Elliot Bailey: The Aversion to Specificity in Islamic Art

I’m sitting in the lounge of the Religion Department on one of the chair enclave’s four sides. Over my right shoulder is a display case brimming with artifacts. I’m here to see the art and calligraphy inside. As I look over them over—the dishes, books, sculptures, rings—I remember what I learned from the readings about avoiding conclusions I might come to uncarefully.

In her article “Introduction to Islamic Art,” Rabah Saoud praises western academics for bringing attention to one of the world’s major art traditions, but criticizes how they’re analyses have unfairly pitted that tradition against western art, comparing the two in ways that make difference seem like weakness.

“Islam is seen as obstructive and limiting to artistic talent” Saoud says of these analyses. (1)

Just like in European art, Muslim artists have been restricted. There were subversives and experimenters. Social mores influenced creativity and as time went by and morality evolved things that were once taboo were permitted.  While European and Islamic art have different stories and impulses, both sought to articulate what the world is like through the visual. Some fail to see the parallel between the two art traditions, however. Islamic art’s shortcoming is seen as its aversion to the sort of literal, earthbound depictions that are western art’s bread and butter. Of course the bread and butter of different groups are different. The following quranic excerpt is a useful data point in the topic of Islamic art’s more-than-2-dimensionality: “Say, who is there to forbid the beauty which God has brought forth for his servants, and the good things from among the means of sustenance.” (2)

This is to say artists weren’t denied the pursuit of what’s good, what’s beautiful in art. Theology didn’t drain art of its fighting spirit in Islam. Looking at the boundaries of art in Islam—the extent of what artists would pursue—that boundary doesn’t look like oppression or censorship, it looks like culture. It looks like identity.  

Islam is different, but not less intense than the west in its artistic pursuit of reality. Now what is the difference? What does Islamic art’s approach to depiction look like?

Islamic art is devotional. This becomes less pronounced deeper into modernity, but for the most part those capable of creating in Islam have always had something to say about God and what God does. In Islam, however, the effort to describe God and the world is somewhat unique.

“The art of Islam, without doubt, is essentially a contemplative art…it expresses above all a state of the soul that is open toward the interior, toward an encounter with the Divine Presence.”(3)

From the beginning, there was a sense that literal depiction was not the route to truthful depiction. This excerpt from the poem Exordium and Doxology by Sadi elaborates on that:

No bird of imagination flies to His essence’ pinnacle,

No hand of understanding reaches His description’s hem;

In this whirlpool went down ships by the thousand,

Of which not a plank turned up on the shore.

This stanza says that one will never get to the heart of God or even to the edge of him, and those who have tried have failed. Unaccompanied, this stanza could sadden someone hoping to have a relationship with God. “God is unknowable,” she might say. But this is not the point. God isn’t distant, he’s ubiquitous. That may be equally baffling, but in case you weren’t getting the gist, that is kind of the point. God’s so complexly integrated in and responsible for everything that a summation of him is impossible. Like computationally impossible.

Knowing about ubiquity, God’s unknowability isn’t so isolating. ‘Wherever ye turn, there is the Face of God,” says the Quran. (4)

The art that results from these ideas specializes in a sort of contemplative non-specificity. Islamic art uses its main decorative forms—floral, geometric, and calligraphic—to wax poetically about God and the cosmos. (5)It almost seems like the more elaborate and expansive a piece is, the more legitimate its statement about the world, which is something like ‘the world is elaborate, expansive and indecipherable.’

I’m sitting in the lounge of the Religion Department on one of four sides of the room’s chair enclave. Over my right shoulder is a display case brimming with artifacts.

One of the artifacts is an Ottoman nightgown made out of ceramic. It’s about two feet high and uninhabited. I can imagine the ceramic Ottoman emperor who is forlorn somewhere at the loss of his gown. These are its colors: the color of sand—dark cream, and the color of  a middle aged sunset—tired orange. From this distance, the black writing across its high abdomen blurs to gray. Up close, the letters are stark and hardworking. It’s dizzying to look at them individually. Up close, the gray mess has so much precise black content. The analogy of a river isn’t far off. The sum of a river is all its water drops, but when we appreciate a river we are appreciate it as a whole.

When I’m done in the Religion Department I walk over to the Allen Art Museum, where there’s other Islamic art.

It took a couple minutes to walk here. I’m face to face with the “Iznik Ware Tile,” a glazed ceramic slab from the Ottoman Empire, 1574. Up until now it seems all my reading about the empires of Islam could’ve been fiction, but here’s an artifact that makes it all real. The tile is part of a golden age in ceramic production under the Ottomans. The Royal class loved their ceramic. In the “Iznik Ware Tile” there’s a hard-fighting, little stem that rises from the bottom issuing blue, 5-petaled flowers. Especially in the early days of Islamic art, depictions of live figures were frowned upon. That’s why so much of Islamic art is the way it is. The aim was always more contemplative that documentary. While this didn’t remain a hard and fast rule (thank God, or we may have missed all those beautiful Safavi paintings of dancing Sufis), it has had a lasting impact on the approach and perspective of Islamic art.

As I said earlier, the lack of specificity in islamic art is seen as a strength or a measure of honesty rather than a shortcoming. The ware tile in front of me adheres to that wisdom. Across its middle is a scalding blue streak with edges as furry and jagged as a cat’s tail. Ferns thrust from the lower left corner and floral vines wander above all. This painted tile bursts with sentiment. I feel so much looking at it. To describe what it means, however, would be a great challenge. The figures have something to say, but squirm under definition, under my efforts to categorize the ways they inspire me.

How can something whose meaning is so palpable offer such challenges when we try to know its meaning? How can some so meaningful escape our words, our terms, our knowledge? While we’re on the topic of great, unanswerable questions we should ask: Why doesn’t God show us what he looks like? What clothes does he wear? How many miles is the circumference of his waist, or his height?

The wisdom of Islamic art is the admission that humans won’t answer every burning question. Islamic art is like everything a person can say about God without actually knowing what it is. Islamic art is like how God’s breath feels, but Islamic art is unfortunately not a description of his lungs or lips. Once again, Islamic art faces God and Mecca and synthesizes the experience of God in life. It doesn’t seek to capture God, to solve his mystery. It can’t do that because art is made by people and people are imperfect. Our vocabulary ends and our color wheel is repetitious past 360°. Islam’s art tradition understands that.


1. (Saoud, Rabah. “Introduction to Islamic Art.” Introduction to Islamic Art | Muslim Heritage. Muslim Heritage, July 2004. Web.)

2. (Qur’an 7:32)

3. (The Spirituality of Islamic Art, Titus Burckhardt, Pg. 1)

4. (Quran 11, 115)

5. (Saoud, Rabah. “Introduction to Islamic Art.” Introduction to Islamic Art | Muslim Heritage. Muslim Heritage, July 2004. Web.)


  • Al-Munajjid, Salah A. “Women’s Roles in the Art of Arabic Calligraphy.” The Book in the Islamic World: The Written Word and Communication in the Middle East. Ed. George N. Atiyeh. Albany: State U of New York, 1995. 141-48. Print.
  • Burckhardt, Titus. “The Spirituality of Islamic Art.”  Translated by Katherine O’Brien. Pp. 506-527.
  • Saoud, Rabah. “Introduction to Islamic Art.” Introduction to Islamic Art | Muslim Heritage. Muslim Heritage, July 2004. Web.