Islamic Art by Zoë Reinstein

Islamic art has impacted art around the world for centuries. The importance that it has in, and the information it can tell us about Islamic culture are also very significant. The two most important Islamic art forms are calligraphy and painting. The rise of these two art forms and their remaining cultural importance say a lot about Islamic societies of the past and today.

The importance of calligraphy is derived from the importance of the written word in Islam. The first word in the revelation is “read.” This is incredibly significant. The pen is the instrument of learning the qur’an, and “the pen is mightier than the sword.” Without the written qur’an, Islam could not have spread and affected the lives of millions upon millions of people throughout the world. Calligraphical qur’anic passages often decorate underclothing as a form of protection, such as the shirt in the Allen Art Museum. All of this has caused Arabic to be the sacred language of Islam, however calligraphy is also written in Persian.

Calligraphy also says a lot about the form of the Arabic alphabet. A word’s shape conveys its meaning to some extent. The verticality of Arabic letters such as “alif” (ا) and “lam” (ل) convey permanency and creation, while the horizontal letters such as “ba” (ب) and “ya” (ي) act as connectors and receivers. Another important aspect of calligraphy is that Islam rejects idolatry. Hence, it rejects portraiture. In its absence, calligraphy is used as decoration of sacred spaces. Calligraphy is also used in a secular context. It is used to decorate personal seals and official documents.

Not all Islamic art is calligraphical. Another important art form painting. An important part is Islamic painting is the Persian miniature. Miniatures are of both religious and secular subjects. What is interesting about them is that they are made of mixed mediums, paint and metal and jewel inlays. These intricate works are amazing to behold and remain prized possessions of a lucky few even until today. An interesting aspect of Persian miniatures is the Chinese influence. In these works, the people look distinctly Asian, and there is a clear Chinese standard of beauty.

A second interesting section of Islamic painting is decoration with arabesques either in tile or painting. Arabesques are plant-like patterns that seem to have no beginning or end. This signifies the bounty, plenty, and infiniteness of the universe and all that God has to offer. In this way, a seemingly secular subject conveys a deeply religious idea.

Islamic art has had a vast impact on not only Middle Eastern culture, but the whole world. Its influences can be seen even in art even today. Calligraphy and painting are the core mediums for Islamic art, and the importance of these derive in core values of Islam.