Federico Consuegra : Features of Islamic Art

Features of Islamic Art

Islamic Art refers to the 1400 years of art created by Islamic cultures. Islamic Art is  varied, traditional, recognizable and serves to illustrate great literary works, function as utilitarian objects, and praise God.1  Islamic Art is not necessarily religious. It includes all the art created by Islamic societies and often includes secular works. Despite its variety, Islamic Art has distinctive characteristics. The traditional belief that the power to create images of animals and humans is reserved to God alone strongly influences these characteristics. Although, the Qur’an does not explicitly prohibit the depiction of human figures, certain hadiths do prohibit figurative representation.2 A hadith narrated by Said bin Abu Al-Hasan says “While I was with Ibn ‘Abbas a man came and said, “O father of ‘Abbas! My sustenance is from my manual profession and I make these pictures.” Ibn ‘Abbas said, “I will tell you only what I heard from Allah’s Apostle . I heard him saying, ‘Whoever makes a picture will be punished by Allah till he puts life in it, and he will never be able to put life in it.’ ” Hearing this, that man heaved a sigh and his face turned pale. Ibn ‘Abbas said to him, “What a pity! If you insist on making pictures I advise you to make pictures of trees and any other unanimated objects.””3 Because of this Islamic worldview, arabesque decoration, calligraphy, and geometric shapes have come to be significant characteristics of Islamic Art.

Islamic Art often uses  a traditional form of decoration known as arabesque, in which stems, leaves, geometric shapes, or other sequences are used in repeating, interconnecting patterns.4 Arabesque patterns are often very complex and seem to extend to infinity. They are used to decorate, mosques, pottery, scrolls and other forms of art in the Islamic world. Islamic arabesque commonly uses a stylized version of the acanthus plant in its patterns. The vine is extended and twisted and leafs are used to add to the winding patterns. Symmetry is an important aspect of arabesque design and helps create the sensation that the patterns are infinite.

Like arabesque, geometric shapes and patterns are used in Islamic art to decorate without using images of animals or humans. Circles and squares are used to create elaborate patterns that can overlap or interlace. Other polygons such as stars, pentagons, and octagons are combined to form complex tessellations. The complexity of these geometric patterns has evolved with time, beginning as simple patterns and flourishing into intricate mathematical algorithms. The patterns often are repeating and extend indefinitely, symbolizing the infinite.

Calligraphy is another important characteristic of Islamic art and for many, calligraphy is more than decoration: it is a spiritual exercise.5 Islamic Calligraphy brings the word of God to life. Traditionally, calligraphy has been centered around the Qur’an and Qur’anic verses have inspired calligraphers. There are distinct styles of calligraphy. The oldest style of the arabic script is known as Kufic after the town it was created in, Kufa. Kufic script originally contained only 19 letters without diacritical marks. Kufic is characterized by the linear shapes and sharp angles. There is great variety among Kufic script ranging from rigid and cube-like to flowing. As the reach of Islam spread, greater regional variety in calligraphy arose.

An interesting aspect of Islamic art is its incorporation into everyday objects. Art wasn’t something reserved for large, expensive mosques or architectural projects. Often, artistic designs, which adhere to the characteristics of Islamic Art, were added to everyday tools. There are several examples of this in the Allen Memorial Art Museum in Oberlin, Ohio. One such example is an 18th century Indian scimitar from the museum’s collection. The scimitar has a metal handle with intricate patterns made of a gold-like material. The pattern is woven, seems to extend forever, and completely encompasses the handle of the blade. Arabic calligraphy encircles the top part of the handle right before the blade begins. More arabic script is found near the top of the blade and a seal written in complex Arabic calligraphy marks the center of the blade.  The identifiable Islamic characteristics of the Scimitar suggest it could be from the Moghul empire.

The Allen Memorial Art Museum also displays an Astrolabe decorated with artistic patterns. The astrolabe is most likely made of metal, probably copper with gold-like engravings. Intricate plant patterns adorn the handle of the astrolabe. These patterns are very complex, very small, and very detailed. Leaves are visible protruding from the stems. In the center of the Astrolabe, vines create symmetric images, effectively dividing the astrolabe in two. Three circles are visible in the astrolabe: the large edges of the astrolabe itself and to smaller circles within the edges. These circles also have arabesque backgrounds but the include Islamic calligraphy that wraps around the whole circle.

These  objects housed at the Allen Memorial Art Museum are but two representations of the more than 1400 years of Islamic Art. Despite its tremendous diversity throughout time and regions, we see certain similarities in Islamic Art. Because of the Islamic belief that only God should create images of animals and people, arabesque decoration, geometrical patterns, and Islamic calligraphy have come to define Islamic art. They are present not only in religious artifacts but also in secular tools such as astrolabes and scimitars. These characteristics, however, are more than visual decorative representations; they represent and symbolize the Islamic worldview.

Endnotes

  1. Introduction to Islamic Art from Allen Memorial Art Museum
  2. Esposito, Pg. 14-15
  3. Sahih al-Bukhari, 3:34:428
  4. Rawson, Pg. 236
  5. Sulzberger, Pg. 78

Bibiliography

    1. Rawson, Jessica, Chinese Ornament: The Lotus and the Dragon, 1984, British Museum Publications
    2. Esposito, John L. (2011). What Everyone Needs to Know about Islam. Oxford University Press.
    3. Sulzberger, Jean. The Inner Journey Views from the Islamic tradition. Parabola Anthology Series
    4. Behrens-Abouseif, Doris (1999). Beauty in Arabic Culture
    5. Chapman, Caroline (2012). Encyclopedia of Islamic Art and Architecture