Islamic Art: Many Forms, One Medium – James Fleming

The first piece that attracted my attention was the traditional book on teaching the faith. I thought it was peculiar because although it is a book of formal instruction, there is a great amount of creativity taken in the slanted presentation of the text, where the writing assumes certain shapes and is even sideways or upside down. Because of the lack of iconography in most of Islam, due to both tradition and Quranic scripture, writing, even in formal contexts, can be used on many artistic levels to express ideas. This expressivity through calligraphy continues even into the non-paper medium art.


All of the art is a form of calligraphy in one way or another, but I found this especially significant in the rings and the garment, both of which have extensive Quranic writing on them. The Word of God is something to be worn, not just read or spoken. This is much more significant than something like the Bible or the Talmud because the ideas alone are not what is sacred, but rather the physical presence of the words themselves. This is not fully comprehensible until art like this is contemplated. Scripture carries far more weight in Islamic art because writing is not an art, it is the art. It seems that there is far less dichotomy between poets and other kinds of artists in Islamic art.


Because Islamic art remains mostly in writing, items such as the ceramic plate with all ninety-nine names of God are possible. This focus on language and writing results in many forms of God’s name that are not inherently artistic expressions. This gives artists and poets a many more ways of expressing themselves in praising God. This is also apparent in pieces such as the blue jar with the Sufi writing. Pieces like this show how the emphasis on the written word melds many art forms together. This piece is utilitarian in form and decorative in function. It is also a work of poetry, as well as an emulation of arabesque forms of decoration. The Sufi poem on the jar is about how love requires a sacrifice. Love is an experience of God, and through the media of poetry, arabesque form extending out into the universe, and painted art, God’s omnipresence is greatly embodied in this piece.


Poetry is the vehicle of nearly all of the ideas in Islamic art and literature, and that is made especially clear in these pieces. Not only is poetry abundant in this art, but it also has significant depth. For example, one of the ceramic plates has a poetry passage from Hafez, where the beloved can mean either human or the divine. The nuance in this language can capture in very few words what other languages, such as English, could not because of linguistic restrictions. The edge of the plate is inscribed with the name Ali, the fourth caliph and martyr of Shi’ism. He is a human beloved who has passed on to be in paradise, the realm of the divine.