Islamic art is unlike the art of many other cultures. The main reason for this difference is that the subjects of Islamic art are strictly controlled by the religious beliefs held by Muslims. Any Muslim artist must work within strict guidelines, largely set out in the Qur’an, when producing any work of art. These guidelines define what is acceptable as a subject for a work of art and also the form that any work of art may take. The forms of art that are deemed acceptable and their symbolism give an indication of the intention of Islamic art.
I will attempt to show through examples of different types of Islamic art that the intention of Islamic art is merely to suggest and not to portray the divine presence. The Prophet Muhammad made several comments concerning art “God is Beautiful and Loves Beauty” (Muhammad), he also said “God likes that when you do anything, you do it excellently. “(Muhammad). These Prophetic sayings (hadiths) among other things may have provided the driving force for Muslim’s desire to embellish and beautify not only their places of worship, but also their homes and even objects commonly used in everyday life.Order now
The main focus of Islamic art appears to be on ornamentation rather than art for art’s sake, whereas the focus of art in other religious frameworks has quite often moved away from ornamentation and towards art for art’s sake. The principles of Islam mean that certain types of art are prohibited for religious reasons. Firstly, any portrayal of God is strictly forbidden as Muslims believe that God should be the subject of worship, not his physical manifestation. Hence, any physical representation of God could be seen as worship of God’s manifestation.
This would be seen as a form of idolatry which is strictly forbidden by the Qur’an “God does not forgive the worship of others beside Him – though He does forgive whoever He will for lesser sins – for whoever does this has gone far, far astray” (4:116). Islam as a religion is strongly opposed to any form of idolatry as it supplanted pagan religions that were based on idolatry. One of the Prophet Muhammad’s most famous acts was the casting out of the idols from the Kaaba in Mecca in the year 630AD.
As Muslims attempt to follow the example of the prophet Muhammad in their lives they too cast out any form of idolatry from their lives. The practice of giving God characteristics of his creation by portraying him in any physical sense in art falls into the category of shirk in al-Asma was-Sifat (the Names and Attributes of God). Shirk is one of the greatest sins in Islam as it suggests the worship of something other than the one true God. Hence any form of art that represents a manifestation of God is inherently forbidden by Islamic beliefs. This rule also applies for representations of the prophet Muhammad.
In any picture where the Prophet is portrayed either his face is veiled or he is illustrated as a cloud of flames so it can be seen that Muhammad is not a subject of worship. Were he to be portrayed in paintings etc. the focus of worship could be drawn away from God and, in the eyes of the Muslim community, wrongly focused on Muhammad and this would be another example of shirk. Secondly, Muslims believe that artists should not try to rival the creator, therefore representations of animals, plants or humans in Islamic art are heavily stylised and realism is completely shunned.
Almost all paintings in Islamic art are completely two dimensional with no attempt to include perspective to add a suggestion of depth within the painting; this is to completely avoid what could be interpreted as an imitation of real life and therefore an attempt to rival the creator. Sculpture is also extremely rare in Islamic art as the three dimensional nature of sculpture and the fact that the most common subjects of sculpture are humans or animals imply an attempt to rival God’s work. This is forbidden as it suggests that the work of Man could rival that of God.
The central concept of the Islam faith is the unity and Oneness of God (Tahwid). This concept is difficult to express visually, but Islamic art suggests this concept through its use of style and form. In particular the geometric patterns in Islamic art reflect those seen in nature and this helps to highlight the presence of order and law within nature and thus the all-pervading presence of God throughout nature. In this way geometric patterns in Islamic art help to suggest the divine presence. One of the most prevalent forms of Islamic art is calligraphy, in particular calligraphy of the verses of the Qur’an.
This is because the word of the Qur’an is seen as the visible body of the divine word and hence is of the utmost importance to Muslims. Most mosques are decorated with verses from the Qur’an. Using verses of the Qur’an as decoration ensures that only the divine word of God is being worshipped, not a representation of God Himself. The fact that verses of the Qur’an are so frequently seen by Muslims as they are used as decoration also serves as a reminder that God is always close to Muslims, hence using verses of the Qur’an as decoration serves to suggest the divine presence of God, without directly portraying it.
Some copies of the Qur’an itself can be viewed as pieces of art. The calligraphy of verses of the Qur’an can be very elaborate as the Arabic language lends itself to calligraphy very well. The pages of the Qur’an are also often decorated with geometric and arabesque motifs. Geometric and arabesque design are prolific in Islamic art, these styles of design are the most common styles to be found within mosques. The geometric designs found in Islamic art are based on simple geometric shapes, circles, triangles, squares and other regular polygons.
These simple shapes are then put together to make elaborate repeating patterns. These elaborate repeating patterns often incorporate stylised representations of plants or animals within their designs. The incorporation of plants and animals within the designs may serve to remind Muslims of the unity of creation. The repeating geometric patterns of these designs are governed by mathematical laws and this reflects the feeling that Islamic art is a manifestation of a law expressing unity and continuity; thus the inclusion of plants and animals within the design reminds Muslims that the same law applies to all creation.
To Muslims when these forms are taken together they make up an infinite pattern that symbolises the infinite and therefore non-centralised nature of God’s creation. This feeling of infinity regarding God’s creation promotes the feeling of God’s omnipresence and in this way the geometric and arabesque styles found in Islamic art suggest rather than portray the divine presence. The architecture of Islam is yet another tool that the Muslim artist uses to suggest the divine presence of God.
The most obvious example of the architecture of Islam is the architecture of mosques. The architecture of mosques reflects geometry found in nature, they display simple geometric forms found in nature. The design of almost all mosques is based on the Prophet’s mosque at Medina and hence most mosques have a very similar structure; in general they are rectangular with a large dome and a tall tower known as the minaret. The inside of the mosque contains a large open prayer room and within this room on the Qiblah wall that faces Mecca is a niche known as the mithrab.
The mithrab although usually empty is often the most decorated part of the mosque. It is usually decorated with geometric and arabesque motifs and as well as calligraphic verses from the Qur’an. The most noticeable feature of a mosque is the emptiness of the interior space, this emptiness is supposed to remind Muslims in the mosque of the emptiness of the desert and the purity of the revelation of the Qur’an to Muhammad.
The emptiness is intended to lead Muslims towards an intuition of the nearness of God and hence the architecture of the mosque serves to suggest the divine presence of God. It is clear from the guidelines surrounding Islamic art as well as the styles employed by Muslim artists that Islamic art is intended to suggest rather than portray the divine presence. One of the most fundamental rules concerning Islamic art is that God himself must not be portrayed; this is clear evidence that it is not the intention of Islamic art to portray the divine presence.
The principles that underpin almost all Islamic art are the principles of unity and continuity. The themes of unity and continuity are ever-present within the motifs and geometric designs that are such a large part of Islamic art. These principles quite clearly reflect the Muslim beliefs concerning the unity of God and hence show that the intention of Islamic art is to suggest the divine presence. Thus it can be seen that Islamic art is intended to suggest but not to portray the divine presence.