Claire Kotarski: Islamic Art

Overall, Islamic art enforces divine unity. It is serene, and not smothered by raw emotion. The pieces in Rice have primarily decorative purposes, but some pieces (such as the prayer beads) have practical use. Even the rings on display, which carry verses of Quran, are worn by Muslims for blessing and protection. The majority of the pieces contained calligraphy, often in the form of Quranic verses or classical lyric poetry that sends messages about the Islamic worldview (for example, a Hafez poem that displays his beloved as human and divine). Calligraphy has developed into two dimensions: vertical and horizontal. The horizontal highlights its flow and the process of becoming/collective matter that links one thing to another. Meanwhile, the vertical dimension focuses on hierarchy by transcending horizontal strokes. Each letter is affirmed and set in permanence in this dimension. Other motifs in Islamic art are the color turquoise (found in Iranian art) and plants (found in arabesques). Arabesques reflect qualities of interlacement, giving an interesting contrast to Arab domination at the time the art was produced. It is most usually found in trelliswork on windows of mosques or palaces.

One piece that stood out to me was the replica of the Ka’bah door. The door is made of pure gold, and “housed” in a shimmering black cloth embroidered with gold lettering. To clothe this house of God is to give the art life, and enforces the piece’s spiritual significance. The piece perpetuates the idea of the center, and symbolically tells us that Allah lives in the center of man.

None of the pieces in the casing were portraits, highlighting the Islamic idea of weariness towards idol worship. Any image likely to become an idol was to be destroyed, as the Islamic faith puts forward the concept of unity. The one thing necessary is “the purification of the heart for the sake of tawhid, the bearing of witness or the awareness that ‘there is no divinity save God’” (Burckhardt 511). Therefore, portraits are rejected on theological grounds. What is more important is the verbal reality (rather than the image to support it). In this instance, visual reality has less truth than the spoken word. The only exception to this rule is the Safavi portraits. Safavi portraits represented people in their ideal forms, usually stationary and by no means performing heroic deeds. The portraits have been described as “Quiet; self-centered and deliberately content, they exist in stillness, and action is beyond or beneath them” (Welch 301).

Islamic art is highly symbolic. For example, Emma Clark paints for her readers a picture of the typical Islamic courtyard. The courtyard opens inward, towards the heart, rather than outwards, towards the world, to place an emphasis on the separation of public and private spheres in Muslim society. It is a direct likeness of Quaranic word, not in its form, but in its essence (most particularly in the belief of unity).