Adam Jussila: The Ideas of the Infinite and Unity in Islamic Art

 

Islamic art was born from the Muslim people’s very first work of art, the Qur’an. It serves as the chief inspiration and motivation for Muslim artists. There are many lines of their holy text that invite people to create art in the name of Allah. One such line says that the only divinely approved art is that done by “those who believe, do good work, and engage much in the remembrance of Allah.”[i] The remembrance of Allah is the most important part of this. In addition, it is important in most Islamic art that one should not depict figures of humans, animals, or Allah himself. This was seen as a return to the idolatrous past of the Arabian people. With this departure from figurative art, Islamic artists tried to show the divine in other forms, often in patterns and later calligraphic designs. Using flowing calligraphy, circular, repetitious patterns, and natural forms, artists often displayed the idea of God’s unity and infinite bounty. The most important aspect of this is the idea that Muslim artists try to convey the beauty and perfection of God through their works, while following the rules set out by the Qur’an and hadiths.[ii]

Intricate, beautiful patterns were used to try to represent the beauty of the infinite universe that God created. The cosmos and their infinity are a common theme within art, and there are many techniques that artists have used to represent them in an attempt to encapsulate the beauty of our universe without figures.[iii] Many pieces of Islamic art contain a repeating pattern of some type, which can become so complex that it is very difficult (if not impossible) to find a beginning or an end to the design. Some artists will use intertwining leaves and plant-like shapes in order to represent the richness and life and beauty of nature.[iv] Other pieces utilize arabesques, creating almost arbitrarily complex lines and geometric shapes that intertwine and seem nearly infinite. To this day, the concepts of geometry continue to intrigue Islamic artists, playing a prominent role in many of their intricate patterns and designs.[v] In later works, figures began to be integrated into these designs, as it became more widely accepted that portraiture was acceptable within Islamic societies. All of these things must be understood as ways to represent the infinite bounty, beauty, and unity of God.

Considering the Islamic people’s affinity for patterned designs as well as beautiful poetry, it is unsurprising that their society developed the flowing calligraphy that allowed them to integrate their writing into their art. From the early block-like Kufic script that was used in many geometric designs to the modern day flowing calligraphy of the Middle East, artists have integrated calligraphy into their works of art for centuries.[vi] Early on, many Muslims understood the pen symbolically as much more than just a pen, saying that humans themselves are but letters written by the Primordial Pen, standing out on the fine parchment of the universe.[vii] Because of this strong connection to religion, writing became an important part of Islamic art. It is said that “the essence of writing is in the spirit, even though it is manifested by means of the limbs.”[viii] This shows the idea that writing is believed to be something beyond a physical experience, crossing into the realm of a spiritual manifestation from within oneself. Because of this, the calligraphy is created and changed throughout history, necessarily morphing to fit the people who use it in order to ensure that they are able to properly express themselves. Because of this it is an extremely expressive script, which Bukhart explains by saying that, “The richness of the Arabic script comes from the fact that it has fully developed its two “dimensions”: the vertical, which confers on the letters their hieratic dignity, and the horizontal, which links them together in a continuous flow.”[ix] It is obvious that calligraphy represented much more than a simple means of communication for the Muslim people. The flow of the lettering and ability to convey complex thoughts is uniquely important to the ways in which Arabic calligraphy is used.

As artists began using the calligraphy more frequently, it was integrated in much the same way as the abstract patterns mentioned above. The script was designed to flow across the work of art, blending right in with the arabesques and geometric patterns. Many examples of this can be seen carved onto implements such as pots, bowls, and cutlery.[x] The letters wrap around the works, seemingly flowing from one letter to the other in an endless pattern that simultaneously speaks the words of God and shows his infinite bounty and beauty. Similarly, painting verses from the Qur’an onto china is a popular way to display calligraphy on works of art.[xi] Each work of art, wreathed in geometric patterns, plants filled with life that wrap around each other, and the words of God almost seem to give this idea that we are experiencing the infinite nature of God himself through the artwork. This is likely the intent of most Islamic artists, as they try to fulfill the ideals set out by the Qur’an.

Islamic art is heavily influenced by the teachings of the Qur’an and shaped by the early Islamic culture. Because of this, it is constrained by the sets of rules that are set out by the Qur’an, mentioned above. Though none of them are binding, as shown by portraiture becoming more popular in the centuries following Islam’s birth, most of the art is still produced according to these rules. Artists turned toward patterns, calligraphy, and geometric shapes in order to represent and pay homage to God and the glory of the infinite universe that He created. All of this is done in an attempt to represent the divine nature of the beauty in our world.

[i] Qur’an, 26:227

[ii] Saoud, Rabah. “Introduction to Islamic Art.” Available from http://www.muslimheritage.com/article/introduction-islamic-art

[iii] Mahallati, Jafar. Lecture: Calligraphy. Edited by Adam Jussila. a.

[iv] Unknown. Palm Leaf Block Print.a.

[v] Saoud, Rabah. “Introduction to Islamic Art.”

[vi] Mahallati, Jafar. Lecture: Miniature Painting. Edited by Adam Jussila. b.

[vii] Schimmel, Annemarie. Calligraphy and Islamic Culture. London: Tauris, 1990. Pg 87-88

[viii] Sulzberger, Jean. The Inner Journey, Views from the Islamic Tradition. Morning Light Press,

pg 1-2

[ix] Buckhardt, Titus. The Spirituality of Islamic Art. Pg 517-18

[x] Unknown. Spoon with Coin-Shaped Bowl.b.

[xi] Varied. Religion Department Display. Oberlin College.