Dorothy Klement: Islamic Art and Allah

Islamic art is difficult to categorize because it is highly influenced by multiple cultures that can be found in the large range of Islamic societies such as Christian art, Byzantine styles, Sassanian art of pre-Islamic Persia, central Asia, and Chinese/Mongolian influences. Essentially, it is the art of contemplation. Art within Islam is deeply rooted in faith and Islamic ideals that all bring the viewer and the artist a sense of ease, boundless creativity, and inspires inward reflection and humility. As discussed in Anthony Welch’s paper, Islamic art, though at times can depict figures, does not often depict real-life figures in society, but rather if it does depict a person, the person id devoid of a label, and represents the idealistic figure, or ideal moral follower of God. Artistry can be seen in all of Islamic society, from pottery, textiles, and painting, to poetry, calligraphy, and architecture.

The arabesque the most frequently employed element of Islamic art and represents the holistic, transcendent, and infinite nature of God. This arabesque style is described by Burckhardt as “the absence, in its most typical works, of any individual impulse; the artist is effaced in the work or in the tradition which guarantees its legitimacy.” It can be found in all art-forms and again inspires unity and transcendence of God beyond the human ego. Calligraphy is a very important form of Islamic art, which is considered to be one of the most holy and inspired forms of art. The pen is extremely significant in Islam and is referred to as being more sacred than the blood of the martyr. When employed in art, the pen takes on an even more significant meaning. There are many different scripts of calligraphy. Within calligraphy there is geometry and floral design, which are also two main components of Islamic art. The use of language is extremely important in Islam, and so this is why it is easily fond in nearly every form of Islamic art. The strokes that compose the letters themselves even have meaning.

In the Oberlin religion department, on display there is a plate that is bordered with the ninety-nine names of Allah. At the center there is the inscription that reads “In the name of Allah, the compassionate, and the merciful”. Reference to Allah and the arabesque style of calligraphy that can be seen on this piece is a great example of common elements that are implemented in most Islamic art. The lack of depiction of formal religious scenes is actually conducive to the Islamic belief that representing God by any human or living figure is considered to be idolatry, which goes against the fundamental principle of Islam, tawhid.

Another element of Islamic art, especially in Islamic architecture is the use of light and space to direct light. The Quran states that “God is the light of the heavens and the earth”, and so most architecture employs light as a way of reminding us that everything exists as a result of the light of God that it reflects (Burckhardt, p. 519). Rich colors and the blending of materials that reflect and permeate light can be found in the linings of mosques, and all represent the unity of nature and God, the harmony of color, beauty, and light.