According to hadith literature, Muhammad once said, “God is beautiful and loves beauty” (qtd. in Siddiqui). What we today call Islamic art is representative of centuries of attempts to create beauty. Indeed, Islamic art is both beautiful and distinctive, consisting of complex patterns, arabesques, and calligraphy, while expressing important religious messages.
The arabesque is one very common type of artistic expression, consisting of complex interwoven geometric shapes or flowers. In the collections of Islamic art found in the religion department and the Allen Memorial Art Museum at Oberlin, arabesque motifs are found on various plates and vases, a 19th century Persian carpet, and even in an 18th century Persian woodblock for textile printing. The arabesque’s continuous nature emphasizes that God has no beginning and no ending. All things in the cosmos come from, connect to, and are united in God. God is one, and just as He cannot be split, neither can the parts of the flowing, ongoing arabesque. In this way, the arabesque is an exemplar of Islamic art generally, which Titus Burckhardt explains “is essentially the projection into the visual order of certain aspects or dimensions of Divine Unity” (517).
The arabesque, in its impressive versatility of meaning, manages to represent not only the unity of God, but also the ordering of the cosmos. One might think that these two ideas would need to be represented separately, given the contrast between God’s simple oneness and the multiplicity of forms in God’s created universe, yet these messages coexist due to the arabesque’s conceptual simplicity and visual complexity. This visual complexity is a product of each arabesque’s interwoven pattern, orderly and harmonious like all things that God creates.
Due to the sacred position of the Qur’an in its Arabic-language written form, calligraphy is also a common element in Islamic art. It materializes in intricate patterns found on pottery or appears in highly decorative copies of the Qur’an itself. That the written words and letters of the Qur’an themselves are so commonly incorporated into artworks, esteemed as beautiful, or even considered good luck charms (as we see in some of the art on display in the religion department showcase) is a sign of the high value that Islam places on the Qur’an as not only a spiritual, but also a physical, object.
Among all of these words and patterns that make up Islamic art, images of Muhammad, Allah, and even people and animals in general are conspicuously absent for several reasons. First, hadith literature bans depictions of Allah and the major prophets. Second, the Qur’an states that Allah’s greatness cannot be equaled; there is nothing like him. To try to approximate this greatness with an image, then, is insulting to God in its suggestion that this task is even possible. Rather than offering images of God Himself, Islamic art as described above offers symbols of God for contemplation. Third, Muslims believe that the creation of the image of a divine figure brings with it the risk that the image, rather than God alone, will be worshipped idolatrously (BBC News). So, Islamic art is very abstract, but very religiously meaningful.
– Sheila Blair, “Islamic Art,” http://islamic-arts.org/2012/islamic-art/.
– Titus Burckhardt, “The Spirituality of Islamic Art.”
– “Q&A: Depicting the Prophet Muhammad,” http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/4674864.stm.
– Elisabeth Siddiqui, “Islamic Art,” http://www.colostate.edu/orgs/MSA/find_more/islart.html.
– Art collections in AMAM and Oberlin College Religion Dept.
– Class lectures