Gabriel Weiland: Islamic Art (focus on Safavi/Sufi art)

In many cases, Islamic art serves to highlight the importance of dissolution of the self, which is tantamount to the Muslim principle of surrender. The artists themselves are often effaced within their own artistic expression. They become lost as a result of the geometric perfection of their works, which present themselves in opposition to iconic art. The arabesque is a classic example of such forms and represents itself as the unitary principle of light. The shapes displayed in arabesque works, like so much other Islamic design and architecture, took on the characteristics of plants and flowing water, both home to their own sacred connotations. Additionally, the rhythmic interlacement of shapes within the arabesque form is highly reminiscent of the language of the Qu’ran. Similarly, the art of calligraphy is highly prized for its unique ability to convey the message of the Qu’ran directly.

Figural art appeared less frequently, and usually only in specific circumstances. For example, the secular pleasure-palaces of the Umayyad nobility featured dancers and minstrels. However, it should be noted that these seemingly frivolous works were themselves expressions of the popular understanding of paradise. Music in particular, was often associated with paradise and such art thus represents the constant flux in the balance between secular and sacred expression of music within the Islamic world.

Within the confines of Safavi painting, the concept of religious self-annihilation reached its mystical apex through the expression of Sufi imagery and poetry. The usage of figural imagery in the form of the miniature, is a seemingly contradictory example of effacement in art. The characters shown are understated and in a state of stillness. Furthermore, Persian miniatures do not necessarily depict real individuals, but rather ideal representations. Safavi painting would also frequently serve as visual compliments to qu’ranic verse and poetry. A key concept conveyed through the paintings was that of Sufi love imagery. Through the eyes of the Sufi earthly beauty is merely an intimation of the immortal beauty of the divine. Likewise, the realms of the verbal and visual are complementary to each other and indivisible. This tie between earthly and divine love serves as the crux through which the relationship between the two worlds are connected. The longing for the earthly beloved is parallel in its meaning to the yearning of the soul for God. Drunken inebriation and other Sufi imagery are often depicted to further the notion of self annihilation.