Anna Moore: Islamic Art – Connecting and Cleansing

We learned in class that Iranian film walks on the border between theocracy and liberalism.[1] I don’t know enough to say whether on the border, it is both theocratic and liberal or neither theocratic nor liberal. In other words, I don’t know if the border connects or divides. Yet in reading about other Islamic art forms, I notice borders that connect, especially the borders between mediums and between intents.

What is the purpose of writing? It may be communication, it may be reflection, or it may be record keeping. The purpose of calligraphy is more than this. Calligraphy combines writing, art, and worship. Reading and writing are integral to the Islamic faith.[2] The text of the Qur’an is essential, the Arabic alphabet is considered irreplaceable, and Arabic calligraphy is thought to be sacred.[3] The physical writing is valued, as evident by the way families pass down copies of the Qur’an.[4] In addition to the product, the process of writing calligraphy is “a religious tool.”[5] It is a “spiritual exercise.”[6] The beauty of a person’s handwriting is related to their interior state. It reminds me of my past writing class that taught that there’s a link between clear thoughts and clear writing. Islamic calligraphy extends this link to include the soul and the visual beauty of the writing. The writing class also taught to copy the works of great authors as a way of taking advantage of muscle memory. When I tutor middle school students, I suggest that they engage muscle memory by copying their notes. Calligraphy is a meticulous copying of holy phrases. I think of it as a blend of visual and linguistic art. It may even fall into a category of art I don’t have a name for – a kind of spiritual art. In this way, calligraphy occupies a border that connects religion, aesthetic, and language.

When looking at Persian paintings, I was struck by the inclusion of calligraphy. There the categories of calligraphy and painting merge, just as they do in Chinese painting. I saw a variety of miniatures that had Arabic verse along the edges. In the center were trees, flowers, or figures, often with Chinese faces, because the miniature form was adopted from China and people in the Middle East considered Chinese complexion a standard of beauty.[7] When I saw the ceramic plate and apple in the Religion Department display case, I saw another example of calligraphy combining with other art mediums. Some say that text distracts from devotion,[8] but obviously many people see text in the form of calligraphy as a compliment to inspired art.

In a similar fusion, Islamic gardens combine beauty with religious symbolism. Each garden is divided into four parts. The number four represents the natural world – the cardinal directions, the seasons, the elements – and the Qur’an describes the Gardens of Paradise as having four sections. In many other ways, the Gardens of Paradise serve as a model for the earthly Islamic gardens. For example, the text says that the only word spoken in the Gardens is “peace.” Islamic gardens strive to create a peaceful place – where people can come to be free of their mortal desires, at peace with others, and at peace with God. Peace in a garden is defined as a “state of constant remembrance of God.” In this way, the garden is a spiritual aid. All gardens have water, something that the Qur’an conflates with mercy. Water is also a symbol for cleansing the soul.[9]

Interestingly, the streams of water in an Islamic garden serve as symbols for the thesis of this paper. A river is a body of water that simultaneously divides the people on either side and connects the people upstream and downstream. The Islamic art I’ve studied seems to connect elements of life and religion that could be considered separate.




Clark, Emma. “Underneath Which River Flow,” in The Inner Journey, Views from the        Islamic Tradition, ed. William Chittick. Sandpoint, ID: Morning Light Press,     2007.


Mahallati, M. Jafar. “Cinema.” Religion 270. Oberlin College, Ohio. 21 November 2016.


Mahallati, M. Jafar. “Islamic Calligraphy and Painting.” Religion 270. Oberlin College,      Ohio. 14 November 2016.


Mahallati, M. Jafar. “Islamic Calligraphy and Painting.” Religion 270. Oberlin College,      Ohio. 18 November 2016.


Saoud, Rabah. “Introduction to Islamic Art.” Muslim Heritage.


Schimmel, Annemarie. Calligraphy and Islamic Culture. New York: New York      University Press, 1984.


Sulzberger, Jean. “Some Notes on Arab Calligraphy,” in The Inner Journey, Views from                the Islamic Tradition, ed. William Chittick. Sandpoint, ID: Morning Light Press,        2007.


Welch, Anthony. “Worldly and Otherworldly Love in Safavid Painting,” in Persian           Painting, ed. Robert Hillenbrand. Edinburgh, UK: Scottish Arts Council, 1982.









[1] Mahallati, Nov. 21.

[2] Munajjid, 141.

[3] Schimmel, 77-82.

[4] Mahallati, Nov. 14.

[5] Munajjid, 143.

[6] Sulzberger, 78.

[7] Mahallati, Nov. 18.

[8] Schimmel, 113.

[9] Clark, 82.