Ana Goelzer – Islamic Art

Islam inspires innovation and creation. The Qur’an encourages reading, learning, writing and art. Even though Islamic art does not depict God or contain any kind of iconography, it is used to represent the divine and worship God. Common motifs in Islamic art are geometric and vegetal patterns, and calligraphy, all used to glorify God.

Geometric patterns are popular in Islamic art, likely due to their aniconic quality.  These designs not only decorate monumental Islamic architecture but are also a major decorative element on many varieties of objects. The significant intellectual discoveries of Islamic mathematicians, astronomers, and scientists made the use of geometric patterns possible. These geometric patterns are simple or rigid. In fact, geometric ornamentation in Islamic art shows freedom in its repetition and complexity, it looks as if it could continue infinitely and can mix with other kinds of ornamentation as well. This possibility of infinity is no accident, these geometric patterns represent the infinite presence  and omnipotence of God.

Vegetal patterns employed alone or in combination with the other major types of ornament—calligraphy and geometric patterns—adorn a vast number of buildings, manuscripts, objects, and textiles, produced throughout the Islamic world. One of the most well known and original vegetal patterns is known as “arabesque.” This term was coined in the early nineteenth century in europe and translates to “in the arab fashion” in French. It is one of the most popular and famous patterns in Islamic Art. Vegetal patterns are significant because they represent the bounty of God in nature.

Calligraphy has the most literal connection to religion of the three most popular motifs in Islamic art. Calligraphy is usually words from the Qur’an or poetry from classic poets, though words from the Qur’an are more common. The ceramic plate in the collection of Islamic art in the Religion Department contains both calligraphy from the Quran and bits of poetry from the revered classical poet Hafez. The Qur’an is considered to be the direct word of God and “the Arabic script of the Koran is therefore the most precious treasure for the Muslim” (Schimmel). To incorporate the Qur’an into a work of art is sacred because it is glorifying the word of God. The Arabic alphabet is perfect for art because it is so symbolic itself. The vertical letters such as “alif” (ا) and “lam” (ل) convey permanency and creation, while the horizontal letters such as “ba” (ب) and “ya” (ي) act as connectors and receivers. Calligraphy can be combined with other patterns and is used to decorate everything from mosques to rings.

The creation of art is important in Islam because beauty is sacred because all beauty is created by God. Titus Burckhardt remarks that beauty “is like a bridge that goes from the tangible world toward God,” demonstrating how Muslim artists attempt to both honor and connect with God through their art.