Alejandra Diaz: The Qur’an as a standard of beauty in artistic creation

The Qur’an is a text of incredible beauty. Its words and messages have a great influence over the art produced by Muslims. This is not only because of importance of the Qur’an as a religious text but also because of the way the Qur’an speaks about art and creation.  The importance of the text is conveyed in various sections of the Qur’an. In Sura 31 (luqman), one finds the following statement, “If every tree on earth was a pen refilled by the sea, and by seven more seas besides, the words of God would not be exhausted.”[i] This means “All existence is a combination of the word of God.[ii] And therefore, God’s words, as recorded in the Qur’an, are words of creation and should be respected. This idea is further supported by a statement from Sura 96 (the Blod Clot), which states, “Recite! Your Lord is most bountiful. He taught with the pen. HE taught man what he knew not.”[iii] Blair interprets these lines as meaning “the knowledge of writing distinguishes man from God’s other creatures.”[iv] It is for this reason writing is plays a large role in Islamic arts. Its for this very same reason that calligraphy is the mother of all Islamic arts.[v]  Artists recognize the importance of writing and those various objects such as cloth and dishes are decorated with calligraphy.

One can further understand how the importance of Qur’an and calligraphy for the creation of art, by recognizing that God is beautiful, and he loves beauty.[vi]  Therefore, the Qur’an, being God’s message as communicated to Prophet Muhammad, holds divine beauty and power.  God’s beauty is unimaginable and far beyond the understanding of humans, but his message is not. And through his words, artists can both find and spread God’s beauty. They can inscribe this beauty on objects and buildings, but they can also use this beauty to create beautiful things. And this desire to make beautiful things and spread the beauty in God’s words is important. Because if God loves beauty, to beautify is to do something divine.[vii]

One can see how artists use the Qur’an as an inspiration for the creation of beauty and art in the design of the Taj Mahal complex in Agra, India. The complex was complete 1643 by the Mughal ruler, Shah Jahal as a funerary complex for his favorite wife, Mumtaz Mahal. The complex is composed by different buildings and a series of gardens at the bank of the Yamun river. Its gardens and the buildings’ decoration take inspiration from the various descriptions of paradise found in the Quran.  One such section of the Qur’an states, “God admits those who believe and do good deeds into Gardens beneath which rivers flow.”[viii] Thus, the complex has a vast garden. To reference the rivers that flow beneath the gardens, the Taj Mahal complex’s gardens are divided by multiple water ways which contain flowing water. The motif of paradisal gardens used by the designers of this complex is further echoed in the exterior decoration of the mausoleum, mosque and Mihman Khana. All three buildings are decorated with carvings and mosaic images of various flowers. These flowers have been imagined by artists as those that fill the splendid garden of paradise referenced in the Qur’an. [ix] Aside from images of flowers, the beauty and purpose of the mausoleum is further communicated through the verses from the Qur’an about Paradise, day of judgement and divine mercy.[x] These verses decorate both the exterior and interior of the building. The beauty of the words themselves and their meaning further adds to the splendor of the Taj Mahal. Visitors, especially those who know and can read the Qur’an, do not only see the beauty artists have attempted to reproduce from the Qur’an but can see the actual source of that beauty. And thus, also be captivated by the real images of beauty the text provides.

While the Taj Mahal complex is just one of the many works inspired by the Qur’an it is a good example from which to discuss how the beauty of the Qur’an inspires Muslims to create beautiful objects.  One can see how important the text itself is in the manner it is reproduced on countless of objects.  Because of their wide variety of objects and places the text is reproduced or informs the beauty of objects, one can consider the Qur’an to be a standard of what beauty is. The Qur’an is an immense source of beauty not only for the wonderful images it provides us but also from the beauty of the language itself.  Thus, because of the many layers of meaning and images it provides, artist have naturally turned to it as a source of inspiration.

 

[i]  Qur’an 31:27.

[ii] M. Jafar Mahallati, Lecture (course on Introduction to The Qur’an, Oberlin College, Oberlin, March 1, 2018).

[iii] Qur’an 96:3-5.

[iv] Sheila Blair, Islamic Inscriptions (New York: New York University Press, 1998), 39.

[v] M. Jafar Mahallati, Lecture (course on Introduction to The Qur’an, Oberlin College, Oberlin, March 1, 2018).

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] Qur’an 22:23.

[ix] Ebba Koch, The Complete Taj Mahal and the Riverfront Gardens of Agra (London: Thames and

Hudson, 2006), 217.

[x] Ibid, 218-219.