Isak Saaf: Islamic Art

A brief disclaimer about my approach to the study of Islam should be made before I begin. As an outsider to the religion and to the cultures which it pervades, I have managed to pervert my view of those cultures in a number of ways. For example: I, as a Westerner, decide to read the Qur’an. From it, I gain certain insights, accurate or not, into the concepts of Islam. I then look at an Islamic Society and make the fallacious assumption that the people within that society are exclusively Islamic, that is, the worldview of an Iraqi is cut off from his own culture, because my understanding of Islam is cut off from an outside culture. This leads me to look at examples of Islamic art and try to tie everything shown back to a single monolithic concept, for example Tawhid. I say this hear in order to warn the reader that I have certain cultural biases, and what those biases are.
That said, art created within a specific religious tradition must be connected somehow to the concepts of that tradition. Because of the famous (but of course not absolute) restrictions on representational art in Islam there has been, historically, an abundance of ‘literary’ art, both in the form of poetry and calligraphy, or objects with Qur’anic inscriptions.
One interesting aspect of this last grouping (illuminated objects) is the vast array of cultural purposes which they serve. I’ve separated them into three basic types:
The first is pure art objects. This category refers to purely artistic or decorative pieces such as calligraphic pages. These are objects that do not have an immediate practical or metaphysical purpose, although they might show some enlightening verse or personally valuable message.
The second category is of practical objects; things like dinnerware or other things with immediate uses that have been decorated with Qur’anic writing. The decorative portion of these pieces is a secondary cultural addition; it does not improve the actual function of a plate, for example, but it does turn it into a unique object. It represents an intersection of the religious and the everyday; the immortal words of the Qur’an have been lifted once again out of an exclusively religious environment and placed into peoples’ daily lives.
The third category, and the one that I find the most personally interesting, is talismanic items. These are like those of the second group in that they are designed with a specific purpose, but these have a metaphysical use rather than a practical one. A good example of this would be the Ottoman Sultan’s underwear, designed to provide him with spiritual protection through the powers of the Qur’anic inscriptions covering it. This category is a bizarre synthesis of the previous two; from an extreme physical, atheistic viewpoint these are useless items, but they are also not designed for display or as art objects—they have a spiritual purpose. This is a pervasive religious concept, showing up in Christianity alone in a number of forms, like the cross or relics. I would guess that there is a particular spiritual need to be fulfilled here; to have something to protect an individual from the whims of the universe, and it takes a unique form in it’s Islamic incarnation—object inscribed with spiritual purpose, almost always lines from the Qur’an.