Chamden Henzler-Lhasawa: Themes of Islamic Art

In almost all religions art is an essential aspect of understanding worship. However, this idea is most prevalent in Islam. Art in Islam is a display of worship and reflection of God and His infinite greatness. Unlike other regions of the earth, art created in the Muslim world is more religious, displaying their commitment to god in a multitude of ways. This is partially due to the fact that the creation of art in Islam can be seen as an act of worship. In early Islamic culture, artists were banned from creating art which expressed living creatures as to discourage idol worship, a practice ubiquitous in pre-Islamic Arabia. Thus Muslim artists were forced to find non-traditional ways of showing their skill relying on geometry, the Arabic language and development of calligraphy, and the use of plant motifs to show their artist skills. Today we still see theses elements in the creation of art across the Muslim world from tiny Persian miniatures to grand mosques.
An integral component of Islamic art is the use of plant motifs. The foundation of floral shapes in Islamic art can be traced to the idea of paradise. In the Arabian peninsula, where plant life is scarce and oasis are often far apart, paradise took the form of a garden were nature thrived. This is known as the Edenistic perspective in Islamic art which illustrates a lush, shadowless land void of biological repetition. This inspired Muslim artist to incorporate the idea from of this perspective into their art. The use of flora was also partially due to the prohibition of living creatures in early Islamic art. Although this prohibition is still practiced in some traditional societies, the majority of the Muslim world has given up this practice, with the exception of art depicting the Prophet Muhammad. The most prominent example of flora in Islamic art is the humble cypress. The cypress is a motif for liberation, strength, and humility. The curl at the tip of the leaf represents the power as well as humbleness. The cypress represents masculinity along with spring and femininity. Because of this duality, the cypress often represents the unification of heaven and earth. We see the use of flora in art in the religion departments display of Islamic art. In the display, there is a plate which is cover in entangled floral designs and a piece of tile shapes as a flower budding. The use of plant motifs in Islamic art is an integral element which can be found in all parts of the Islamic world.
The Arabic language is crucial to our understanding of Islamic art. This is because Arabic is an integral part of Islam and is seen a sacred language. Although the majority of the Muslim world doesn’t speak Arabic as a first language, most Muslims are literate in Arabic as to read the Qur’an in its true form. Arabic as a sacred language can be seen in the nexus Islam when Muhammad is meditating in the hira cave and the Angel Gabriel commands him to read. The pen is seen as the symbol of intellect in Islam. Even in pre-Islamic Arabia, literacy was extremely praised. Unlike many other languages Arabic is extremely concise and has changed very little from the time of the Prophet. Arabic letters are linked in a continuous flow, give them mobility and a floral like shape when written in calligraphy. Calligraphy is the combination of geometry and artistic lettering. It provided an artistic outlet for Muslims without violating the prohibition of living creatures. Calligraphy as an art form is integral to Islamic art because Islam stresses the importance of writing and rewriting verses from the Qur’an and Hadith. When Islamic calligraphers practice their art they are in essence practicing Islam. Unlike in other religions, places of worship and art are covered in scripture. In the religion departments display of Islamic art, almost every work had some degree of calligraphy on it. The miniature statue of the traditional Qur’anic reading reiterates the importance of reciting and rewriting the Qur’an. Calligraphy and Arabic language were in many ways the foundation for all Islamic art, and remain an important element to this day.
An essential aspect to the Islamic artistic tradition is the use of geometric designs. Similarly to the prominence of floral designs and calligraphy geometric designs provided a substitute to artistic imitation of living creatures. Furthermore, geometric designs were used showcase the complexities of Islam and provoke contemplation. From the 9th to the 15th century as Islamic thinkers were developing the fields of math and science, geometric designs became more commonplace in Islamic art. Often in Islamic art geometry is used in combination with Arabesque, a mixture of Arabic and circular shapes. Geometry in Islamic art demonstrates the idea of interconnection, while each individual shape or sentence has a meaning of its own, it contributes to the overall message of the art piece. In mosques, the use of geometry is used to display the circular nature of God, it reminds Muslims that god is infinite and everywhere at once.
Art is a foundational aspect of Islam. From its creation as a religion, art was expressed in a variety of ways. As the Muslim Arabs conquered the world the nations they converted to Islam internalized the religion and created a unique expression of art. While each culture in the Muslim world created art differently certain elements remained constant. Because Islam forbids the creation of art which depicted living creatures, Islamic artists were forced to create new forms of art. The key elements in these forms were the use of floral motifs, the Arabic language, and geometric shapes. Even with the majority of the Muslim world removing the prohibition of living creatures, these themes remain to this day. Unlike in other religion, the creation of art in Islam is the worship of god and the acceptance of faith. Because of this, art has remained an integral part of Islamic culture through the Muslim world to this day.