Islamic Art: Spirituality in Beauty

Examining a religion’s art produces a very candid and unique perspective of the faith. Looking at Islam specifically one finds a truly unique dichotomy between the production and appreciation of art and faith in God. It manifests itself as an expression towards the interior of the individual. In the Islamic world, art represents a reflection from the individual directly towards their God and their faith. Art takes a unique role in the Muslim world, existing as an outlet for the Muslim people to express and celebrate their faith. Similarly, elements of beauty are essential to the Muslim artistic perspective, with beauty in art possessing an abstract quality to itself, representing an appreciation to the divine. If one were to specifically examine characteristics unique to the Muslim artistic perspective, one would find a unique balance between the role of beauty and spirituality in art, which both come together in order to produce a form of artistic that is both an exclamation of faith and a direct connection to God.

The primary characteristic to note is the elements of faith that manifest themselves within Islamic art, producing both a reflection of the faith that is intensely individualistic and a realistic expression of the artist’s relationship with their religion and their God. When one examines the nature of faith within Islamic art, one notices how directly contemplative the entire art form is. Each piece appears almost like a debate, an expression of one individual’s relationship with the divine. In his text The Spirituality of Islamic Art, Titus Burckhardt describes this individualistic expression as “Islamic art is above all, as is all Islamic spirituality, a witness to or a contemplation of Divine Unity”1. The Divine Unity he references is the Tawhid, and its inclusion in his description of Muslim art produces a feeling of discourse within the medium. Muslim art manifests itself as a discussion, with most pieces possessing an element of the recognition of God, and beyond that possessing a feeling of active thought. Specifically looking at the ring found in the collection in the Religion Department, one gets a clear image of the role of spiritual discourse found within the Islamic art form. The ring, which contains a chapter of the Quran carved into it in a miniature font, clearly displays the aforementioned ever present element of spirituality within Islamic Art. Even in an art form such as jewelry making, spirituality remains at the forefront. For the jeweler, the construction of the aforementioned ring represents the artist’s own religious journey and individual expression.

A second essential characteristic of Islamic art is the prevalence of beauty and its role in the expression and connection between the artist and their faith. Titus Burckhardt describes beauty as “a bridge that goes from the tangible world toward God”2. Islamic art possess a distinctive perspective on beauty, portraying beauty as honoring God instead of vanity. Expressions of beauty are the closest an individual can get to connecting to the divine, and does not represent an adoration of individual human beings, but instead an appreciation of God himself. God is seen as the most beautiful, and thus the expression of beauty in Islamic art is a further expression and recognition of the sacred.  Looking specifically at Safavi painting one can see beauty’s role in personal expression towards God. In his text Worldly and Otherworldly Love in Safavi Painting, Anthony Welch references a 1595 drawing of a woman described as “a round-faced young woman, left hand at the waist and right hand holding a chain of beads.”3. This drawing is boarded by a poem which describes a man’s love for his beloved, and it is this poem that displays the link between the beautiful and the divine. Specifically the poem states “O beloved, concerning the desires of the soul and the universe: The universe is visible but the soul is hidden. I have learned from you, and I speak to you Who are the best of the enlightened ones… Your munificence has overwhelmed the humble ones; through your magnificence the beggar has become honorable. He was enlightened by the splendor of the light of your face And was renewed because of the perfection of your qualities”4. This poem and drawing embody the role of beauty in Islamic art, with beauty representing a direct connection to divine enlightenment. It is through looking upon and loving this beautiful woman that individuals are able to find God, and this further portrays beauty as the physical and human representation of God’s magnificence. God created the world and human beings, and thus beauty would be his greatest and ultimate creation. Safavi Painting reveals beauty as a way to truly view God, through his magnificent creations. 

Islamic art is unique in its representation of its faith, and in its use of both spirituality and beauty in portraying said belief. Unlike Christian art which seeks to portray God through direct images and representations of Christ, Islamic art is more abstract. It produces images of God not directly, but metaphorically. Islamic art displays God through declarations of faith, textual manifestations, and through representations of beauty, which serve to honor God instead of revealing him. It is this that makes the nature of Islamic art so unique, as when one looks upon the art it feels like an expression instead of a recreation. A ring carved with a chapter of the Quran is more a representation of the faith of the jeweler that a reproduction of the text. It is through art that human beings are able to express themselves, and through Islamic art that the Muslim people are individually able to project their spiritual experience.

  1. Bukhardt, Titus. The Spirituality of Islamic Art. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Print, 507.
  2.  Ibid, 507.
  3. Hillenbrand, Robert, and B. W. Robinson. Persian Painting: From the Mongols to the Qajars: Studies in Honour of Basil W. Robinson. London: I.B. Tauris in Association with the Centre of Middle Eastern Studies, U of Cambridge, 2000. Print, 302.
  4. Ibid, 302.