. The lack of furnishings also removes any sense of person property, and again redirects the believers thoughts to a unity and humility under God. Above the main space of the mosque is often a octagonal level of windows. These eight windows represent the eight gates into Paradise, each representing a different means to reach the divine. The windows also let in light, invoking the holy light of God, an idea that will be further discussed later. Finally, continuing their symbolism as the gates into Paradise, the windows separate the main space, the realm of humanity, with the dome, the realm of God. The dome over the mosque creates a sense of height for the viewer. It directs one gaze upwards and is meant to reflect the vault of heaven. These domes will sometimes also be decorated with stalactite-like patterns, conveying the sense that God’s grace is being poured upon the congregation.
In the twenty-fourth sura, the Qur’an describes God as such: “God is the Light of the heavens and the earth. His Light is like this: there is a niche, and in it a lamp, the lamp inside a glass, a glass like a glittering star, fuelled from a blessed olive tree from neither east no west, whose oil almost gives light even when no fire touches it- light upon light- God guides whoever He will to his Light.” This idea of God as light is often displayed within mosques. Windows allow light in, illuminating both the beauty of the from and the people below. Elaborate light fixtures are also often hung from the dome; the light fixture of the Suleymaniye Mosque in Istanbul is an excellent example of this. Not only does the fixture provide light itself, by virtue of being hung from the dome does it represent God’s holy light descending onto believers.
Islamic art, though encompassing a wide swath of people and cultures, has several consistent elements that herald back to the faith. These elements are highly symbolic and infused throughout Islamic culture. Whether the nature of art is religious or secular, it is connected to the Islamic faith through its history and tradition. Though the idea of both Islamic art and Islamic culture was created through a Western lens, the phrase manages to reflect the aspects of unity within the pieces themselves.
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