Anika Lindsey: Islamic Art

As with many parts of Islamic culture, Islamic art is incredibly purposeful, each detail playing a specific role, full of intent and meaning. And like other aspects of Islam, art is intended to always honor God, point towards God, and draw the attentions of its viewers toward God.

Nowhere is this more obvious than in architecture, one form of art for which Islamic society is most renowned. As discussed in my last entry, symbolism is ever-present in each mosque: the dome, the octagonal windows, the empty floor, and of course the orientation towards Mecca. Arches are one distinctive aspect of mosques- the shapes of arches varies in different areas, from the pointed Persian openings to rounder Andalusian, to wavy triangular Indian arches. Additionally, the dome-shape (and minaret shapes) vary by region. Indian mosques have large, bulbous domes, Turkish domes are wider and flatter, and Persian domes are round and pointed.

Like all culture, architecture can change with time. While many mosques maintain a traditional style, some newer mosques might not even be recognized as such by the average non-Muslim. Some resemble modern sculptures, memorials, or even cacti; some simply modernize the traditional shape of a mosque; others show their modernity through the beautiful use of colorful lighting.

A second art form integral to Islam is calligraphy, which can be found on many a building as well as on paper. Calligraphy’s significance makes sense, as the Quran, written in Arabic, is held to be the word of God, making Arabic a sacred language. And poetry, often in Persian, which uses the Arabic alphabet, is another important part of Islamic culture. As with architecture, symbolism is prevalent in even the lettering of calligraphy. Vertical letters represent the creators, masculine, or the divine, while horizontal letters are the receivers, feminine, or the earthly. The form of a word also has significance, and words are often arranged together into significant shapes.

One important incarnation of calligraphy is the arabesque: a never-ending pattern of entwined plants and swirls present on many buildings. Many scripts have been used over the years: Kufic was originally a script with corners and sharper angles; later scripts like Nasleh and Urdu became more rounded and utilized dots to differentiate letters.

A more recent artistic development is Muslim cinema. In the 1960s, it mainly consisted of Egyptian and Indian films. In the ‘70s, there were more American films and the first Iranian films. The ‘80s were a period of crisis, but in the ‘90s, modern Iranian cinema blossomed. Many Iranian films are now shown internationally, and director Asghar Farhadi even won an Oscar.

These varied forms of Islamic art may unite with a single purpose. Many Islamic paintings depict earthly scenes that try to bring Paradise to mind: minstrels make music peacefully, surrounded by royalty, divinely inspired buildings and serene, quartered gardens. Unsurprisingly, the people in the scene, the creators of the art within the scene, and the creators of the painting itself, all try to draw attention to the divine.